Innovative Leader Volume
12, Number 9 September 2003
The Blind Leading the Blind
Schmaltz is Founder of True North project guidance strategies,
He is author of The Blind Men and the Elephant: Mastering
Project Work (Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 2003).
are blind because you believe you can see, not because you cannot
was six men of Indostan, to learning much inclined
So begins John
Godfrey Saxe's famous fable “The Blind Men and the Elephant,”
in which six blind men attempt, and ultimately fail, to describe
an elephant to each other's satisfaction. The problem?
first approached the elephant and happening to fall
swears that the elephant is clearly like a spear, while another
"boldly up and spake" that it is actually more like a
snake! And so, each in turn describes the beast. But they can't
agree on whether the beast is really more like a wall, a snake, or
a spear, so their innocent attempts to describe the animal
together create not an elephant, but what Saxe calls a "theologic
Saxe wrote his fable more than 100 years ago, his story remains as
current as today's headlines. The workplace sees plenty of such
conflicts, where the blind certainty of narrow perspectives
destroys any possibility for experiencing this elephant together.
methods encourage the theologic wars that inevitably lead to
failure, where each individual asserts the rightness of his own
perspective, leaving everyone in the wrong.
used to be that these beastly situations were derisively referred
to as "the blind leading the blind," and the traditional
solution was to assign one of the blind men the authority to
decide, as if he could somehow see the whole elephant. Such
tactics create compliance, but never the juicy involvement
blindness is a continuing feature of work life today. Consider
your last project. Didn't it require the enthusiastic contribution
of several different specialists, each unavoidably blind to all
but his own perspective?
your project succeeded, did the plan predict the path you ended up
following? Chances are you succeeded by figuring out how to
blindly lead each other to success—not by following some
omniscient leader or predictive plan, but by somehow integrating
the disparate perspectives of all of the "blind men."
you were fortunate and saw the elephant together, that integration
produced the all-too-rare experience of being able to see the
world through each other's eyes. By the end of the effort, you
might have even felt that your group could accomplish anything
together. If you were not successful in achieving this
integration, I'll bet you got a taste of a theologic war, only to
hope you'd never have to work with any of those idiots again.
Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us!
create exceptional results with others, the outdated
follow-the-leader model, with its emphasis on planning, tracking,
and controlling, falls apart in a workplace in which the blind must
lead the blind. The key to success now lies in knowing how to
avoid the theologic wars that destroy every possibility for a
mutually satisfying experience.
what is this elephant, anyway?
I call the elephant "coherence"—the ability of
people to agree about their common experience. Coherence is the
foundation of all the juicy experiences you've had in project
work. When you finished, feeling as though you could accomplish
anything together, it was because you found your elephant
together, not because you blindly followed some all-seeing leader.
simple but counter-intuitive personal acts encourage the elephant
to emerge. When you engage as if your perspective can see the
whole elephant, you subtly undermine your ability to achieve
coherence. But embracing your own inevitable blindness helps
coherence to emerge.
You Can Do to See the Elephant
Be clear about your own purpose for engaging.
you sacrifice yourself for your project's objective, you quietly
undermine your own abilities to create a meaningful experience.
Those who are clear about their own purpose are most capable of
appreciating others’ purposes, too.
seems that until you are selfish enough to know what you want,
you're never generous enough to help anyone else pursue what they
want. So finding a juicy personal purpose for your participation
is an essential element of any coherent experience.
Understand your intentions.
methods you devise for achieving your goal will most certainly
fail. Yet if you are clear about your intentions, you can
benevolently undermine the system you put in place so it can work.
you are unclear about your own intentions, you will follow
blindly. Like a good soldier, you will pursue what you suspect
won't work and create your own misery in the process.
Extend your trust.
your trust is the price of sitting at the same table. It is human
nature for people to satisfy others’ expectations of them. If
you treat others as untrustworthy, they quite naturally give you
what you ask for.
can others prove themselves trustworthy if you don't first extend
them your trust? The blind men's theologic war thrived on their
mutual distrust of their fellows’ curious stories.
Let go of how it's supposed to be.
waste a lot of time defining roles and
responsibilities—cordoning others into defendable spaces—when
projects thrive instead in a network of community.
in surprising, indefinable ways to achieve the coherence your
project requires. Staying in role merely imprisons your best,
Stop trying to motivate others.
others find their project within the project instead, and
motivation automatically takes care of itself. What better
motivation than knowing that your assignment is the medium within
which you are actively pursuing your own, juicy objective?
the most difficult work can be juicy when supported by this
simple, often overlooked element. Help others find their own
motivation while you attend to discovering yours.
Sit in the mess before tidying it up.
often you start your projects by organizing the effort, hoping to
avoid that uncomfortable messiness that leaves you feeling as if
you will never make any headway.
not insist upon a well-formed starting place. Sit comfortably in
the mess so you can learn about its nature before trying to
organize or "fix" it. This essential milling-around
period allows order to emerge from the mess and marks the start of
a coherent, collective effort.
haven't project-management books talked about how to make this
elephant appear? Without these simple, often overlooked elements,
project work too easily degrades into the dead-end drudgery of
who know how to lead while acknowledging their own blindness
create those magical experiences where, at the end, everyone wants
to do another project like that again.
blind men were not encumbered by their blindness, but by their
certainty that they could see when they could not. If you want to
create the extraordinarily satisfying experiences that coherence
brings to project work, consider learning how to embrace your own,
and everyone else's, inevitable blindness in the pursuit of your