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Discerning through a Dilemma – Guest Blogger - Joanne Wiens

As leaders, an area that requires complex and creative thinking is how to help navigate our team through a persnickety dilemma. The ability to discern what the right way forward might be is partly understanding and researching the situation in depth and partly relying on something more nebulous: a honed intuition to see the dots and connect them. The latter is the trickiest.

There’s a familiar ancient parable from India about the blind men and the elephant. A group of blind men who have never seen an elephant each describe it from the specific part they touch. To one it’s a tusk, another a tail, to one it’s an ear, a trunk, or a broad, wrinkly side. Each of their definitions is actually only a small part of the whole. It’s accurate, but it’s not complete.

I have long understood this parable to mean that we are often stuck in our particular description of the elephant and not willing or able to see that this is only one part. In fact our dogmatism that our particular perspective on an issue or ideological leaning is the only one stops us from moving forward, from reconciling, from gaining perspective. It stops creativity in finding an accelerative solution and at its worst it skids us off a path completely into unforgiving and unrelenting territory. It hurts community when we are right and alone, rather than somewhat brokenly together sharing our part of the picture.

But recently in working through a particularly stubborn and unchanging situation I thought the allegory had one more implication when applied to our organizations. When the leader sees a way forward but the elephant doesn’t budge, there are at least three options: our way is actually wrong and we need to pivot, or the timing isn’t right, or we haven’t collectively done enough to take our hands off our particular section and step back at least temporarily to see the creature in its entire ungainly splendor. Pulling people back to take in that bigger perspective and to see a glimmer of possibility that hadn’t been seen, may neither be comfortable or appreciated. It’s often a lonely vantage point. But intuiting where we are on that continuum and pressing on might just give the elephant a push. And when it’s lumbering along – and even trumpeting a bit - it’s a beautiful thing to observe.

Points to Ponder: What’s your most pressing situation right now? What angle do you sense you are missing and who could help bring more clarity and insight with you?

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