By Kevin Meyer
I recently came across the following TED Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie where she talks about the “danger of a single story.” From growing up as a kid in Nigeria to studying in the United States and into adulthood, she describes how both herself and others, having only heard a single story about a certain situation, critically misunderstand the person or circumstance.
We all experience the power of the single story, often without realizing the danger. How many of us get our news of the world, and thereby form opinions, from just a single news source? Or even worse, from news sources that we believe already reflect our opinions, thereby denying us the need to have to think about other perspectives, resulting in an increasingly polarizing form of confirmation bias?
How many of us as leaders simply listen to the single story told to us by our staffs, or perhaps even just a computer system – both of which may be predispositioned or programmed to conform to our existing perspective?
The single story may be an incomplete picture of the situation – or even dead wrong.
This is the power of genchi genbutsu – go and see. Go to the real place to truly understand.
My wife and I both lived overseas as kids, and experienced the danger of the single story when interacting with friends and family back home. Perspectives and opinions were sometimes just plain wrong. This is why we love to travel and have visited over 60 countries. With each new place we try to learn about and understand the overlapping tapestry of stories to get a true sense of the people and place, which is almost always very different from what we expected from the single story we’d read or heard about before visiting.
In Laos, one of the few remaining hardcore communist countries, we learned about the vibrant undercurrent of capitalism that has put a TV in the middle of many Hmong grass huts – often showing western shows such as [shudder] The Real Housewives of Orange County. In Tanzania we ventured outside the game parks that most tourists stick to to see how a group of dedicated people are fighting an incredible infant mortality problem – which was documented in a Gemba Academy video series. In Panama last Christmas we left the relaxing beaches and spent a day at a women’s shelter in the very dangerous city of Colon. We’ve been to the slums of India, animal rescue organizations in Nepal, broke bread with villagers in a small hill town in Italy, witnessed the social impact of an entire generation of men murdered by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and walked through the vibrant township of Soweto outside the nearly abandoned and squatter-filled inner city of Johannesburg in South Africa. Every place has many stories.
That tapestry of multiple stories is the real picture. Not the single story that you read about in the paper or hear about on CNN, let alone entertainment channels like Fox or The Daily Show.
As leaders we must do the same. We can’t rely on a memo from our staff or a report from an MRP system. Those are single stories, and will invariably be an incomplete picture – or just wrong. Just as a single story can give us a potentially dangerous misunderstanding about geopolitical events, so can it about situations within our organizations.
Go and see. Observe, ask questions, challenge, and reflect. Learn the many stories to understand the true situation.