3 Things BP Executives Could Learn from an Irish Storyteller

3 Things BP Executives Could Learn from an Irish Storyteller

© Yvonne Healy, 2010. All rights reserved.

The distilled wisdom of generations is shared through stories in Ireland. Realistic reporting takes second place to imaginatively embroidered narratives. The Irish find that storytelling is an entertaining and effective way to teach important lessons. The Gulf Coast might be enjoying its prime tourist and fishing season if decision-makers from BP, its partners and the federal regulators had listened to more stories.


Fado, fado, long ago, the sea was a giant lake full of clear, fresh water. Two brothers lived by the sea on a cliff, each in his own home, one on top of the hill and the other below.

Each brother began life with the same inheritance. One brother grew wealthy while the other grew poor. In those faraway times, salt was the measure of wealth.  Salt was rare because it was transported from distant lands. Salt was necessary to preserve food because refrigerators hadn’t been invented. Salt made food tasty. The richer someone was, the more salt he used.

Each morning, the poor brother walked along the beach searching. One day, his toe scraped a hard edge in a big sand-hill. He dug away the sand and uncovered a large salt grinder. A tiny rock of salt remained in the chamber.

“Lucky me! Salt on my potatoes tonight!”  He raced home. He plunked the mill onto the kitchen table and began to turn the grinding wheel. The wheel refused to budge. “Broken!” he grunted. He leaned on the handle to twist the wheel. “Come on, grind!”

The grinding wheel turned on its own. Salt poured from the mill and streamed onto the table. His hands scooped up the precious salt.

“Salt I’ll trade at market.” The poor man laughed at thoughts of a full cupboard and a crackling fireplace. He scooped the salt into a bag. “Salt enough for everything I need. “ He tried to halt the turning salt grinder, but the wheel kept turning and the salt pile grew larger and larger. He shook the grinder. “Oh, please stop.”

The wheel stopped.

So it was. Each market day, the grateful man held the salt grinder over a basket. “Come on, grind.” Salt gushed filling the basket until the man repeated, “Oh, please stop.”

Each week, the rich brother opened his shutters and saw changes at his poor brother’s house. First a goat appeared, next a cow, finally a pig grazed in the yard next door. Curiosity pulled the rich brother downhill.

The rich brother asked. “I’m pleased as punch that you’re doing well! What’s your secret?”

The humble brother removed the mysterious salt mill from the shelf.

 “Watch! When you say “Come on, grind!” The mill pours salt. To stop it, you must say “Oh, please stop!””

 “May I please borrow it for one night?”

“Right enough!” came the reply. In two shakes of a lamb’s tail, the rich man was out the door grasping the salt grinder. He scurried uphill and plunked the salt grinder on his table. “Come on, grind!” He shouted as he dragged a bucket under the salt grinder. He raced through house and barn gathering buckets, bushels, baskets and cans.  Brimming containers soon filled the rich man’s market wagon.

The hall clock chimed twelve. The wagon was full. “I’ll get gold for that lot tomorrow.” He sighed. “Brilliant! Now stop.” But the salt kept flowing. “Good enough! Stop!” The grinder kept turning. “Bad cess to you! Stop!” he yelled.

Salt poured onto the table and spilled onto the floor. The man rushed for a container, but his greed had left nothing in reserve. Salt continued to flow. Salt streamed into the parlor. Salt covered the couch, the piano, and the pictures on the wall. Salt flooded every room. The foundation strained to hold the house and finally broke. The house rolled downhill into the ocean. Salt still gushed from the mill. Salt burst the front door and poured into the sea. White clouds billowed underwater. The sea passed it from one wave to the next. When the salt reached the rivers, the rivers pushed back. The marsh grasses of the deltas fenced in the salt, protecting the fruit and flowers blossoming inland. Fish couldn’t swim upriver and died or changed unrecognizably. Nests were burned by the harsh crystals. Even today, the rivers push the salt water back to sea in the marshland and river deltas, protecting the upper river and the inland lakes from the salt and keeping them clean, clear and fit for life.


Decision makers would be wise to remember this story. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has disrupted the lives of tens of thousands of people and cost billions of dollars. America has lost one third of its affordable seafood supply.  The damage to the environment and wildlife has yet to be reckoned but we know it is a heartbreaking disaster.  Administrators from British Petroleum, the equipment manufacturers, and the federal Minerals Management Service chose to assume only the best possible outcomes rather than considering the three lessons this story teaches.

1.      Listen to expert advice. If the oil company executives listened to the rig operator of Deepwater Horizon or rich brother listened to poor brother, each would have realized danger was not under control.

2.      Don’t risk more than you can afford. If you can’t stop it, don’t start it. Risk is exciting and often leads to expanding opportunities. However, the oil companies, federal regulators, and the rich brother risked too much, much that wasn’t theirs to risk, unleashing a torrent of unwanted change.

3.      Follow established procedures.  Had rich brother asked poor brother’s permission, or simply remembered to say “please,” or had BP’s plans been reviewed for environmental impact, thousands of homes of people, plants, and animals would not be suffering such unprecedented damage.

An Irish storyteller may seem an unlikely source of business acumen, but if you want to learn more stories from the accumulated folk wisdom of Ireland, visit www.IrishStoryteller.us. You’ll discover Irish stories are a handy and entertaining leadership and teaching tool.

Author Yvonne Healy, a citizen of both Ireland and the United States, has been telling stories professionally, writing and teaching since 1993. Her CDs, DVDs, and many free articles, stories, resources and program information are available at www.IrishStoryteller.US

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