There’s an old fable about three blind men who touched an elephant to find out what it was like. One man touched the leg and declared that the elephant was like a tree trunk. Another touched the elephant’s tail and declared that it was like a snake. The third man touched its side and declared that it was like a wall. A disagreement ensued as they each defended their perspective on the animal. After all, they knew what they felt.
Were each of them right? Yes, and no. They each experienced a part of the elephant, but none experienced the whole. They each described the elephant from their perspective, but due to limitations in their vision and space, none of them could see it in its entirety. Only when they began to compare notes, and to walk around the elephant feeling different parts of it, could they begin to piece together a view of the entire animal. They had to experience it from different angles. Later, a sighted man came along and immediately saw the entire elephant. He quickly walked around the animal, sized it up and fully described it to the men. Their facts were not the same as reality.
Fact vs. Reality
This occurs in many aspects of leadership as well.
During organizational problem solving, people can describe the facts based on their perspective on a situation, each being correct. But the reality of that situation is far more multifaceted. Leaders seeking to understand the issue must research and investigate it from all angles to get a proper perspective of the circumstances, and to develop the right strategy for the company.
Leaders from different functions of an organization look at business problems; issues like sagging sales, dissatisfied customers, poor product quality, or employee disengagement. Based on their respective areas of expertise, the culture and politics, and their personal styles, they individually point to differing factors contributing to the problem. But only when they collectively analyze the situation can they recognize the complexity and interdependent parts that must be understood to arrive at the right solution.
When faced with unpopular business decisions, stakeholders such as employees, clients, suppliers, investors, and the community often respond based on their personal impact. They may react based on a limited set of facts, but they lack the broader perspective of the leader in understanding the reasons driving the change. In these situations, leaders have a responsibility to communicate decisions in the context of connecting and supporting systems in the environment, and how it links to the organization’s overall values and objectives.
As leaders, each of us are naturally a bit like the blind men. We initially experience an organization, an issue, a person, or an event from a limited perspective. We don’t have all the information. We don’t know the history or how it fits into the future. We must be careful to avoid quick decisions or snap judgments based on limited knowledge. We must avoid making long-term pronouncements based on short-term information. We need perspective, and the first step to developing it is awareness of our limited point of vision. The next step is action to gain an understanding of the full environment impacting our work. This means we must:
- Be well read on trends, competitive threats, and new ideas in our space. This emanates from having a healthy curiosity about what’s happening around us, and being open to innovative approaches.
- Invite input from a broad cross section of stakeholders. This includes people internal and external to our organization whose knowledge and expertise can help us see the entire picture.
- Think systemically about interrelationships and patterns. Be able to connect the dots and understand the impact of one situation on other areas. Remember the butterfly effect theory which positions that a small change in one area of a system can cause a huge impact elsewhere in the system.
- Develop high emotional intelligence to understand the nuances in our environment. This includes showing empathy, managing our emotions, demonstrating social skills, and understanding the culture of the organization around us.
- Wear trifocals. Look at situations from 100,000 feet (strategic view), 50,000 feet (process view), and sometimes 10,000 feet (detailed view) to ensure that we have a clear picture of what is occurring and the impact of our decisions.
As we develop perspective, we gain vision that extends beyond the normal range, and expands broader than our current role and situation. Proper leadership perspective of a situation takes the long-term view; where present situations are understood in the context of the past, and as a setup for the future.
So where can you benefit from developing a broader leadership perspective?