Sanjiva Wijesinha -writer and physician

Short stories, Travel and Health Information

The Importance of Being Like Ernest

A “short short” story by Sanjiva Wijesinha

Many years ago, as a young medical officer in the Army, I had the singular experience of working with a sergeant by the name of Glenville Ernest.

By the time I was posted to Diyatalawa, Sgt. Ernest had acquired a well established reputation of being never known to rush for time.

He had never been seen to hurry, he never seemed to worry – and he never, as far as I know, ever lost his temper.

Of course it must be admitted that there were some of his colleagues who claimed that he had never been known to do a full day’s work either.

Now, during my long and varied professional career in various parts of the world, I have seen plenty of folk who made a regular habit of doing nothing. Most of the time, however, they used to try valiantly to create the impression that they were, in fact, busy doing something.

Sgt. Ernest, on the other hand, was the only man I knew who was perfectly content when he was doing nothing to look as if that is exactly what he was doing

In the morning, when I turned up for duty at the medical centre, he would greet me with a smart salute and crisp “Good morning, Sir”. Having arranged the files on my table, he would then go outside the consultation room, inform the waiting patients in what order they were to go in – and then retire to his desk to await further orders.

If the phone rang, he answered it. If someone came to him with a query, he dealt with it using the minimum number of words necessary. He never pretended to busy himself with files or letters or paper clips, but just sat impassively at his desk until he was called.

This was long before the days when “The Seven S’s” had become a fashionable phrase in management circles – but Sgt Ernest had everything Sorted, Systemized and Stored in the correct place, he was Spic and Span in his orderliness, and above all he maintained a Self-discipline and Silence that were exemplary.

One significant feature about his style of management was that he never went out of his way to do a job that he felt could be delegated to someone else. At the same time, he never tried to make a decision about a matter which he rightly felt should be decided by his superior officer. Those matters which he in his wisdom felt were his to tackle were attended to with minimum fuss and in minimum time – after which he reverted to his customary ‘Standby mode’.

In short, he was the perfect administrator. He did his job, he let his boss and his subordinates get on with theirs – and our little medical centre functioned with supreme efficacy even if I do say so myself.

Following those good old days as the sole medical officer in a small Army Regimental Aid Post (RAP), I have had to work in a variety of medical institutions, military as well as civilian – all staffed by managers who were eminently more qualified and better paid than my lowly sergeant.

Most of these important individuals, I would discover, were so busy performing a plethora of tasks to justify their existence that I used to long for the days when Sgt. Ernest was content to do his allotted task and let those about him get on with theirs.

Because Ernest was a man who knew his job – and didn’t feel it necessary to create a flurry of activity and a ream of paperwork to prove to the outside world that he was performing his duties.

Perhaps his technique of masterly inactivity was applicable only to the kind of small medical centre we had at the time. Perhaps it would not work in today’s world where numbers have multiplied and technology has advanced. Maybe medical establishments today need hyperactive managers to efficiently utilise the resources of the 21st century.

I sometimes wonder.

Some years ago, the medical superintendent of the hospital in which I used to work in England, who used to consume forests of paper and cartons of cigarettes with equal profligacy, suffered a heart attack at the age of 44. While I was in Hong Kong, the administrator (by then dignified with the title of CEO) of the hospital where I worked had to undergo emergency surgery one day after vomiting blood and collapsing with a haemorrhaging peptic ulcer.

Sgt. Ernest, in contrast, having retired from the Army twenty years ago, is alive and well – and enjoying today a life of grand-masterly inactivity.

I guess this all illustrates the Importance of Being Like Ernest….   

If you liked reading this story, more such stories can be found in my book Tales From my Island – available as an e-book from                                  


2 comments on “The Importance of Being Like Ernest

  1. Mahendra de Silva
    July 26, 2020

    Maybe somebody teach my wife the way of “Ernest”


  2. kenny hillman
    July 26, 2020

    Very good reading Sanjiva. I do enjoy your stories or rather. TALES. Kenny

    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPhone


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This entry was posted on July 26, 2020 by in Short stories and tagged , , , .

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