When I worked as community worker in Edinburgh that statement from Voltaire really hit home for me. I learned that those who experience at first hand really do know best – even though their expression may be unsophisticated and sometimes angry. But, it is an inalienable truth that too many leaders still choose to ignore. In 1973 I remember helping to organise a series of planning workshops that involved Council and NHS decision makers and local people. What struck me then was that those decision makers who really listened delivered better services locally.
Those who thought their expertise endowed them with a certain status ignored and patronised people while continuing to make the same mistakes. I still see those mistakes repeated today – especially when it comes to those public services that still revere the expert. Expertise can be tyrannical because it doesn’t respect the nuances and subtleties of people and localities. It is often deployed for quick fixes – creating more problems for people down the line. I learned a simple lesson back then. People bring something extraordinary to the future when they have a chance to test and express their talents and ideas. I asked myself, if my true abilities weren’t on the radar at school how many other people like me had left education with their confidence undernourished. I was lucky to find an expression for my talents – so many don’t. This was no epiphany moment it was simply another learning moment. I was seeing the enormous disconnection that exists between people’s everyday lives and the decisions made daily on their behalf.
I worked with one organisation recently that taught its staff to observe, listen and learn in their front line roles – the change has been remarkable and people (their customers) who were once forgotten or disparaged are seeing their lives transformed. If there is an expertise that we need today it is empathy – acquire it and we shall advance.