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Shifting Paradigms Part 2: Visionary Leadership & Plato's Cave

One of the most famous and powerful metaphors related to the challenge of being a visionary or “enlightened” individual comes from Book VII of Plato’s Republic – The Parable of the Cave. A short summary of the parable is below:

There are prisoners shackled in a cave in such a way that they can only look at the cave wall. Behind them is a fire and occasionally people carrying various objects pass in front of the fire. These prisoners cannot see the fire, people, or objects – they can only see the flicker of distorted shadows on the cave wall. These garbled distorted images where all they knew – this is how they understood what they themselves looked like and what other people and objects looked like. One day, one of the prisoners escapes his shackles. He turns around and as his eyes adjust to the brilliance of the firelight, he comes to see the figures in the cave more clearly and realizes that there is much more to things than the distorted shadows on the cave wall – real objects have depth, form, and shades of color. Then the freed prisoner finds his way out of the cave and is first blinded by the intense daylight, but slowly becomes accustomed to it and can now see the full spectrum of color and every object in such clear, brilliant detail. He is amazed by what he sees and wants to run back into the cave to tell his fellow prisoners about the true nature of the world and the things in it – but will they believe him? Will they even understand what he is saying? They have no context for such things as color, depth, clarity, etc. Will they think he has gone mad? Will they try to kill him or ignore him because the thought of such a reality is too different and painful for them to even hold?

In this parable, enlightenment comes from being able to see things that others don’t or seeing things in a way that others don’t - from flickering shadows on a wall, to objects illuminated by firelight, to the world in full daylight, to beyond the visible spectrum and beyond that still. This is what the visionary does – sees what others cannot yet see. However, visionary leadership is quite another thing altogether.

Visionary leadership is the process of explaining that which others cannot yet “see” in a way that is meaningful and inspires change. Effective visionary leaders must have: 1) an understanding of the “current collective reality” 2) an understanding of the deeper, fuller “enlightened” reality, and 3) a means of bridging the two in such a way that is psychologically safe. If the shift from 1 to 2 is too radical, then it could be traumatic or destabilizing for those that want to embrace. Related to 3, there are several questions that need to be addressed in order to create an effective bridge. The first is the technical question: Do people understand the idea and do they see the value? The second is the communication question: Is there a means for people to hear about the idea? The third question is the cultural question: If they see the value and know about the idea, what is needed to make them willing to embrace the shift?

How a leader chooses to address these questions is dependent on many things: 1) individual their leadership style, 2) the existing mentality and culture of the world they live in, and 3) the urgency of the idea. Given these three considerations, there are two general appraches for enabling change.

Step-by Step Assimilation & Incremental Learning

For pragmatic leaders that operate in risk-adverse, traditional environments and have the luxury of time, organizational change can be orchestrated through a series of steps that slowly, but meaningfully, shift the general understanding related to a specific idea. They take what is known, safe, time-tested and then build on that established foundation by attaching less-radical new ideas (or new ways of looking at existing concepts) to those existing models so that step-by-step they lead people to a new way of seeing the world. This type of change leadership is slow and deliberate and, when executed well, can address the technical question and the communication question solidly. The challenge here is with the cultural question.

The current state of thinking can turn a blind eye (often unknowingly) to a new way of thinking because they literally don’t have a frame of reference onto which the new idea can attach itself (they literally cannot understand it). This is why the size and direction of each progressive step needs to be carefully thought through so that it is neither a negligible “so what” nor a step that is too big for most people to make. Put another way, the thought that everything that they have built in their life, and the power/status/influence/knowledge that they have acquired within the old outdated paradigm, everything that they think they know – all of this may be compromised or rendered useless if this new idea catches on.

This gradual, learning-based approach is the rational path. It really relies on a deep, holistic understanding of the current state (technically, psychologically, sociologically, etc.) and a carefully thought out step-by-step progression of gradually evolving the current common understanding to the point where people can more fully understand the vision. When people begin to see the tangible results of these incremental changes, then the will slowly come to embrace more of the vision, but the shift happens slowly and requires a delicate balance between psychological safety and pushing beyond comfort zones.

Passion & Leaps of Faith

For more charismatic leaders in situations where there is a strong desire or urgency for change, there is a different approach. This approach focuses on creating an exciting, compelling, and inspirational story that will act as its own catalyst for change. Passionate commitment and strong belief are what fuel the movement. These also allow for a much more streamlined approach people are willing to make “leaps of faith” rather than having to be slowly walked through a process of change step by step. The cultural question takes care of itself because the early adopters are ones that are passionate about the vision and are basically self-selecting. The technical and communication questions are also often addressed through passion and excitement because early adopters eagerly share the idea with others and are motivated to proactively address any problems that stand in their way from realizing the vision.

The key with this approach is that there needs to be a critical mass of early adopters because the enthusiasm and sustainability of a belief-based movement depends on internal or external validation that the idea hits on a deeper truth and better way. Occasionally, these types of movements may fall short of fully enabling the change because they misread the current state and were a bit too far ahead in their thinking. In these cases, however, the message may awaken something in the collective subconscious that will not go back to sleep and over time others will pick up the cause and the vision eventually will be realized.

This more emotional approach is the intuitive path and relies on a deep understanding of the aspirations and unmet needs of the current state. Everything about this path relies on the ability of a leader to articulate a vision in such a way that people are passionately committed to realizing the vision. In order to do so, the idea must be solidly founded in universal truths and ideals so that it resonates strongly at an intuitive “gut” level – something that you just “know” is right even though you can’t necessarily prove it rationally. In these types of situations, the shift happens quickly at the psychological level and science, proofs, and rationalizations will come in time. These shifts can be quick, radical, and powerful - and totally change the game for an industry or people.

There is much more to be explored regarding change and transformation, but we’ll continue that discussion next week when we look at basic themes across some of the biggest ideological shifts in history...

This week’s post pulls from the yogic philosophy regarding two of the four paths of yoga – Jnana yoga (the path of knowledge, wisdom, introspection, and contemplation) and Bhakti Yoga (the path of devotion, emotion, love, and compassion). There is also significant overlap with portions of Chapter 3 of my book The Collective Potential related to the interrelation of trust, learning, commitment and understanding.

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