The outsider wins
Weekly Jewish Wisdom:
The Outsider Wins
by Dr. Erica Brown
"There is no prophet in his own city."
When institutions face difficult, seemingly intractable problems, what do they do? They bring in a consultant, of course! This person, for usually large sums of money, proceeds to tell them what their problem is and, if lucky, offers some possible solutions. Most often, the problem identified is already evident to most of the people involved anyway, so what good does an outsider bring to the complexity of a situation? As one joke has it, a consultant is a person who asks to borrow your watch to tell you what time it is.
What do families do when they face difficult, seemingly intractable problems? They bring in an outsider, a professional, a counseller or a member of the clergy to help them name a problem that they already know exists. Most often, although the problem is evident, the outsider is there to help a family acknowledge a problem they may be denying and offer professional guideposts on the way to better emotional health. But why does an outsider always know better?
Someimes an outsider is used to validate a problem that has gone unnamed or to speak with candor about a difficult situation that insiders are embarrassed or uncomfortable to confront. Distance can offer an important advantage. People behave better in front of strangers and often are forced to see their own demons or problems through other eyes.
Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky use the expression "the view from the balcony" in their book Leadership on the Line to describe a problem that benefits from a view thirty feet higher than the problem. Issues can seem entrenched when you're on the dance floor. Only when you remove yourself and look down at a problem from a distance can a greater, more expansive and manageable picture emerge. Sometimes we cannot gain enough distance and that is when an outsider helps us see the whole picture better than we can see it ourselves.
The quote above is often cited in Hebrew, namely that there is no prophet in his own city. This was certainly true for ancient prophets like Jeremiah who were often hated or ridiculed by their followers. They were not respected for saying what people locally did not want to hear. The same prophet from another town over may have been awarded credibility and influence, but a prophet in his own town rarely enjoyed this kind of authority.
Ironically, although the expression is used commonly in Hebrew, it actually hails from something Jesus said in the New Testament that has been creatively adapted in Jewish texts and common parlance. In Matthew 13:57, Jesus says: "A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house." In other words, prophets are honored everywhere but at home. Often we don't prize enough the wisdom right in front of us.
Jim Collins, in his well-known leadership guide Good to Great warns us, much along this ancient saying, that outsiders are not always a benefit to companies or enterprises. Outsiders are not as invested as insiders are. In the 11 companies that Collins researched who were considered great, 10 of them had CEOs who were groomed from the inside. When consultants finish or leave a project, they often have little accountability since they are neither stakeholders nor owners in the enterprise. Instead, Collins recommends that we groom leaders from the inside, those who have shown long-term commitment to the projects and ideas homegrown in the native culture.
There are wise people everywhere who fly off to share wisdom elsewhere but have little street cred back home. There are prophets in every city, but we may not offer them the respect and platform they deserve.
March 9, 2011; 5:24 PM ET
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