‘It is hard to be sure of anything among so many marvels. The world is all grown strange. Elf and Dwarf in company walk in our daily fields; and folk speak with the Lady of the Wood and yet live; and the Sword comes back to war that was broken in the long ages ere the fathers of our fathers rode into the Mark! How shall a man judge what to do in such times?’
‘As he ever has judged,’ said Aragorn. ‘Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.’
In this conversation between two future kings, Eomer and Aragorn, in The Two Towers (1954) author J. R. R. Tolkein gives a prescient view of the universal challenges that change brings to leaders. Just as fast-paced change was a part of Tolkien’s world, so it is with ours. Though we can argue over the seemingly increasing speed of that change when past generations are compared to our own, the fundamental principle is the same. Human beings, especially leaders, are forced to make decisions regarding situations that are new to them and taking place in an environment that is previously unknown and uncharted.
As a leader of a school community over the past 25 years, I can tell you that the question voiced by Eomer, “How shall a man judge what to do in such times?” is never very far from my thoughts. I suspect that many of today’s leaders feel the same. The exceptionally well-done blog posts by Dixon (2009) give us affirmation that leaders over the past two decades have certainly been dealing with a similar question as they grapple with the best ways to deal with the growing availability of information.
Several of Dixon’s statements resonate profoundly with my own experience:
1) In the 1990s knowledge management professionals discovered that technology alone was not enough to manage knowledge.
2) Knowledge is not stable over time but is constantly changing. (I am reminded of Bennis’ lament over the difficulty of herding cats – it seems that managing information may be just as difficult.)
3) There is growing recognition of the value of the critical knowledge that those on the front line of an organization’ as the role of reflection came to be appreciated methods to facilitate a successful process of reflection need to be refined and considered.
4) The processes for leveraging collective knowledge must embrace a commitment to cognitive diversity. This is reminiscent of the “opposable mind” concept so well developed by Martin (2009). Leaders who have not experienced the value of frank dialogue among those with different perspectives are surely operating at a handicap in today’s world.
The role of the leader then is to convene a conversation that brings people with diverse perspectives together to tackle and discuss a properly framed question. The leader is responsible for both framing the question and for convening the conversation. It is out of these conversations that many of the most perplexing questions facing organizations begin to find appropriate responses that lead the organization on a path to proactively addressing its challenges.
Shirky (2008) points to the complicated nature of those conversations in today’s world with so many forms of social media. The neatness of traditional media has been replaced by the messiness of social media. However, the growth of Communities of Practice has allowed for a focus to be brought to social media communications that benefits organizations who learn to use this tool properly. Through these communities of practice a global conversation can take place in beneficial ways that were heretofore unthinkable.
As Aragorn stated, “Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear… It is a man’s part to discern them.” In today’s language, Tolkien would have likely agreed to a translation that reads “it is a leader’s part to discern them”. The current thinking in best practices of leadership is that the discernment sometimes takes place in an expanded conversation with those who care for the organization and have a vested interest in its future.
Dixon, N. (2009, May 2). Where knowledge management has been and where it is going – part one [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.nancydixonblog.com/2009/05/where-knowledge-management-has-been-and-where-it-is-going-part-one.html
Dixon, N. (2009, May 10). Knowledge management: Where we’ve been and where we’re going – part two [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.nancydixonblog.com/2009/05/knowledge-management-where-weve-been-and-where-were-going—part-two.html
Dixon, N. (2009, July 30). Where knowledge management has been and where it is going – part three [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.nancydixonblog.com/2009/07/where-knowledge-management-has-been-and-where-it-is-going-part-three.html
Martin, R. L. (2009). The opposable mind: Winning through integrative thinking. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.Shirky, C. (2008). Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations. New York: Penguin Press.
Tolkien, J. R. (1954). The two towers; being the second part of The Lord of the rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.