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We See Only Part of the Elephant: Collective Leadership at BPF

With our recent move from two Co-Directors to three, BPF staff and board have been contemplating what it means to have a leadership structure outside a more traditional hierarchical model.

Personally, I have seen some Co-Directorships that work because the people involved think alike – they trust each other to view the world in similar ways and make similar decisions.

Our Co-Directorship is different in that the people involved think differently – we share similar values, but see the world in different ways, from different lived experiences. We speak our truths and trust each other to listen deeply to the wisdom we each bring.

I liken it to the parable about the blind men each feeling a different section of the elephant. In the Buddhist version,

A number of disciples went to the Buddha and said, “Sir, there are living here in Savatthi many wandering hermits and scholars who indulge in constant dispute, some saying that the world is infinite and eternal and others that it is finite and not eternal, some saying that the soul dies with the body and others that it lives on forever, and so forth. What, Sir, would you say concerning them?”

The Buddha answered, “Once upon a time there was a certain raja who called to his servant and said, ‘Come, good fellow, go and gather together in one place all the men of Savatthi who were born blind… and show them an elephant.’ ‘Very good, sire,’ replied the servant, and he did as he was told. He said to the blind men assembled there, ‘Here is an elephant,’ and to one man he presented the head of the elephant, to another its ears, to another a tusk, to another the trunk, the foot, back, tail, and tuft of the tail, saying to each one that that was the elephant.

“When the blind men had felt the elephant, the raja went to each of them and said to each, ‘Well, blind man, have you seen the elephant? Tell me, what sort of thing is an elephant?’

“Thereupon the men who were presented with the head answered, ‘Sire, an elephant is like a pot.’ And the men who had observed the ear replied, ‘An elephant is like a winnowing basket.’ Those who had been presented with a tusk said it was a ploughshare. Those who knew only the trunk said it was a plough; others said the body was a grainery; the foot, a pillar; the back, a mortar; the tail, a pestle, the tuft of the tail, a brush.

“Then they began to quarrel, shouting, ‘Yes it is!’ ‘No, it is not!’ ‘An elephant is not that!’ ‘Yes, it’s like that!’ and so on, till they came to blows over the matter.

“Brethren, the raja was delighted with the scene.

“Just so are these preachers and scholars holding various views blind and unseeing…. In their ignorance they are by nature quarrelsome, wrangling, and disputatious, each maintaining reality is thus and thus.

“Then the Exalted One rendered this meaning by uttering this verse of uplift,

O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
For preacher and monk the honored name!
For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
Such folk see only one side of a thing.

Jainism and Buddhism. Udana 68-69:
Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant

While in this scene people break into a quarrel, what happens when we instead listen to each other with the knowledge that each sees just one part of the elephant? Could we piece together our experiences of the pot and winnowing basket with the plough and pillar? Through sharing and listening, could we collectively envision the elephant’s full power and majesty? Instead of casting shame on our “blindness” (so easy to do in our abelist culture), could we value our bodies and experiences just as they are, limited as they may be? Can we know that our limits in personal vision are a call to lean in to our collective vision?

We believe this is the kind of leadership this world needs. When even our air quality is racist and young men kill young women they feel entitled to date, we recognize that the problems we face are not ones we can solve alone. None of us can see the whole problem, just our little section of the elephant. We need to build our collective visions of both the systemic causes of suffering and the path to end it.

It’s not easy to practice this kind of collective leadership. It requires fierce practice in speaking our truths, at the same time that we are willing to let go of our fixed views. Our carefulness in speech is only surpassed by our carefulness in listening closely. There are few models to follow, but we practice anyway.

Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace el camino al andar. Searcher, there is no road. We make the road by walking. — Antonio Machado, Selected Poems.


Photo: “Blind monks examining an elephant”, an ukiyo-e print by Hanabusa Itchō (1652–1724).

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Comments (13)

  • Geoffrey Wood

    Loved it up until the racism and young men comments. Perhaps we should compare notes on the elephant sometime.

  • Lee Lipp

    I’m very appreciative of the article and found that the phrase, “young men kill young women they feel entitled to date…” goes to far for me. This is a very complex issue that includes mental health issues, govt. and school authorities not allowed to talk to each other, a culture that demeans many heterosexual men who think they must have sexual experiences with women to be considered a MAN, that women are not supposed to say no – flat out NO is not considered enough..she must say something like I have a boyfriend…I don’t know maybe saying I have a girlfriend would be sufficient. I don’t know. Gun control, I suppose I could point out many elements of the elephant and leave that to others who wish to comment. The statement that, “young men kill young women they feel entitled to date…” is to my ears, demeaning to all heterosexual men. I wondered if this statement was meant to provoke or be inflammatory or is simply your response to the BPF’s mission to be a catalyst.. I’m appreciative for the invitation to those of us who have other views of the elephant to respond. And moving past the hierarchal model, sounds mighty fine to me. Thank you, Lee

  • Dawn Haney

    Hi everyone, thanks for the comments here and the Facebook love!

    I have to say, I feel surprised that folks found my examples to be particularly inflammatory – from my side of the elephant (15+ years in the anti-sexual assault and anti-domestic violence movements), the sense of entitlement to women’s bodies expressed by Elliot Rodger is a common belief held by the set of men who rape or abuse women. I find it curious that folks would read my statement to say “ALL young men kill young women they feel entitled to date” when I was expressing concern than “ANY young men kill young women they feel entitled to date.” It seemed clear to me I was expressing the latter, and that this was one (among several) factors in the mass murders was deeply concerning. Thanks for the opportunity to clarify!

    Looking forward to reading and sharing my friend Chris Crass’ upcoming essay that comes out Friday on – here’s the summary he just shared on Facebook: “With the global response of #YesAllWomen on Twitter, the debate on misogyny and sexism in society is front and center. While far too many men argue “it’s not all men”, Chris Crass’s new essay argues all men must choose what side of the war against women they are on.”

    Likewise, would be curious to hear more about the beef with the air quality study? I linked to the more popular for the internet version, but here also is the actual study published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS ONE, which I admittedly haven’t read in detail:

  • Katie Loncke

    Dawn, this is so beautiful and heartening! I’m honored and supremely fortunate to be doing this work with you, investigating our parts and pieces of the magnificent elephant. (Who I hope is consenting to being loved-up-on and enjoying all the touching, hehe. :)

    Our make-the-road-by-walking experiments in collective leadership, and other aspects of what we’re doing this year, keep reinforcing for me the links between generosity and democracy. I love how you put it:

    “It requires fierce practice in speaking our truths, at the same time that we are willing to let go of our fixed views. Our carefulness in speech is only surpassed by our carefulness in listening closely.”

    Yes. All of the yes.

    Lee and Geoffrey, the concerns you’re raising remind me of Principle #2 of the 10 Principles of Radical Rebirth that we released last year:

    Principle #2 being: “Let’s Expect Oppression.” My invitation, from my segment of the elephant, would be to accept and acknowledge that racism exists. Misogynistic entitlement and patriarchy exist. Rather than worrying about incriminating all men, or all white people, etc., when we name racism and sexism, I’d rather focus on dismantling the common beliefs and material structures that uphold these harmful systems. (Which is what I got from your closing paragraphs, Dawn, and hella appreciated those examples & links.)

    My two cents.

    Bows to y’all,


  • Susan Marine

    Thanks to Dawn and Katie for sharing important truths. We all have a stake in changing misogyniy And racism– every last one of us– and to me it starts with dropping the ‘yes,buts’ and leaning in to the resistance I feel, leaning in to everything that makes me want to distance myself from the systemic hurt we’re all swimming in. I’m trying every day to be more and more fearless, more and more honest about my own complicity. Your parable reminds me of the power in that small act. So I’ll get up tomorrow and try some more. With deep love.

  • Richard Modiano

    “I find it curious that folks would read my statement to say ‘ALL young men kill young women they feel entitled to date’ when I was expressing concern than ‘ANY young men kill young women they feel entitled to date.'”

    It’s a defensive knee jerk response, nothing more. Any generalization needs to be nuanced otherwise there’s confusion on the part of some people that can morph into reaction.

    On the radical left there’s been concern not to repeat the sexist assumptions of the 1960s New Left, so that many groups have set up sessions for confronting patriarchy. As Kate Millett wrote decades ago, “So deeply embedded is patriarchy that the character structure it creates in both sexes is perhaps even more a habit of mind and a way of life than a political system.” As true today as it was then.

  • Cristina Moon

    I am very appreciative of the inherent uncertainty and courage that this kind of co-directorship embodies, Dawn, Katie and Deb!

    The lived experience of being ‘the boss’ in traditional pryamid models of leadership we know can be incredibily stressful, and produces outcomes that are far from ideal. There’s tremendous pressure to perform with mastery despite the fact that we’re all incomplete and ever-evolving beings. Not to mention young! How much wisdom can one person have in 3 years, 15 years or even in a human lifetime?

    Leaders in this model also lack critical clarity around their principal relationships in community: Is the team there to support the boss? Or to be supported by her? Can a board of directors guide and nurture leadership? Or is it there to simply hire and fire?

    Venturing into co-directorship sounds like distributing what could be the burdens of leadership, while still empowering each co-director to determine the future of BPF. It seems rich and visionary in its very contradictoriness: You may each exist as an individual leader, alone, while also being unable to lead without each other. You are each desperately vital, but have reduced (or eliminated?) the ego fertilizer of being the one and only indispensable boss on top.

    I can’t think of a better reflection of making our way through The Stream — each of us alone in our approach and determination, but buoyed by faith in possibility, what tools we have from our experiences, and the support of community. (Aka, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.)

    I hope you’ll write a lot about what you learn in the coming years! It will be important documentation for a new generation of Millennial leaders who value consensus decision-making and work-life balance as we grow and build on the world we grew up in.

    And welcome, Deb!!!!!

  • Nathan

    As a white man, I have zero problems with the statements Dawn made about young men and racism in the original post. Have to say it’s sort of sad that the same points about race and gender need to be made over and over again, but it seems that this is where most of American society, even amongst it’s more “progressive” elements, appears to be.

    Anyway, as far as shared leadership goes, I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum. One thing I think is pretty key is developing an overall directional vision for the organization together. Something that gets into details about where you’d like to go, and what drives it. Shared values aren’t enough. Mission statements aren’t enough. Relying on the teachings as your basic guide isn’t enough. It’s really in wrestling with long term questions to unfold the more short term needs that co-leadership has a chance to truly succeed. As opposed to what it can devolve into – either a unit where one person leads without consent, or where everything is reactive, with no one really leading on anything proactively.

  • Dawn Haney

    Here’s the link to the piece I referenced above. It’s from one of my favorite white guys who are working to end racism and sexism, Chris Crass: “There is a war against women, and men and boys are trained everyday to be the soldiers. Misogynist violence isn’t the biological imperative of men. Misogyny, the worldview that engenders, validates, and normalizes violence against women, is beaten into boys and woven into the fabric of “successful masculinity.” –

    Thank you Cristina and Nathan for digging in to some of the complicated, hard spots of collective leadership. There are many! For BPF in this moment, we are grappling with big questions of directional vision, not just among staff, but among the board and general members as well. Where is the work of Buddhist activists most needed? Should we pick a small set of issues to work on, or stay broad in our perspective of peace? How do we bridge the local, national, and international scopes of our work? Who should decide the answers to any of these questions? Many of the questions have been “eternal” questions since the founding of BPF in 1978, so from my perspective, it’s been more important to “love the questions” (a la Rilke) rather than find answers to them.

    I think we’ve also struggled to do much long term planning just yet, as we’re in such a rebuilding phase. In this period, we’ve focused on making small offerings to see what people are interested in, build our capacity, and build credibility in our work. We’re still trying to assess what’s possible, so we can have a clearer vision of where we are going.

  • Todd Townsend

    We need only look at the complete misunderstanding of contraception by Supreme Court’s current majority and others to understand that latent misogyny is as insidious and pervasive as latent racism remains to be.

    Thank you, BPF. Great piece, Dawn.

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