Focus On the Whole Elephant

Leadership equals making decisions.  And strong leadership means making consistent and sound decisions.  However, even the best leaders, when synthesizing multitudes of information, can’t possibly make everyone happy with the final gong.

There is a parent organization that supports our school.  This organization frequently meets and makes decisions in regards to family-school activities and fundraising.  And, as always, when a large group of people gets together there are often differences of opinion.  Several years ago some tough choices needed to be made and I, as the principal, had to follow my gut instinct when making a final decision, which always has a higher risk.  To one parent, I took control of the situation for the better of the cause.  To the other parent, I crossed the line and shouldn’t have.  And even though any decisions I have made were not hurtful or defensive to either party it was interpreted differently.  As a leader of a school, situations like this happen often.

Jainism, an ancient religion from India, states that there is truth in everyone’s perspective – and there are seven different ways to state the truth.  The parable of the Elephant and the Blind Men is one of my favorites, and explains it well:

Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, "Hey, there is an elephant in the village today."

They had no idea what an elephant is. They decided, "Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway." All of them went where the elephant was. Every one of them touched the elephant.

"Hey, the elephant is a pillar," said the first man who touched his leg.

"Oh, no! It is like a rope," said the second man who touched the tail.

"Oh, no! It is like a thick branch of a tree," said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.

"It is like a big hand fan," said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.

"It is like a huge wall," said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.

"It is like a solid pipe," said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.

They began to argue about the elephant and every one of them insisted that he was right. It looked like they were getting agitated. A wise man was passing by and he saw this. He stopped and asked them, "What is the matter?" They said, "We cannot agree to what the elephant is like." Each one of them told what he thought the elephant was like. The wise man calmly explained to them, "All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all those features that you have said."

"Oh!" everyone said. There was no more fight. They felt happy that they were all right.

This parable is a reminder that what constitutes a sound decision will vary.  Each of us has personal experiences that create a unique outlook of the world, which in turn, results in several truths.

Leaders must make decisions recognizing all of these diverse perspectives.  And often the decisions must be made when others can only see part of the elephant.  I’ve learned that as long as the decisions align with my values, character, and integrity I can feel confident moving forward.  The whole elephant will come into focus over the course of time.