“A good leader needs to be able to see the big picture. Like puzzle pieces, each piece of the context, the environment, the organization, or the situation fits into a larger context, and the leader can best see how it fits when viewing the whole picture. In order to see the whole picture, that leader must be able to get on the balcony, zoom out, and get above the forest to be able to see clearly. Being able to do this will keep him from getting lost among the trees, and will provide the perspective necessary to implement changes and adjustments. Learn to see the big picture.”
Archive for March 2016
Earlier this month, I shared a post on the importance of using a dashboard to help you keep your eye on the big picture. That post reminded me of the equal importance of simply being able to see the big picture, which was the subject of a post that I shared about a year and a half ago. It seemed appropriate to revisit that topic, to help us connect the value of a dashboard with the value of seeing the big picture.
I enjoy puzzles. I enjoy all kinds of puzzles – word puzzles, number puzzles, brain games, etc. – but in this instance I am specifically referring to jigsaw puzzles, the ones that are pictures cut into hundreds of little pieces that need to be assembled. And I have a preferred method of assembly: first turn all of the pieces face-up, setting aside those that have a straight edge (the outside frame); then assemble the outside frame; finally, begin to assemble the rest of the pieces, looking first for pieces that more obviously fit in the same section together. In the process of putting the puzzle together, however, one of the most important components is not the puzzle itself, but rather, the picture on the box.
It is the picture on the box that provides the perspective and the vision of what is being assembled. It provides a visual landscape that helps in determining the general context or place where an individual piece belongs. It’s a map that lets you see where you want to go. I once used the picture on the puzzle box to illustrate a lesson in a class I was teaching, by giving a puzzle to each of several small groups of people. Some of the groups had the puzzle box, so they could see their picture, but some of the groups did not (and some had all the correct pieces, but some had the wrong pieces or were missing pieces; that served to make a different point). Part of the purpose of the lesson was to illustrate the importance of “the big picture,” or the master plan, for managing a process, a task, or life itself.
Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien, demonstrated the same concept when he and the company of dwarves were traveling through the Mirkwood Forest. As they traveled, the troupe lost sight of the path they needed to follow and became lost, and began to be disoriented. Eventually, Bilbo was sent to climb a tree in order to get above the canopy, and when he did, two things happened: his head cleared, and he could see where they were in relation to where they needed to go (in the movie, he could see the edge of the forest; in the book, he could only see more trees).
Heifetz & Laurie address that idea in a Harvard Business Review article, “The Work of Leadership.” In the article, they discuss the importance and challenge of adapting behaviors and changes in order to thrive in a new or different environment, and specifically identify six principles for leading adaptive work. The first principle is labeled “Get on the Balcony,” which is explained as follows: “Get on the balcony. Don’t get swept up in the field of play. Instead, move back and forth between the ‘action’ and the ‘balcony.’ You’ll spot emerging patterns, such as power struggles or work avoidance. This high-level perspective helps you mobilize people to do adaptive work” (2011, p. 60). They go on to say that “business leaders have to be able to view patterns as if they were on a balcony. It does them no good to be swept up in the field of action” (p. 60). The emphasis in on the importance of a leader being able to move between the balcony and the field of action, and the necessity of the balcony for providing perspective.
Collins & Hansen also address the idea in Great by Choice (2011), in a chapter that discusses identifying and responding to dangers and changes in the environment. Using the terms “zoom out” and “zoom in,” they point out that effective leaders, “when they sense danger, immediately zoom out to consider how quickly a threat is approaching and whether it calls for a change in plans. Then they zoom in, refocusing their energies into executing objectives” (p. 122). The authors then describe the discipline required to “zoom out for fast yet rigorous decision making and zoom in for fast yet superb execution” (p. 122). The discussion emphasizes the need for effective leaders to be able to step back and zoom out to the big picture in order to recognize and understand the changes and issues in the environment, which then makes them better able to zoom back in and focus on plans, objectives, and details.
The implication is simply this: a good leader needs to be able to see the big picture. Like puzzle pieces, each piece of the context, the environment, the organization, or the situation fits into a larger context, and the leader can best see how it fits when viewing the whole picture. In order to see the whole picture, that leader must be able to get on the balcony, zoom out, and get above the forest to be able to see clearly. Being able to do this will keep him from getting lost among the trees, and will provide the perspective necessary to implement changes and adjustments. Learn to see the big picture.
Collins, J., & Hansen, M. T. (2011). Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.
Heifetz, R. A., and Laurie, D. L. (2011). “The Work of Leadership,” in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership. Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA.
2 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” I Peter 5:2-3
Early in my marriage, my wife and my mother were having a conversation about me (always a scary thought), when my wife commented about how annoying it was that I would wiggle my feet while I went to sleep, which of course made it difficult for her to fall asleep. My mother replied, “His dad does the same thing!” What was most interesting to me about this was that I was not even aware (consciously, at least) that this was one of my dad’s habits.
Years later, when we lived in another state, my parents came to visit, and while there, my dad came to see me at work. It didn’t take long for my extraverted father to disappear in search of other conversations, and after a while, one of my coworkers stepped into my office and asked if my father happened to be visiting. When I asked what made him say that – knowing that he had not met my father – he said, “Because I just saw someone who walks exactly like you . . . and like your son.” These two events illustrated for me the realization of how much I had followed my father’s example (whether I was aware of it or not), and how much my son, in turn, was following mine.
This is true for all of us – we are examples, whether we consciously realize it or not. People watch us, especially people that are close to us or are following us. And when they watch us, they learn from our example, and emulate what we do, in some form or another. That’s why it doesn’t actually work for us to tell our children to “do as I say and not as I do,” because the truth is, they are going to do what we do regardless of what we say.
Knowing the power of our example, the Apostle Peter gives it some attention in the book of I Peter. In fact, he specifically talks about our example in the context of leadership, but before we get there, lets get a broader view of the whole book. In the first four chapters, Peter seems to spend a lot of time talking about the importance of serving others in humility. Most of this instruction is applied to specific relationships and circumstances (such as the relationship between citizen and government, husband and wife, employer and employee, Christian brothers and sisters, and so on), but is also connected back in some way to our call to glorify God and reflect Christ in everything we do. He also clearly says that having this kind of conduct and character will not always be received well, and in fact may bring persecution and suffering, but to do it anyway . . . because our motive is always outside of ourselves: again, so that God can be glorified and Christ can be modeled
In this context of serving, humility, and representing Jesus, Peter says in chapter 5, verses 1-3:
“1To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: 2 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.”
Peter says that those who are leaders have a responsibility to watch over and care for the people they lead. When I read how he describes that, it sounds to me like it is an obligation that should not be done out of obligation! He says we are to do this not because we have to, but because we want to; not for what we can get out of it, but for what we can give; and not to climb the ladder or exert power, but to serve as an example of what we are trying to grow. He says that we need to lead with a positive, selfless, and giving attitude, while living an authentic example in front of them.
You see, as a leader you ought to be caring for the people you lead, but you shouldn’t do it for what you can get out of it, rather, you should do it because it is the right thing to do. In doing so, you provide an example that will shape and influence them far more than you realize, because they are watching you and they will imitate you. In the end, your recognition and reward is beyond the material and temporal gains, but will instead be the lifetime reward of developing people, and the eternal reward of glorifying God. Therefore, as a leader: be an example to the flock.