Leading Inside the Cave: Seeing the Whole System

In the ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, a poignant scenario is raised. What if several men were chained on one wall inside a dark cave facing another blank wall, never having seen light or been outside? Suppose up above the wall they are chained on, there is a flickering fire, and they see the shadows of the fire’s flames on the blank wall in front of them. They have never seen a fire, so they have no idea that the fire is causing the shadows, and cannot even conceive of such a thing. They can only explain the shadows on the wall based on what they know the world to be like. Their perception is absolutely limited only by what they know and experience to be true, yet is only a portion of reality.
Many of us in organizations are like those men. We only see part of the whole system, and have no idea what is going on in other parts of the organization. We form judgments and conclusions about what is going on based on our vantage point of reality. We observe decisions that are being made above us in a vacuum, without the benefit of seeing the whole cave, or looking in from outside the cave. If we could observe the whole or had the benefit of all or more vantage points and data, we might see everything differently.
One of my coaching clients recently had an “outside the cave” experience. She was promoted to a new position with significantly more leadership and P&L responsibility. After a few months on the job, she was perplexed. “I had no idea of the things that were going on above me,” she expressed to me. “If I had known some of these things in my previous role, it would have explained a lot of the decisions that I questioned and I would have communicated to my direct reports about these things differently!” She was surprised at the complexity of all the things she had to take into account and the different stakeholders she was responsible to in her new role. “If only I had known,” was her new revelation.
So this begs me to ask you these questions.
• Do you realize the limitations of the vantage point inside your own cave?
• Do you avoid sweeping judgments about others—realizing that you may not be seeing the fire above you or the light outside the cave?
• As a leader, do you communicate regularly to your direct reports, so that the view from their part of the cave can be expanded and they are not kept in the dark, making up stories about the shadows they see?

Take some time to think about your own behaviors and the actions you need to take to lead those inside the cave..which may include yourself.