The Birth of the Sacred Cow

Legend has it that the tie that I wore to work this morning started life hundreds of years ago as a neck cloth that was “easily changed to minimise the soiling of a doublet.”

Or, to put it in rather less grand terms, a bib.

From function to fashion

400 years ago, Croatian mercenaries fighting in France modified the bib  into a fashion item and it was later adapted by the Parisians into the “cravate”, a corruption of the French word for “Croate”.

Charles II brought the new “cravat” to England in 1660, and as fashion follows the rich and powerful we still wear them today. (Despite the best efforts of Steve Jobs).

The tie serves no useful purpose, in fact in some lines of work, (medicine, policing and heaven forbid those who work with lathes) it is downright dangerous.  But we still wear them, all in the name of conformity.

Following the crowd

Our desire to conform is a powerful one.

In the 1950’s Solomon Asch carried out a series of experiments where he showed people some very simple cards with lines drawn on them.  He asked his subjects to point out the lines of the same length.  They always matched the lines correctly.

When he repeated the experiment in the presence of others (actors planted in the experiment) who all agreed on an answer which was obviously wrong, his test subjects often agreed with the crowd, despite the evidence of their own eyes.

Humans have a natural wish to conform.

The birth of the sacred cow

It is easy to see where the sacred cows come from.

They are just policies, procedures, processes and standards that once had a purpose which has long since gone.

Unfortunately killing those cows isn’t so straightforward.  We all rally round and defend them, unthinkingly, just for the sake of conformity.

Sacred  cows make the best burgers ~ Mark Twain

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Sacred Cows

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Image by bjohnson



  1. Hello James

    Great, I have often wondered where/how the tie originated. Never did like wearing ties except when it was really cold outside – then I got the value of having the collar closed and the neck kept warm. So when the insistence on ties fell away, I stopped wearing ties. I have noticed any decrease in my performance!

    Sacred cows. Now that is fascinating topic. How about the sacred cow of making the short term numbers no matter what even if it means putting future at risk? How about sacred cow of separating thinking from doing? Or the sacred cow of organising the organisation into functional areas? What about the sacred cow that says that the purpose of the organisation is to maximise returns to shareholders? What about the sacred cow that only the view and interests of the people at the top matter, the rest and especially the people at the bottom are ‘not worth listening to, have little of value to say’? And so forth.

    What I have found fascinating about sacred cows is that the ones that provide the most leverage for making step changes in ‘workability’ and ‘performance’ are the ones that are almost never on the table even to be discussed.


    • James Lawther says:

      Thanks for the list Maz, I’d love to say I’d never heard of any of them before but that would be a lie.

      I guess the older and more sacred the cow is the more expensive it becomes


  2. Hi James,
    Thanks for the history lesson. I always thought that ties were there to hide the imperfections in a shirt.

    On killing sacred cows, don’t you think this is better achieved by offering a viable alternative? Not wearing a tie doesn’t seem to be seem as an alternative as that is more about not doing something rather than doing something different. And, wearing a black polo neck a la Steve Jobs never really had a chance as a viable alternative….did it?


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