Remember the story about the blind men and the elephant…each man, feeling a different part of the elephant, asserts he knows the true nature of the beast—one feels the leg and labels the elephant tree-like, another the trunk and proclaims it’s a snake. You get the picture, well, at least part of it. And that’s the point. We all see and feel things from our own perspective, which is a good thing. Life would be dull if everyone were the same.

What’s not so good is that even though we can never see the full picture from our own vantage point, we tend to draw conclusions and seek solutions that address only our own understanding. The temptation is ever present and easy to give in to. We all do it.

Sometimes the stakes are fairly low…like when you tell your teenage daughter how to live her life without asking to hear her side of the story (been there, done that). The real danger comes when the stakes are high, but we still jump to conclusions.

Here’s an example: This week 52,000 students, their families, and teachers in Tucson were affected by Tucson Unified school board members who forced the resignation of superintendent H.T. Sanchez. Change isn’t always a bad thing. The problem here is how it was done and how it impacts the folks on the ground.

The whole story is a little murky, but it seems that a new board member, whose term began in January, wanted to dismiss the superintendent and did so by mid-February. Six weeks is pretty fast, especially considering that TUSD has been through seven superintendents in two decades. The district hasn’t been at the top of its game for a while, so the problem is likely systemic not simply an issue of leadership. TUSD is definitely an elephant in the boardroom, and the stakes are high.

Daniel Khaneman, Nobel prize winner and psychologist, explains the blind-men-and-elephant effect as the tension in our mind between thinking fast and thinking slow. Khaneman explains it like this: our minds have two systems—System 1 operates automatically and quickly, System 2 is for more demanding and complex activities that require attention.

We like to think that when we encounter complex problems (like TUSD) System 2 kicks in and overrules any hasty assumptions from System 1, but that’s not always true.

Khaneman: The mind—especially System 1—appears to have a special aptitude for the construction and interpretation of stories about active agents, who have personalities, habits, and abilities. You quickly formed a bad opinion of the thieving butler, you expect more bad behavior from him, and you will remember him for a while. [1]

When we are solving a calculus problem, System 2 jumps right in. When we are solving a problem with people and relationships in a living system, well, System 1 seems to be the narrator.

So how do we change the story, gain perspective & lead from where we are?

Perhaps, we could start by listening, especially to those who haven’t had the chance or platform to speak. Questions asked in earnest and heard without judgment can illuminate the truth better than any story you could tell yourself.

So, parents of teens, school board members, and the rest of us, here’s something to chew on…

An Elephant in the Dark
 Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks)

Some Hindus have an elephant to show.
No one here has ever seen an elephant.
They bring it at night to a dark room.

One by one, we go in the dark and come out
saying how we experience the animal.
One of us happens to touch the trunk.
A water-pipe kind of creature.

Another, the ear. A very strong, always moving
back and forth, fan-animal. Another, the leg.
I find it still, like a column on a temple.

Another touches the curved back.
A leathery throne. Another the cleverest,
feels the tusk. A rounded sword made of porcelain.
He is proud of his description.

Each of us touches one place
and understands the whole that way.
The palm and the fingers feeling in the dark
are how the senses explore the reality of the elephant.

If each of us held a candle there,
and if we went in together, we could see it.

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