Years ago, when I got my first job out of college, my engineer-manager couldn’t believe he was hiring someone with a philosophy degree. In time, he told me that this was “the best mistake he ever made.” It’s true that the ivory tower can be a bit disconnected from the trenches, but I have found that elevating my thinking above the day-to-day changes my perspective and makes what may seem to be difficult choices much simpler. In fact, if the last year has taught us anything, it’s that many of the things that we thought to be true, or important, aren’t necessarily so.
Consider famed philosopher Plato and his classic “Allegory of the Cave” included as part of his epic work, The Republic (514a – 520a). In it, his mentor, Socrates, describes a group of individuals who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The individuals watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them. The group gives names to these shadows; while the shadows are perceived as real to the individuals in the cave, they are mere projections and not real. Socrates goes on to suggest that, given that the inmates of the cave believe the shadows to be real, they do not possess the desire to leave. The true philosopher, Socrates argues, seeks to understand and perceive the higher levels of reality, and therefore seeks freedom from the cave and the shadows on the wall.
While the above might seem a bit heady, it actually suggests some profound leadership lessons we can draw on given our current context. Below are several insights we can draw on as leaders, helping to reveal the importance of shifting perspectives (and how to do so) in leadership.
Evaluate your “leadership cave” (what, where, and how we work)
So many of us (myself included) have spent years assuming that the environment we perceive ourselves to be in (industry, organizational culture, team structure, systems, customer outlook, etc.) is fixed and/or “true.” How many times have we witnessed these so-called gospel truths to be challenged? The biggest disruptions come often as a result of us not properly understanding the environment in which we actually are.
Arguably the biggest cave we’ve been living in over the years relates to the nature of work overall. Let’s face it, the pandemic has completely blown up our definition of what work means. For so many of us (including yours truly), we simply assumed that work meant commuting to a job, spending 40+ hours there per week (physically), commuting home, and starting the ritual over the next day. It also carried with it an assumption that employees – in many cases – needed to be in physical proximity to the location of the organization. The walls of this particular “cave” have been torn down. We’ve learned that we can work anywhere, anytime, and be essentially just as productive (recognizing that some of us still very much prefer working together in person). Many progressive organizations are redefining what this looks like. Firms such as Apple and Google have reinvented work-from-home policies. So, based on this, consider what cave(s) your team or organization is within.
Identify your leadership “shadows” and their meaning
From a leadership perspective, some of the biggest challenges we face – particularly now – are those related to paradigms, bias, and assumptions. They’ve been with us for so long, we have struggled to identify them as mere shadows.
Although we still have a very long way to go, the past year has shed much-needed light on a shadow we’ve stared at for far too long – our continued biases regarding race, gender, sexual orientation, mental health, and physical abilities (to name just a few). Now, more than ever, we need to invite these different experiences to our leadership tables to shape how organizations move forward. Fortunately, we are seeing some powerful examples of organizations making huge strides in this regard (note Walgreen’s recent appointment of Rosalind Brewer to CEO). So, based on this, consider what shadows your organization sees and ascribes meanings to.
Determine if your leadership cave and shadows are influencing decision making
Based on our assumptions regarding the metaphorical cave (environment) that we’re in and its associated shadows (biases), many of us make implicit choices – in some cases to act and, in many cases, not to act. The heart of strategy, as leadership guru Michael Porter pointed out, is all about intentional choices – what we choose to pursue and, more importantly, what we choose to not pursue.
For decades, we all heard the rallying cry around focusing on shareholder value at the expense of everything else. The pandemic has helped us to right-size this and recognize the inherent value of making ethics a part of our business case. Organizations are placing renewed emphasis on the “how” of business (vs. simply the “what”) – in this case, how we treat our team members, clients, vendors, partners and customers, with a focus on empathy, compassion, and deep listening. What choices is your organization making – and not making – and what is the impact? Are you staying in the cave, or electing to leave it?
Plato and Socrates’ insights were penned over 2000 years ago, but these lessons are as universal today as they were then. Just make sure you take the time to step out of your cave to check out a new perspective.