Blinded by Expertise

Changing the world requires leaders with new vision.

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Our current leadership models are outdated.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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  • BY Barry A. Martin

    ON October 11, 2012 08:46 PM

    Here here!

    And the dangers of such silos don’t end there. Silos impact the effect of large corporations and institutions.

  • Your post resonated with me. I’m currently live streaming the International Conference of Crisis Mappers. I just tweeted that I’d really like to get Robert Kirkpatrick from UN Global Pulse, the Red Cross, Rob Munro from Epidemic IQ, IBM Big Data, and Todd Park WH CTO, into a room together. Why? I think synergy between the non-profit, academic, business, and government sectors, could produce profound effects on using big data for social good. If this is the type of work that Public Squared does, I’d love to hear about it!


  • BY Ryan Bowen

    ON October 14, 2012 06:51 PM

    Great point Rich.  Leadership in the 21st century is certainly going to operate under new principles.  As you point out in your examples, there is a lot of misunderstanding between sectors.  My question to you is how do you put the qualities you have listed above into action in a situation where someone does not recognize the worth of a different sector?  I am thinking particularly of the third example you give; how do you connect with those teachers to create positive change?

  • BY B. Alexandros

    ON October 14, 2012 09:29 PM

    Excellent stuff, Rich! The anecdotes are like something out of a movie. You’ve touched plenty of points here which are quite close to my heart. I’ve had similar concerns but I’m no longer shaken by the massive biases some may carry into capable and potentially innovative organizations.

    Market forces and cultural and societal trends mutate much faster than one may think. On top of that, their effects and potentials for opportunity can be enormous. Changing the world doesn’t require anyone to release their reliance on “expertise”—they just need the right attitude to allow the possibility of what they already know to mesh with diverse minds across other sectors.

    You’re right. Those 6 qualities are what’s needed. Empathy stands as the biggest one which can make the other 5 emerge and flourish. I’d like to think that we all have the aptitudes to build those qualities up, even for those who don’t consider themselves leaders.

  • BY Rich Tafel

    ON October 17, 2012 07:43 AM

    @Barry-Agreed, I can’t tell the number of times I’ve worked with companies where I’ve had to tell them what someone else in their company is doing. The silos are so pervasive and we need to build connection and collaboration.

  • BY Rich Tafel

    ON October 17, 2012 07:48 AM

    @Lucy—I love your vision. You’re right that the data shared cross sector would move the cause forward. In addition, there is wisdom and experience in each of the groups mentioned that if shared would advance others quickly instead of reinventing the wheel.

    This is the work that Public Squared is focusing on. We’ve moved away from one-off, linear solutions to work entirely on cross sector facilitated efforts. I can give you some specific examples of how we’re doing this in health, social innovation and technology. I also see this as the future of government.

    My contact info is .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) and I can explain in detail the facilitation efforts.
    Thanks for your interest.

  • BY Rich Tafel

    ON October 17, 2012 07:55 AM

    @Ryan-Thanks great question Ryan:

    “My question to you is how do you put the qualities you have listed above into action in a situation where someone does not recognize the worth of a different sector?  I am thinking particularly of the third example you give; how do you connect with those teachers to create positive change?”

    Here’s the surprising answer. As facilitator you need to respect and love each of the sectors. I know that sounds corny, but each sector is valuable. The reason we’re digging into to our own sector is FEAR. We get more degrees and titles as almost a protection against a complex world. We’re safe in our sector and our expertise protects us.
    When you show these folks that you truly and I mean truly value them and their expertise they relax. In that particular situation, I engaged further and found out that under it all was an anger that their work had been disrespected (wrote many policy papers that never saw the light of day). Their question wasn’t about me it was about them. Why hadn’t their work been recognized. When I demonstrated that there was a way to get their work recognized, they relaxed and worked with me.
    If I had been defensive and hurt by the comments, I would have only built my own silo.

  • BY Rich Tafel

    ON October 17, 2012 08:00 AM

    @B. Alexandros- Agree with your thoughts. I believe leadership in the aggregation age will take on a new image. Individual citizens will have new powers to really lead using empathy. That empathy will allow for new leaders to translate across the sectors. One day this translation may no longer be necessary, but right now that’s the leadership role in which few people are being trained . I agree we all have the aptitude, once we realize these are the skills to be taught and learned.

  • BY Ryan Bowen

    ON October 17, 2012 05:00 PM

    Thanks for the response, and I could not agree with you more.  It is by leading through example and truly living out the values we are advocating for that change will occur, which brings in the necessity for patience as well.  Facilitating conversation in a way that allows people to see the value of other sectors can be tedious, but it is the direction that we have to go, especially with the growing awareness of our interconnected world.

  • BY Scott Schirmer

    ON November 2, 2012 05:48 AM

    These same issues are prevalent when discussing multi-sectorial partnerships for international development.  NGOs don’t take enough advantage of the expertise of potential corporate partners.  Governments can’t move at the speed of corporations. The UN has so many different organizations that few know who to work with. And nobody speaks the same ‘language.’ They all look at a problem from different perspectives (your blind man analogy) and don’t realize they all have the same problem, and that by working together the impact is greater and less costly. Getting these different organizations to realize the value of your six qualities would be a catalyst to developing effective and efficient partnerships.

  • Antonio Cioffi's avatar

    BY Antonio Cioffi

    ON November 8, 2012 12:48 AM

    Sometimes you are too close to the problem to see the entire elephant…

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