Funny how different things look from the air. Several years ago, to celebrate a significant birthday, I went skydiving. It was a blast, most exciting thing I’ve ever done. (Aside from marrying my sweetheart and raising a few sons.) Of course jumping out of the plane was invigorating, but the ride down after the parachute opened was breath-taking. It was amazing to see the curvature of the earth and the Cleveland cityscape from15,000 feet.
Fast forward to my life today in a job that requires quite a bit of travel. I spend a lot of time looking out airplane windows. I love looking at the farm fields. Did you know that out west the fields look like a square with a huge circle in the middle? Yep. It is the square farm field and the result of the round, rotary long-armed, irrigation machine. For a Buckeye, home of 5 mile-square farm fields as far as you can see, it’s an interesting site. Coming home, if we’re approaching the Port Columbus International airport from the west, I spend time trying to locate my house. A few weeks ago our flight path placed the approach such that we flew over the town where I live. I was able to identify the high school and football field. Then I noticed something I’d never seen before. A pond. Previously, I had not known that it was there. I could identify the cross streets and made a mental note to drive by next time I was in town. Things just look different from the air.
The same things apply in positions of leadership. There is a natural change in view that occurs when you move into a role of accountability. Perspective also changes when you earn credibility and become an influential leader. Folks that don’t recognize the view has changed, soon find themselves without a leadership role. There are several reasons that smart leaders should quickly look around and assess the situation from a new perspective.
1. Leaders have the bigger picture to worry about. They are held accountable for all the pieces of the puzzle, not just one. Courageous leaders understand that active visibility to inter-dependencies is key to wise decision making. Consideration of what will break if we do this is critical to delivering sustainable solutions. To act from a myopic viewpoint is to deny the existence of multiple inputs and an interactive series of data points, resulting in missing pieces.
2. Leaders will have different viewpoints to consider. Either they will seek and find, or others will thrust unsolicited barriers into the mix. Courageous leaders intentionally seek out others who see things from a different vantage point. The key is developing a competency involving clear judgment and decision making by leveraging these different inputs, and maximizing the field of contributors.
Most of my career has been spend in manufacturing. It is common in production facilities to have a cat-walk; a walkway above the production floor. I always enjoyed going up on the cat-walk. I could see who was truly engaged in the task at hand, see supervisors problem solving with their folks, and watch the material handlers whip those forklifts around. Conversely, from the floor I missed half of these observations. We could use the cat-walk as a metaphor for intentionally seeking new vantage points from which to examine business problems and create solutions. Courageous leaders intentionally approach their view differently.
In his book, The Next Level, Scott Elbin talks about taking time to step out on the balcony. This premise is an intentional movement to a different viewpoint. The way to do this is to invest the time to stand back and take a different look at a problem or decision. Seek out alternate perspectives from folks with whom you would not normally hear. Leaders who invest this time, making this activity part of their management routine, create an atmosphere of collaboration and innovation. They also increase the speed of decision making, and decrease time wasted fighting unforeseen barriers. The opportunity cost of not investing this time on a regular basis is high, measured in loss of decision quality and agility.
Nehemiah is a Biblical model of a leader demonstrating this competency. This historical account of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, during the reign of the Persia’s King Artaxerxes, is found in the Biblical book named for Nehemiah. Skilled in strategic planning, Nehemiah encountered many barriers throughout the life of this project. He not only assigned work according to skill set, he intentionally stationed folks at various vantage points along the wall. His management routine included a regular walk on the top of the wall to learn what folks were seeing from their unique views. This approach afforded him the ability to detect problems early, and created an Andon system for rapid problem solving. The result was that Nehemiah led the team to on-time, on-budget completion of the project despite numerous problems and barriers.
What about you, have you developed the discipline to regularly look at things from a different perspective? And, what advantage has this capability provided you?