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  • Rich Tafel

Blinded by Expertise

Six blind men are asked to determine what an elephant looks like by touch. The one who touches its leg says the elephant is a pillar; the one who touches the tail declares it a rope; the one who touches the trunk thinks it a branch; the next says the ear is a hand fan; another declares the belly a wall; and finally one feels the tusk and says it must be a pipe.

Like the six blind men in this Jain story, our social change leaders are too wedded to our sector expertise; we’re often blind to the importance of other sectors and to the complex strategies needed to tackle big issues. As a result, we sometimes invalidate the work of other sectors (and others invalidate ours). Some examples:

  • During a recent project in Latin America, I worked with an organization that addressed workplace discrimination facing people with HIV/AIDS. To move forward, we needed to engage business leaders. When we suggested strategies for collaborating with and educating corporations, the nonprofit project leader refused angrily, saying, “I’ve dedicated my life to fighting HIV/AIDS, and I didn’t take this position to put on a coat and tie and work with the enemy.”

  • During a presentation I made to corporate leaders on challenges of social change, I asked which sector they thought was best situated to lead social change globally. They believed that business sector was the best engine for social change. When I asked, “What about the nonprofit sector? Might they lead?” After an awkward silence, several women in the audience laughed. One yelled out, “Nonprofits? Lead? They’re broke! They are always begging us for money.” The rest of the room giggled and nodded.

  • In a meeting with a group of leading academic education experts, I shared policy strategies that we had implemented successfully and that changed laws at the federal level to increase the number of low-income students going to college. Before I could finish, a hand went up and the person said: “I’m just curious, what education credentials do you have to be advising anyone on this?”

Our current leadership models are outdated. Today, we are living in the aggregation age. We have long since left the industrial age and have even moved through the information age. But our leadership models have not caught up.

The industrial age broke us into separate social systems—education, health, judicial, etc. The information age created experts who often had multiple degrees to prove it. Together, we’ve created sector specialists who argue that if only the social sector got more funding, it could change the world.

The challenge of treating social problems as distinct areas that require distinct expertise is that our world does not operate like a machine—it is an ecosystem in which everything is connected.

Facebook and iTunes are good metaphors for leadership in the aggregation age: They facilitate access to the kind of information we need when we need it.

Successful social change leaders in the aggregation age require six qualities:

  1. Translation—the ability to translate across sectors

  2. Jack-of-all-trades expertise—cross-sector knowledge

  3. Respect—an understanding that all sectors have a role to play in change

  4. Empathy—the ability to sit in the mindset of each sector

  5. Facilitation—the ability to create collaborative solutions

  6. Big picture thinking—the ability to see and describe “the elephant”

At the conclusion on the elephant story comes the moral: “The disputants … rail on in utter ignorance of what each other mean; and prate about an elephant not one of them has seen.”

We need wise leaders that can embrace the viewpoint of all sectors and see the bigger vision for all.

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