Seeing the Whole Elephant

Have you heard the fable about the six blind men and the elephant? Each encountered a different part of the elephant — the trunk, the tail, the side, the tusk — and based on that experience, each is convinced that he is right, and everyone else is wrong, about what an elephant is like. The “facts” they based their decisions on were “right”, however they only represented one slice of the larger picture of the elephant.

Oh how easy it is to confuse “right” with “only” . . . as in, “these facts or experiences are true, therefore the answer is clear.” The trouble with that perspective is that it causes one to stop looking for other, perhaps contradictory, variables that may also be accurate. And the more expertise or experience you have with one slice of what is true, the more entrenched and confident you become that your perspective is THE correct one. As a result, you focus on those things that confirm your point of view, and disregard those that might support another equally valid answer.

Are you courageous enough as a leader to consider that there might other perspectives that are also “right”?  Are you willing to seek out the sparks of insight that can be gained by accepting that two seemingly contradictory viewpoints could both be true? Do you have the confidence to wade through the puzzling and piecing together, the discomfort and debate, to arrive at a richer and more nuanced picture of the elephant before you? If you don’t, it’s a pretty safe bet your people won’t either.

What would happen if you encouraged productive dissent? If you rewarded people for challenging the status quo . . . if you framed it as a responsibility for your staff to intentionally consider a range of perspectives as a prerequisite for arriving at the best possible decision? It is hard for people to “speak truth to power” if they think that truth will be discounted without consideration. What if, instead, you created a safe place for people to challenge, question, and wrestle their way to a solution that considered a range of facts? What if you fostered a culture that believed the mission of the organization was so critical that it would be irresponsible for you not to intentionally raise, and work through, seemingly incompatible variables . . . with the expectation that thoughtful consideration would lead to better solutions? While that may be easy to agree with in principle, it is much harder to carry out when you and your key advisors are all convinced of the validity of your perspective.

Don’t confuse right with only. It’s your responsibility as a leader to see the whole elephant.

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