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Monday, May 11, 2015

A New View

Anthropology Professor Colin Turnbull of Columbia University studied the members of a rainforest tribe years ago. Members of the tribe lived in a jungle of densely populated trees and vegetation that surrounded their habitat. The plant life was so lush that the absence of any large swath of cleared land reduced the inhabitants view to a very limited range. This meant that the tribal members were accustomed to a fairly restricted vision of their world, a community covered by a roof of sprawling tree branches and leaves, and walls of tall trees and incredible jungle growth.

Turnbull developed a particularly good working relationship with a native named Kengee. One day he and Kengee trekked a great distance through the jungle to the edge of the rainforest and looked out from the top of a hill down to the relatively barren land below. They spied several water buffalo standing in the field below. "Insects" cried Kengee. As they gradually walked down to the field below and the distance between them and the animals decreased with each step, the 'insects' became larger and larger. "Magic!" exclaimed Kengee, “You turned those insects into large animals.”

Some organizations unwittingly limit their own views and visions through unwritten practices/policies that form the basis of their work culture. In their classic text, Corporate Culture, authors Deal and Kennedy simply defined organizational culture as, “the way we do things around here.” The inexact nature of unwritten practices and policies that have hardened and form the bedrock of an organization can make the workplace an unwelcoming, inhospitable, and unforgiving environment for leaders who are “foreigners” that have entered the organization from the outside, as opposed to growing up through the ranks of the organization.

It can pose the same dangers that one would experience when required to walk through an open field laden with landmines. The people who planted the explosives, or watched as others navigated the field, know how to avoid them and where to tread accordingly. As time passes by the locations of the landmines are imprinted in their minds and memories. This becomes such a routine that they no longer know a world other than that.
Among the leader’s most important contributions to sustaining an organization is the ability to create and convey a vision of a desirable future state that engenders hope for those in the group. This requires crafting a credible, realistic image of what the organization can become. This essential element challenges the leader to encourage others to see beyond their current or historical perceptions and construct of reality, like Turnbull did for Kengee when he showed him the effect of distance and perspective on his otherwise restricted view of the world. Marcel Proust, the famous French novelist and essayist, describes the process of discovery as "seeing with new eyes" as opposed to seeing new things.

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