Most of us probably remember doing “connect the dots” picture puzzles when we were young. The page would have dots all over the paper, usually numbered in a sequence. The task was to place your pencil tip (or crayon) on the first dot, draw a line to the second dot, then another line from the second dot to the third, and so on, until all the dots were connected. At that point a recognizable picture had emerged (at least, if you connected the right dots together, it did). The reason they formed that picture was because they were not a random smattering of dots; rather, they were each specifically and intentionally a point on a bigger picture, and therefore, connecting those dots allowed the picture to take shape.
Astronomers do something similar by grouping stars together (constellations) and drawing imaginary lines between those stars in such a way as to form a picture or a symbol. This makes it easier to identify and remember particular groupings and locations, relative to direction, season, and time. The real significance of the picture is not the picture itself, but rather the particular arrangement, and the connectedness of the stars in that arrangement. In other words, these specific stars appear in this particular place, in relation to each other, at this time of the night and year. This knowledge is what was used by mariners of the past to navigate ships, providing a map in the sky for direction and location.
One of the skills that an effective leader learns to harness is connecting the dots. Generally, a leader is responsible for providing and shaping vision, which requires the ability to see and communicate the big picture. Part of seeing the big picture includes seeing how various pieces fit together to form that picture. It is an understanding that certain events, actions, and ideas are going to complement each other in a way that produces a positive impact. Therefore a good leader is able to identify those connections in order to harness their connectedness. He also helps others to recognize those connections. In an article originally published in the Harvard Business Review, Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas describe this as the importance of grasping context, saying, “The ability to grasp context implies an ability to weigh a welter of factors, ranging from how very different groups of people interpret a gesture to being able to put a situation in perspective. Without this, leaders are utterly lost, because they cannot connect with their constituents” (p. 112).
Rath and Conchie, in Strengths-Based Leadership (2008), also speak to this when they categorize 34 leadership strengths into four basic categories, and then identify one of those strengths as Connectedness. They explain, “people strong in the Connectedness theme have faith in the links between all things. They believe there are few coincidences and that almost every event has a reason” (p. 139). This involves helping people to see how various pieces are parts of a whole, or part of a bigger picture. The person with this ability recognizes interrelatedness between events, people, or both. It is the ability to connect the dots and then help others see the connection.
This happens to be one of my particular strengths (it showed up as one of my top five when I took the StrengthsFinder profile). Part of the reason stems from my faith in the sovereignty of God, which in turn leads to confidence that things don’t happen by chance. Part of the reason simply stems from an ability to recognize connections. The realization of this emerged over time, and eventually I understood that it was one of the things that made me more effective as a leader. I could identify factors in the environment that were impacting outcomes, or see how specific individuals were influencing culture, or spot the connection between seemingly unconnected events. This in turn helped me to understand how to shape vision, or make adjustments, or communicate information.
For example, when I began working in one school, I discovered that the students as a whole were performing poorly on standardized tests, like the SAT and the ACT. As I reviewed curriculum, I could also see that many of the classroom tests were focused on details and memorization, but at the expense of critical thinking and interacting with ideas. I also learned that most students did not take practice standardized tests (like the PSAT or PLAN), because it was voluntary, and so they little familiarity with those tests. Although those pieces were not the only reasons, I could see the connection between those factors and poor test scores. My response was to create tests that improved critical thinking and reasoning, require all students to take the PSAT and PLAN, and create and institute a Test Prep course. The result was a notable improvement in average scores. But it began because I recognized the connections.
In two different organizations, I experienced an initial lack of trust, and resistance to my efforts. When I took the time to do some research and understand some of the history and culture, I learned in each place that the organization had been through a period of harshness, excessive control, and poor treatment of employees. It was clear that there was a connection between their past experience and their responses to me. An understanding of that connection helped me to determine my own actions and responses, enabling me to intentionally restore and rebuild trust.
More recently, connecting the dots of environmental factors led to changes that I implemented in the instructional process. Over the last ten years, I could see that young people were being affected by technology. The onsite of the Internet, with accessibility to information, social media, and electronic devices are all factors that combined to influence how children interact with the world around them. Global communication became possible, making the world smaller. Technology was incorporated into the workplace environment in many fields. When I connected these dots, the conclusion was clear – digital integration needed to be part of the classroom. As a result, I initiated a 1:1 program, one in which each student carried an electronic device into the classroom as an educational tool, and teachers incorporated the use of those devices in the learning process.
The lesson for you is this: you will be more effective if you can learn to connect the dots. Find the connections, and use those connections to make decisions that will result in positive changes and improvements, decisions that will move you and the organization forward. And here’s a tip: it’s easier to see connections if you can zoom out and see the big picture.
Bennis, W., & Thomas, R. (2011). “Crucibles of Leadership” in HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership. Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA.
Rath, T., & Conchie, B. (2008). Strengths-Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow. Gallup Press: New York, NY.