Home Concepts Decison Making & Problem Solving In Over Our Heads: Living and Learning in the Cave

In Over Our Heads: Living and Learning in the Cave

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The returning prisoner, whose eyes have become acclimated to the light of the sun, will be blind when she re-enters the cave, just as she was when first exposed to the sun. The cave dwellers, according to Plato, would infer from the returning prisoner’s blindness that the journey out of the cave had harmed her and that they should not undertake a similar journey. Plato concludes that the prisoners, if they were able, would therefore reach out and kill anyone who attempted to drag them out of the cave.

As professional coaches, can we help our clients navigate the return to the cave? Can we even help our clients determine whether or not they should consider returning to the cave? Why not remain outside the cave? Or is this yet another cave and another limiting version of reality?

Personal and Organizational Caves

There are several different ways in which to view the live of cave dwellers. We can identify the cave as existing inside the occupant’s head and heart. The cave mentality exists when people become trapped or caught in favorite ways of thinking and acting that confine individuals within socially constructed worlds and prevent the emergence of other worlds. Preconceived (and often contradictory) ideas become traps for people when they begin to hold onto their preconceived notions and biases that eventually become their reality. These traps often are first introduced by “experts” who enter the engagement with their own agenda and offer their own slanted interpretations.

The cave can also be viewed as a collective experience. An entire organization can be perceived as the cave and its members as those who dwell in the cave. Expanding on Plato’s allegory of the cave, we can assume that people collectively develop unconscious mechanisms and construct realities in order to handle anxiety and desire. Organizations are created and sustained by conscious and unconscious processes. People can actually become imprisoned or confined by the images, ideas, thoughts, and actions to which these processes give rise. Organizations become stuck in their traditional manner of thinking. There are rigid (though often tacitly-held) rules about how things are done.

Organizational life is deemed as a mode of cave dwelling because those who work in it are set in their ways of thinking and refuse to change. Then a released prisoner (as a visionary leader) returns to the cave and describes a new, blinding reality. An organization is confronted with this new reality–one that requires a new way of thinking. Members of the organization must re-assess organizational norms. They must drop traditional modes of functioning. Individually and collectively these cave dwellers must develop a new identity and new ways of relating to one another and the organization’s operations.

The cave dwellers are offered an opportunity to be liberated from the cave by the prisoner who escapes and discovers the “real” world — or at least a different world. These are a different (and often more challenging) type of “expert.” Cave dwellers are given the opportunity to discover that the world beyond the shadows of the cave is richer, more complex and perhaps more rewarding. The prisoner has escaped TO freedom and invites their colleagues to also escape to freedom. However, does the escaped prisoner (and the other cave dwellers) soon wish to escape FROM this new freedom? (Fromm, 1941; Fromm, 1955; Bergquist and Weiss,1994; Bergquist, 2021)

Do they long for a world (inside the cave) that seems simpler, more clearly defined and ultimately less challenging? Do they blame the escaped and returning prisoner for their new-found anxiety? Does the visionary expert suddenly become an uninvited outsider who wants to cause pain, confusion and uncertainty? How does a coach help the challenged leader to work with the visionary expert—and with those (like himself or herself) who still dwell in the cave?

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