30 May 2019 15:53 IST

The six blind men and the elephant

A ‘my view is the only view’ approach is perhaps one of the biggest dangers for the leader

There’s a delightful poem by John Godfrey Saxe called the Blind Men and the Elephant that could serve up some insightful leadership lessons. The first two verses go:

It was six men of Indostan,

To learning much inclined,

Who went to see the Elephant

(Though all of them were blind),

That each by observation

Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach'd the Elephant,

And happening to fall

Against his broad and sturdy side,

At once began to bawl:

"God bless me! but the Elephant

Is very like a wall!"

If you’ve read the whole poem, you will see how each of the blind men touches a different part of the elephant and comes to a different conclusion about the elephant ranging from ‘like a spear’ to ‘like a snake’ to ‘like a rope’. If you’d like to read the whole poem, Google it or check out this link.

What could we draw from this poem?

Blindness can come in the way of leadership

Each of us has blind spots. Some a few, some many. When we choose to react to situations and people with the handicap of these blind spots, we arrive at incomplete and inaccurate conclusions, which then lead to poor decision making and actions. If we compare our senses to different leadership faculties then, we can see how when we use the ‘blind’ faculty to perceive the world, we are headed for disaster.

If instead, we used our other senses which are intact and functional, we get a better sense of the big picture. If we are also aware of our blind spots, we can factor them into our decision making. We can seek help from others in the team, whose strengths could complement our own and fill the gap those ‘blind spots’ create.

Donald Trump is a great example of a leader who leads every day without any self-awareness of his blind spots. Even worse, he thinks of his blind spots as strengths, and the world, his country and his team pay the price. He blames others for his mistakes, he seeks out scapegoats when things go wrong, he never takes responsibility and he makes no effort to improve his knowledge and skills for the task of being the President. Several corporate CEOs operate as mini-Trumps. Many suffer from ‘delusions of adequacy’ and their organisations pay the price. Several companies that litter the corporate graveyards are testament to blind leaders, who thought they could see.

Unwillingness to listen to others

‘My view is the only view’ or ‘my truth is the only truth’ is perhaps one of the biggest dangers for the leader. It is driven by ego, the exact opposite of what should drive genuine leadership.

If the six men had even tried to combine their different views and perceptions, they could perhaps have come up with a more holistic and truer picture of the elephant. But their unwillingness to be open to any but their own views hampered their perceptions and, therefore, their conclusions. When we make the wrong assumptions, we become poor listeners and completely ignore the fact that there could be an alternate explanation, an alternate series of facts that we need to consider.

I remember sitting in a meeting with a potential partner. The gentleman and the young lady accompanying him had just shared the journey their organisation had been through and were listening to our journey at TalentEase. Put it down to old habits, but I would never allow team members to be on their mobiles during a meeting, so when I saw the young lady fiddling with her mobile phone, I found that annoying. When she continued to fiddle, I gave vent to my annoyance, saying that perhaps I should wait until she finished whatever work she was doing on her mobile and then I could resume speaking. She innocently declared that all she was doing was taking notes from what I was saying on her mobile. Whoa! Wrong assumption that led to unnecessary annoyance, which also led to an unnecessary tantrum from me because of my blindness and unwillingness to see that there could be an alternative explanation. Real leadership would involve giving people the benefit of the doubt. We seek to not just see but to understand, we seek not just to hear but to listen.

The pieces are not the whole

Very often, we lead based on little pieces of the picture rather than the big picture. Enron and several big global banks chose to operate only from the narrow focus of making profits and at the cost of their customer’s best interests. They paid the price. Several start-ups chased only valuations and forgot about taking care of their customers or adding value or innovating, and soon committed corporate hara-kiri.

What is needed to overcome this, is a desire to see the truth, the whole truth — not just my version of it. When leaders crave the truth, they set the right standard for execution. Illusions lead to poor execution, to overcommitments, to bombastic claims. But the real leader wants to see what is really happening, so she wants to take the blindfolds off. She puts people and processes in place that help her and the team see the big picture for what it really is. She can then inspire the organisation with a meaningful vision that is credible and energise coworkers with a positive energy that will last till the team’s goals are achieved.

Leaders who fail to do this condemn themselves to the outcome that faced those six blind men of Indostan.

And so these men of Indostan

Disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right,

And all were in the wrong!