Management Magazine
Hands on Management

Teaching the irrelevant to the disinterested

We are preparing tomorrow’s leaders for jobs that will no longer exist in a world that is facing extinction.


John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) is credited for writing one of the most famous versions of the parable of the blind men and an elephant. The poem begins: “It was six men of Indostan, To learning much inclined, Who went to see the Elephant, (Though all of them were blind), That each by observation, Might satisfy his mind”. It continues “And so these men of Indostan, Disputed loud and long, Each in his own opinion, Exceeding stiff and strong, Though each was partly in the right, And all were in the wrong!”

Disintegration is limiting

Charles Leadbetter, a global advisory figure on matters creativity and innovation describes the current education as a model of service that prioritises standardisation and compliance over commitment to individual potential. His analysis of the structure and culture of this model reveals a system of disconnected silos. These silos are very much like the perception of the blind men: They limit inter-disciplinary and integrated learning; constrain the development of communication and collaboration skills and inhibit the ability to understand and grapple with real world complexity, systems, feedback loops and circularity. 

They reflect the legacy of command and control leadership, creating nodes of power that are simultaneously connected and disconnected, limiting fields of view and inhibiting a vision of the whole. While silos help establish boundaries, maintain order and enable specialism, in times of rapid and significant change they inhibit agility, create conflicts in collaboration and cooperation, and are stubborn obstacles to change. 

Evolving industrial vs stagnated education system

Mass systems of public education emerged in the mid-19th Century to meet the labour needs of the Industrial Revolution. They are organised on the principles of mass production. Standards are employed to ensure the systems are more efficient and accountable. Evidence that they are not fit for the future is seen in the huge and growing problem of youth unemployment. It is seen in the widening gap between the human capital skills available and 21st Century workforce needs. And it is seen in the divisions of society as whole and the growing disconnect between what education is producing and what society needs. These systems are inherently unsuited to the wholly different circumstances of the 21st Century.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report of October 2018 determines that we have less than a dozen years to limit global warming to a maximum of another 1.5 degrees Centigrade. Not achieving this target will almost certainly lock in further dramatic increases in drought, flood, extreme heat and poverty. Going over this level jeopardizes the viability of life on Earth. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted in 2016 seek to mobilise an increasingly urgent and targeted response from all nations and all sectors of society. It is widely accepted that implementing the SDGs is not simply a matter of incremental changes such as adopting new responsible business strategies or increasing the recycling of household waste. Both the SDGs and IPCC Report confirm the need for change at scale and at pace. The January 2019 World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Risks Report identifies “intensification” of global risks coupled with “a lack of collective will” to address them as the reason why “we are drifting deeper into global problems from which we will struggle to extricate ourselves.” While the world is changing so fast the education systems remain largely intact – antiquated and rooted in an industrial era, insufficiently responsive to varying degrees of “reform”. We are preparing tomorrow’s leaders for jobs that will no longer exist in a world that is facing extinction.

Future-Fit Education

Education needs to become Future-Fit – to equip young people to the demands of the future. It needs to build capacity for sustainability. Sustainability is about navigating complex systems, understanding the interaction between competing activities and the balances required in decision-making in real time. It demands that we work across boundaries, borders, subject disciplines and departments to understand the systemic issues that need to be addressed to create change.

The elephant joke inverts the parable in the following way: “Six blind elephants were discussing what men were like. After arguing they decided to find one and determine what it was like by direct experience. The first blind elephant felt the man and declared, ‘Men are flat.’ After the other blind elephants felt the man, they agreed.” The German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976), who was awarded the 1932 Nobel Prize in Physics “for the creation of quantum mechanics”, interprets this joke in the following words, “We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning”. What method of questioning should we equip our young people with?

Elizabeth Maloba is an Organisational Development and Global Business Growth Facilitator. Email:

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