What Would Aragorn Do?

‘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.


11 thoughts on “What Would Aragorn Do?

  1. Julie Fickas says:

    Very eloquently stated! Shirky mentioned that social media promotes the formation of groups. Within these groups a positive feedback cycle exists because often within the group a question is posed that begs an answer. Answering increases the perceptual status of the person answering, which encourages more answers.

    My back went out a week and a half ago. I finally decided that going to a chiropractor might be a good idea if I ever wanted to walk again without looking like I was 90 when I am not quite that old. I posted on FaceBook that I needed a local chiropractor and asked for recommendations for a good one. The post instantly had many answers to my need for a good chiropractor. A group of my “friends” that had back problems instantly formed to help me solve my problem. Mine is a simple example. Taking this to the level of a multi-campus college system seems much more daunting, but very necessary. As a leader, I want to find ways to allow the formation of cognitively diverse groups to solve the “back problems” of the college. Transparency could be a by-product of the interactions of the groups.

    The field of education is rapidly and transformationally changing right now. As I read the story in Shirky about newspapers, I couldn’t help but think of educational institutions. Technology has dramatically changed higher education. The social effects on education are lagging behind the technological effects as Shirky suggested they do. Leveraging collective knowledge will help to re-shape the educational system as we move forward.

    Shirky, C. (2009). Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

  2. Nice post, Joe … anyone who can weave Tolkien, Elliot, Dixon and Shirky together is connecting some interesting dots!

    I particularly liked your comment that :…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.” What is interesting in this digital age is that this “conversation” might start on a blog, get passed along on Twitter, and then shift to a face-to-face setting.

    • I think another role of the leader in the example of convening and facilitating conversation among a group of diverse perspectives is to move that discussion into action at the appropriate moment. A leader needs to create an environment that fosters these conversations and that also shapes the conversation into one that is actionable for the organization.

      There is a team in my division that is highly intellectual and loves thinking through complex scenarios, continually refining the solution and accounting for every possible permutation. In some cases, such thorough vetting of use cases is necessary and beneficial, but in some cases, it is overkill and the team needs to move from talking to doing. The leader of that team is responsible for helping the team understand the objectives the team needs to meet, moving them into action at the appropriate time, and helping the team to feel ok about not exploring every possible angle. This has helped the team to accomplish more and more quickly. The leader of the team has to continually facilitate these discussions because the team soon reverts to old habits of over-engineering solutions without her focus on the big picture and division objectives.

      • In the world that I work in you are describing a behavior known as the “paralysis of analysis”. A leader does eventually have to make a decision. Sometimes you have time to listen to more suggestions sand extend the dialogue. Other times the necessity of plotting a course of action brings the discussion to a halt.

    • Julie has given a perfect example of the variability of the point of initiation on the reply above. A conversation about a matter of importance (her back) received immediate and successful attention. I appreciate her transference of this example to a larger and more complex setting of a multi-campus university. However, the scope of the two settings is so far apart that I have questions about how that conversation takes place within the current structures and tools of social media. I guess I have just never seen it done.

      By the way – I am glad you enjoyed the dots that I attempted to connect. Sometimes I need to entertain myself with a little variety.

      • Julie Fickas says:

        Joe –
        I guess I am trying to imagine how there could be social communities set up that would allow communication to flow more freely in the very hierarchical structure of an educational system. I just completed a practicum working in upper levels of the educational institution where I work. I was amazed by how little information comes to the upper levels from below and the individuals I worked with were equally amazed at the little information that penetrated the lower levels from above. If both the upper and lower levels knew more of what was going on in the other level of the organization, we could utilize shared knowledge and both do our jobs better. Much like my friends helped me find a chiropractor, the different levels of the organization could potentially work together to inform or solve problems within the organization. I’m not sure how this could be done, but maybe utilizing some sort of internal community that allowed individuals to ask questions across the organization. Someone else mentioned something like this in another post. I could see our marketing people gathering information on a program they needed to promote or a faculty member asking a about a curriculum issue as they work on a new course proposal. I do believe that there would need to be explicit directions regarding how the community can be used.

  3. I do love the communities of practice that exist today, but the biggest issue that I face in my industry is the lack of filter. For example, I teach medical coding. There are a multitude of ‘message boards’ out there for medical coding, so when you have a coding question all one needs to do it head to Google to search out some assistance from these message boards. If I were looking for some assistance on how to code for a high tibial osteotomy, I may find advice from 10 different coders on 3 different ways to code for it. This wouldn’t be a problem if doctors weren’t getting trouble for fraud and abuse today, so relying on these communities of practice is a huge problem in my industry. They are great for discussion of difficult coding and compliance topic, but people have started to rely on them as their personal ‘cloud’ of coding knowledge. #nofilter

    On the other hand, I love them to have great discussions about difficult topics with professionals from all across the country. I honestly cannot remember what it was like before I had the ability to run out to the AHIMA Community of Practice to see if there were any educators that had posted about the new CAHIIM curriculum information, or to the AAPC boards to see if anyone had any thoughts on that new regulation. It’s just a different time now, and it certainly didn’t take us long to get used to it!

    • I am delighted to hear that the existence of Communities of Practice has been so helpful to you Jillian. Your post has given me encouragement to seek such resources out in my own work.

  4. You make some excellent points and give a clear explanation of why leaders are so important. Even with knowledge originating from groups, there needs to be individuals who are able to bring that information together in a helpful way. The leaders’ role has changed from being the one publishing and filtering information, but now they are the one, as you point out, facilitates putting it all together. As the networks expand, this seems to be an increasingly more complex task. Dixon (2009) even admits herself that she is grappling with the current changes in knowledge management. She points out it is easier to look back at changes, but in the midst of them, it becomes much more difficult. Leaders will never have a definitive answer, just an answer that is right for the situation at that point in time.

    I like how you refer to social media’s “messiness” as the more we are learning about the changes technology has brought on, the more that feels true.  This goes back to the point you highlighted that technology alone is not enough (Dixon, 2009). I would suspect that this will always be the case (or at least for quite some time). It would be interesting to see if there will be a change from this in the future, where the technology allows the facilitation.


    Dixon, N. (2009). Three eras of knowledge management: Where knowledge management has been and where it is going- part three. Conversation matters. Retrieved from http://www.nancydixonblog.com/2009/07/where-knowledge-management-has-been-and-where-it-is-going-part-three.html.

  5. Sarahjini Nunn says:


    I love the analogy you presented in your post. The Lord of the Rings is certainly is a great example of effective leadership during changing times. Although I have watched the movies at least 20 times, I did not pick up on the conversation between Eomer and Aragorn, but how profound it was! There has always been good and evil in the world of media communications. However, it took great leadership to ensure its integrity. Like Aragorn, leaders of current news outlets and social media sites must decide what to do in “such times as these.” However, unlike Aragorn, many of the decisions made in today’s world have been destructive in so many ways.

    You posed the question, what would Aragorn do? I would like to think that he would protect the masses by outlawing harmful news mediums and streamline the flow of communication. However, in today’s world, freedom of the press has crippled any hope of muzzling the masses.

    • Sarahjini,

      As an FYI, this conversation between Eomer and Aragorn is only in the book. Regrettably, it was not included in the movie so you did not miss it.

      I like to think that Aragorn would have given a speech that would have inspired the masses to protect themselves through control of their own harmful impulses. It is so much easier to come up with these quick solutions in a two-hour movie where the director gets to control everyone’s reactions to one another. Real leaders do not get off so easily do they?

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