blind-men-and-the-elephant1At one time or another we all suffer from a form of blindness. We are not blind in a physical visual way, but rather in our ability to step back and see the bigger picture. We are comfortable and confident in our own perception of things based on what we have experienced or heard that we struggle to believe that there could be another way to look at a situation or problem.

There is an old fable that originated in India of the Six Blind Men and the Elephant. There are numerous versions of this parable, but I think my favourite is the poem version by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) below:

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 approached 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!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho, what have we here,
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a SPEAR!”

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a SNAKE!”

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he:
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a TREE!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a FAN!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a ROPE!”

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!

Too often we get ourselves entrenched into a position based on how we perceive the situation.  We’re convinced we’re dealing with a spear, a wall, or a rope, and we can’t pull ourselves out to see the bigger picture.  As a leader it is our responsibility to help our teams step back from our individual perceptions and explore other views to make sure we are seeing the entire “elephant in the room”, and not just a piece of the anatomy.

But how do we do that when we find ourselves or someone we are working with stuck in a place where they can’t see past the “trunk”?  I recently saw a speaker who spend a couple of hours talking about Emotional Intelligence for leadership and one of the concepts he talked about provides a great method to help in these situations.

Fundamentally the issue with perception blindness can be solved by building a bridge between a person’s current perception to a broader perception so that you can travel down the path together to determine what the reality of the situation is.

In Emotional Intelligence terms this means that as a leader you need to cross the bridge over the gap of misunderstanding to the place where your team member is stuck so that you can truly empathize with their perception, then help them to walk back across the bridge with you to look at the situation from another viewpoint.  Your willingness to cross the bridge in understanding creates the trust that is necessary for people to realize that you both care about their perception and have taken the time to understand it.  With that trust established you can help to walk them around the rest of the elephant to gain additional perceptions which will you to collectively see the situation as it actually is.

When we ourselves find ourselves stuck in a situation that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere because people are seeing a single situation or set of facts in opposing or differing ways, we need to be conscious of our own perception blindness and force ourselves away from the “leg” we are touching to experience the spear, the wall, the fan, and the other viewpoints around the table.  Only then can we gain an understanding of the reality of the elephant and help our teams to move forward.

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

One Comment

  • […] Perspective and Approach Do the individuals on your team always approach problems from the same angle? Are they all detail oriented thinkers? Are they all conceptual thinkers? Every problem or challenge you face will have multiple dimensions and if you have a team who always uses the same approach you will risk seeing things only from one of those dimensions. (Consider the parable of the Six Blind Men and the Elephant) […]

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