Working in a large public institution has given me the opportunity to observe several leadership styles. Given the segregated nature of the functions of the institution, it is not surprising that many leaders have adapted their leadership style to ensure the survival of their department. At times, this can be frustrating because in my experience it creates seemingly unnecessary conflict.
I was recently reminded of the story of seven blind men and an elephant. In the story, each man is feeling a different part of the elephant. The one touching the tail thinks it is a rope. The one at the leg thinks it is a tree trunk. They start to fight about it. Whether or not the conflict between the men and their perspectives was resolved depends on which version of the story you believe. The lesson I take away is that we all think we know how it is but in reality we only see a piece of the whole.
I like this story because each of the men was right. In my own work life, I have recently started trying to identify the elephant. How can it be that we are viewing the same issue from opposing positions? What could the issue look like from your side of the elephant? And how can I best describe my side in a way that helps us both get a better idea of what the elephant really is?
In some cases, this has required assembling an elephant that doesn’t yet exist. In creating collaborative programs within the institution, different departments bring their components or values. Sometimes they are open to integrating these components and often they want their components to be the whole elephant.
I have recently encouraged the students I work with to see how they could combine their seemingly different perspectives to create a greater outcome. This is especially challenging because the temptation is to recreate our existing structures – silo-ed departments, specialized colleges, two-party systems. Everywhere we look we can find examples of people holding on to their piece of the elephant.