Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

How do you see your elephant?

Written by: on February 19, 2024

Life is all about perspective, how each person sees and understands something.  Have you read or heard the Indian parable about the six blind men and the elephant?  James Baldwin retells the story, The Blind Men and the Elephant.  In the short story he describes six blind men’s encounter with an elephant.  As each blind man grabbed a different part of the elephant, they each began to use a simile to describe the elephant.  The elephant is like a snake, like a wall, like a fan, like a tree, like a spear, like a rope; they each argue back and forth what the elephant was like based in their perspective.[1]

Edwin Friedman in his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick-Fix, argues his viewpoints from a family systems perspective.  A family systems perspective examines how families (really any two people engaged in a relationship) interact with one another.  Friedman describes how these relationships develop what he terms chronic anxiety and impact the leader’s ability to self-differentiate from the rest of the system and ultimately cause the system to fail to function properly[2]

I on the other hand teach a strength perspective to my social work students.  A strength perspective is defined as “a philosophical approach to social work that posits that the goals, strengths, and resources of people and their environment, rather than their problems and pathologies, should be the central focus of the helping process.”[3]  Our students are taught to focus not solely on the client’s (individual, family, group, organization, or community) problem, but what have they done or are currently doing that is working to address their presenting problem.

Friedman’s family system perspective seems to focus on a system’s deficits, while a strength-based perspective focuses on its strengths; which one is correct?  I have struggled to answer that question this week.  Friedman in speaking about chronic anxiety says, “The same is the case when an entire society stays focused on the acute symptoms of its chronic anxiety—violence, drugs . . . rather than on the emotional processes that promote those symptoms and keep them chronic.  In that case, the society will continue to recycle its problems, no matter how much legislation it passes, how it redistributes its resources . . . as a way of binding that anxiety off.”[4]  I am teaching Analysis of Social Policy Class this semester, Friedman’s statement both depresses and challenges me.  Throughout the semester we look at different social polies and analyze them asking questions such as whether the outcomes of the policy accomplish what its goals were and what issues or areas the policy does not address?  The ultimate answer to the questions finds that there are deficits to the policy.  So maybe Friedman is correct.  Maybe I need to approach this class from a system’s perspective and focus on the ultimate problem.  However, I found myself asking several questions when I considered this.  Change is hard and if we continually focus on the problem and not on what we might be doing well, can hopelessness set in?  Where does one even begin?  Can I make a difference?  Can I and the students I teach go against a system that really doesn’t want to focus on the real problem? On the other hand, If I focus solely on a strength’s perspective, Friedman might argue that one of our system’s strengths is that we perpetuate the chronic anxiety well.  You herd and sabotage well, you displace your blame well, or you’re really good at finding quick fixes.[5]

I really struggled with the reading this week, I wrote two other blogs before this one, each one highlighting different aspects of the book. I need to process his writings more, however, I don’t think Friedman is wrong. He wrote his book after almost 40 years of observation and practice.[6]  I also don’t think working with a strength’s approach is wrong either.  Plus, there are other perspectives to work from as well.    I think that it is up to coaches, leaders, therapists, social workers, etc. to carefully analyze the situation, not be reactive, and determine which perspective makes the most sense to use in addressing that situation, not just our favorite approach.

We can also use those we have apprenticed under to act as a sounding board. Friedman talks a lot about self-differentiation and while he urges differentiation, he realizes that people cannot function alone, that there is a fine “balance between self and togetherness.”[7]  Like in the parable of the six blind men and the elephant, our perspectives are all biased based on our personal experiences of the world, this method works better, or this is how I see the situation.  This is where togetherness is important.  I teach my students that even when they obtain their independent license and no longer need supervision, they need at least one person they can go to process and seek guidance.  We need to see the world through other’s perspectives and be willing to consider that we may not be seeing the whole elephant.

[1] James Kelly, “Six Blind Men and the Elephant,”  American Literature, accessed February 19, 2024, https://americanliterature.com/author/james-baldwin/short-story/the-blind-men-and-the-elephant.

[2] Edwin Friedman A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. (New York: Church Publishing, 2007).

[3] Rosemary Kennedy Chapin and Melinda Lewis, Social Policy for Effective Practice: A Strengths Approach, 6th ed, (New York: Routledge, 2023), 2.

[4] Friedman, 60.

[5] Friedman, 61.

[6] Friedman, 5.

[7] Friedman, 158-186

About the Author

Jeff Styer

Jeff Styer lives in Northeast Ohio's Amish Country. He has degrees in Social Work and Psychology and currently works as a professor of social work at Mount Vernon Nazarene University. Jeff is married to his wife, Veronica, 25+ years. Together they have 4 beautiful children (to be honest, Jeff has 4 kids, Veronica says she is raising 5). Jeff loves the outdoors, including biking, hiking, camping, birding, and recently picked up disc golf.

11 responses to “How do you see your elephant?”

  1. mm Ryan Thorson says:

    Stellar post Jeff! I appreciate so much the way you are wrestling with Friedman’s work in relationship to your own and modeling a growth mindset and openness to different ways of thinking of health and wellness. I don’t think you’re wrong that a strength based approach can be a pathway forward to differentiation and growth. Perhaps Friedman’s theory and the Strength’s approach can be two different parts of the Elephant, which may be what you are suggesting.

    How will you make space to ‘process Friedman’s writing more’ as you mention in your post? It definitely is an influential text regardless of our own perspectives on it. Thanks again for your engagement with this.

    • Jeff Styer says:

      I plan to read more into his book later on and also process some of the sermons I heard related to it. John Mark Comer came up with a model for dealing with the chronic anxiety characteristics using Matthew. I want to take some time to see where maybe the two models can compliment one another.

  2. mm Kari says:

    I appreciate your perspective, Jeff, as you wrestle through these readings. I, too, have things to process. The Elephant story was a great analogy. As I look at the picture, I see that the fan seems to be overlapping with the brick wall.

    I’m wondering if you noticed any overlap in the Strength’s approach and Friedmen’s theory?

    • Jeff Styer says:

      I definitely think that there could be points of overlap between the two theories. For example, I think even in the systems theory approach you could point out things that the leader does well. Maybe they accept responsibility and don’t place blame on others. That could be an area to compliment the person, giving them hope that they can make other changes to differentiate and become less reactive to the system. I’m sure the more I look at this, the more potential overlap I will find.

  3. Adam Cheney says:

    Good analogy and perspective. I agree with the others that these are good questions to be asking. In my perspective, Friedman is missing the whole religion piece. As image bearers of Christ we are designed for so much more and Christ’s work in us can overcome the deficits we might have. Do you see the role of spiritual development as part of the elephant here?

    • Jeff Styer says:

      Yes, Friedman’s system perspective could almost been seen as an addictive cycle, we entered into the chronic anxiety because of what it had to offer us. Once we entered its hard to change. This is where Christ enters in, we know that we are really powerless to change without Christ’s assistance. We have to willingly die to self and allow Christ to help us remove ourselves from the unhealthy chronic anxiety that is present in our relationships. Over time we can better reflect God’s image to others.

  4. Nancy Blackman says:

    I have read the elephant parable in the past. Love that you connected that to perspectives of different people. I also think of the four gospels and the four different perspectives.

    I had never heard of the strength perspective as a therapy model. Thanks for sharing that!

    You touched on something I have been saying for years! At one time, Chris and I were praying about joining a missionary team in Northern Thailand that’s sole focus is helping young women get off the streets and away from their prostitute lifestyle. I kept saying, “but that doesn’t solve the problem completely. At some point we need to address the root causes — the fathers who sell their daughters to landowners because they are indebted servants.”

    And, yes, you said it — change is hard, but without getting at the root issue, there can be no real change, right?

    What I’m hearing as I read your words is that you are looking at the different perspectives and that, Jeff, makes you a better leader than most.

    I keep hearing one of the first statements we learned in this doctorate journey in my head, “but what if I’m wrong?” That’s what I hear from you, and isn’t that beautiful?

    May you always be open to hearing and seeing the perspectives of others without losing your way and voice in the world.

  5. Daren Jaime says:

    Hey Jeff. Thanks for sharing. You bring to light the struggle and a perspective that I also feel must be fleshed out when it comes to a strengths approach; if you could give an addendum based on how you were challenged, what is one thing that comes to mind?

    • Jeff Styer says:

      I guess I’m challenged by ensuring that regardless of what perspective you use to address an issue, that you are actually addressing the real issue. Its like the story of walking toward a river and seeing people in the river floating towards you after going over a dangerous waterfall. We can spend all our time and energy rescuing them but never address the real issue of how/why are the falling into the river. Regardless of a leader’s strengths or how differentiated they are, the actual issue might be that the leader isn’t a good fit for the system they are leading.

  6. mm Shela Sullivan says:

    Hi Jeff,
    Thank you for your post. How do you navigate the balance between focusing on deficits and strengths in your social work practice and teaching?

    • Jeff Styer says:

      Shela, that is a great question, because as humans we have the natural tendency to be biases towards people, keeping in mind biases are either positive or negative. So we can be positively biases towards a client and only focus on their strengths or negatively biased and only focus on their deficits. Our professions code of ethics requires us to treat all clients with dignity and worth. I take that and remind students that a person’s dignity and worth comes from being created in the image of God, so that alone is a strength we must consider when working with people. However, I remind them that no one is perfect due to sin, and that there is an obvious reason why they are sitting across from you. Treat them well, look for strengths, but don’t ignore their problems.

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