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Walking the Field

March 17, 2011 by Deborah Gilburg

Recently I participated in the Riders on the Storm virtual summit and heard an interview with Martin Kalunga-Banda, former advisor to the Zambian President, author of the book Leading Like Madiba: Leadership Lessons from Nelson Mandela, and general, all around, wise-international-change-agent. He spoke of the challenges he sees in leadership today.

“Many leaders have a blind spot — they fail to access their own ignorance.” This is a problem because “when we fail to access our ignorance, we cannot see what is already there.”

I love the notion that our own “not knowing” can be a leadership strength. We live in such an expert-driven culture. We tend to focus only on what we know, what we are sure of, and have lost track of what we don’t know but might be happening anyway.

He shared a metaphor: “A farmer never makes decisions about the field from his office; rather, he walks the field.” In order for leaders to access their own ignorance, they need to start by getting out into the field to learn about what is really going on. They need to get out of the office and receive data in an experiential fashion—take a “sensing journey.” This requires using “the intelligence of an open heart as well as the brain.” Its not just about intellect, but about absorbing information at many levels, noticing what is new, what was previously unknown, what is working, what is not.

Kalunga-Banda thinks the reason leaders fail to access their own ignorance is because they listen to three prevailing voices in their minds: the voice of Judgment—fits new data into old containers, rejects out of hand what does not already fit; the voice of Cynicism—holds a fundamental belief that what is possible is only that with which I am familiar, only my experience is real; and the voice of Fear—fear of change, fear of letting go of the old in order for the new to come.

Good questions are one way to get past these voices and out “walking the field,” questions that help leaders and their teams appreciate the limitations of their “expertise” and consider the value of their own ignorance.

  • What are others experiencing with respect to this issue?
  • What might be missing from our discussion? What don’t we know?
  • Where else can we learn more about this issue than what our speculation can offer?

As resources tighten, costs escalate, budget-cutting talks intensify, global conflicts erupt, I ask: are the farmers walking their fields? Are we making decisions about our future by accessing our ignorance? Are leaders in touch with what is happening on the ground, the successes as well as the fears? What is already possible that we are missing in the confines of our offices?

Go walk the field and discover what there is to learn!