Cross-cultural Lessons – Learning to See Through Other Frames

Elephants and Power The lecture was on ethics in decision-making and the discussion moved, as it always does when I teach outside the USA toward American foreign policy.  In the midst of the discussion these Kenyan graduate students gave me a proverb that fits political realities all leaders have to work with in corporate as well as in public service contexts.

"When elephants fight the grass gets crushed, when elephants make love the grass gets crushed."

Effective leadership (leadership that does not destroy or damage people) recognizes how organizations allot and display power. It is not uncommon for good leaders to get crushed not-with-standing their skill, insight and alliances when they are at the wrong place and time e.g., a regime change or economic downturn. Such experiences push leaders through crucible experiences and boundaries to growth. I did not catch a sense of fatalism from these students as much as a clear view of reality and a warning to know where the elephants were at all times. I found this helpful in corporate life. One of my graduate professors was a specialist on organizational change.  “Ray” he said on several occasions, “remember power wins.”  It was his way of reminding me to be aware of the elephants.

Eels and Change

A friend of mine had invited me to China to help train managers in a start-up hospitality consulting firm. The hospitality market in China was on fire, hotels and motels were springing up everywhere.  The challenge for my friend (we had met in graduate school) resulted from a rate of growth that threatened to outstrip the firm’s ability to develop the necessary leadership skills not to mention any kind of bench.  At the end of the session on recognizing the predictable barriers to personal development in career and personal growth my interpreter turned to me with the mixture of epiphany and interrogation.

“You are an eel.”

“Help me understand what you mean by that,” I said.

“Do you see the fish in the market when you come to the office?”  He aked. “They sit in the tanks all day and over time they become listless.  When this occurs no one will buy them because they don’t look fresh.  So, the fisherman places an eel in the tank.  This makes the fish come back to life,” he explained.

The insight about change has a bearing on trust.  The effect of the eel depends on the perspective of the viewer.  To the fish the eel is a threat.  The fish snap to in the presence of the eel yet the effect is short-lived. The observation of my interpreter made me stop and think about the pace at which I was moving and whether I was helping these managers think through the concepts I explained in the lens of their own worldview.  From the owner’s perspective I challenged lethargy and encouraged action. The larger challenge my interpreter helped me see was how to synthesize the needs of the owners for rapid change with the needs of the managers for deeper understanding and engagement i.e., a function of trust.

Can an eel be simultaneously a source of change and hope?  Not if you are a fish.  Leaders must exercise awareness of how followers perceive your actions. The ends you expect may not be the results others generate. Learn to use a variety of leadership roles and styles.

Storks, Frogs and Epiphanies

I was still chewing on the what to do with the eel story a couple of days later when my interpreter served also as my mentor with another bit of wisdom.

“You are a stork.”

“Is a stork better than an eel?” I queried.

“No, a stork is different.” He responded in what I understood as a correction of my western proclivity for either/or resolutions to ambiguity or dissonance. He reminded me to exercise an “opposable mind” as Martin calls it. Highly creative leaders avoid reducing decisions between alternative options but seek instead to hold the tension of apparently opposing decisions to create an entirely different kind of approach.  This ability to rest comfortably in the ambiguity of tension results in an integrative thinking that seeks out “…less obvious but potentially relevant factors…” then considers “…multidirectional and nonlinear relationships among variables….”[1]   With this done the effective leader pursues the problem as a whole and not the parts and “Creatively resolve tensions among opposing ideas; generate innovative outcomes.”[2]

“What does the stork do?” I asked with a greater awareness of my need to learn.

“The stork shows the frog that there is a greater reality than that which the frog sees from the bottom of the well.  You see, the stork appears to be supernatural (read exceptional or unreachable) to the frog.  It appears and disappears at will at the top of the well and the frog cannot understand how the stork accomplishes such a miraculous feat.  One day the frog asked the stork to help him understand the wonders of the stork’s miraculous existence.  The stork laughed and lifted the frog from the bottom of the well to see the world from on top of the well.  You are helping us see a different world.” (Remember Plato’s cave of allegory?)

I was moved and encouraged – apparently I inspired both fear and hope in my time with these leaders.  More importantly I was learning to hold apparently opposite or mutually exclusive views of reality in a dynamic tension.

Conclusion

Parables or stories connect with the experience of the hearer and offer a lens for dynamic reflection.  So, my conclusion is simply a launching point for many more insights in fact if you have other cultural unique parables please share them with me in the comments.

  1. Highly effective leaders exercise awareness of how organizations assign and use power.  Leaders who lack this awareness end up trampled to death. The leader who is unaware of their power will trample to death those he/she leads.  All good leaders have a tool kit of influence, authority and power.  Power is the last of the tools a leader should use.  Those leaders who abuse the use of power are like a rogue elephant. The destruction caused by rogue elephants and toxic leaders motivates people to end the threat of damage by changing jobs or eliminating the threat.
  2. Highly effective leaders exercise self-awareness and situational awareness.  There are times all leaders must act like eels.  Recognize however that change management requires an awareness of the fear change engenders. In experienced leaders scare their employees to death resulting in disengagement and turn over. Neither alternative generates long-term success in meeting business goals. Great leaders understand that change is only as effective as a shift in how people see their situation.
  3. Highly effective leaders work to redefine reality.  They work with an opposable mind that discovers new alternatives and inspires people with the possibilities inherent in seeing a problem or challenge differently.

My students and the employees I work with often become my mentors and teachers. Part of the delight I have in leading rests in the influence I exert but the greater joy rests in the exposure I have to new insights and learning from the lives of those I have the privilege to serve.  Are you learning?


[1] Roger Martin, “How Successful Leaders Think,” Harvard Business Review, June 2007, 60-67.

[2] Ibid. 65.