October 9, 2013

Leadership Development through Better Vision

All leaders have a vision problem. It is not because this is a unique barrier that leaders alone face, but because it is a human concern amplified by the specific role that leaders play in organizations. The vision problem is this: leaders see what they expect to see and avoid what they don’t want to see.

Most conventional definitions of leadership include an aspect of “seeing the big picture” and “charting a vision for the future.” Both of these dictums imply the ability to observe, assess, and synthesize complex and often ambiguous inputs in order to make sense of the changing landscape in which the business or enterprise operates. In short, leaders have to see clearly in order to objectively strategize, decide, and collaborate on the organization’s course. But how can leaders effectively fulfill this aspect of their role with impaired vision?

The roots of this leadership vision problem are both cognitive and cultural. Much has been written about the brain and business so I won’t revisit the pop science description of the brain’s need to take survival-enhancing short cuts via assumptions and pre-formulated mental shortcuts that reduce risk. Of course the problem with this lizard brain stuff is that the shortcuts often short-change our ability to see a bigger and more accurate picture. As a result we often miss critical information and data that can help us to arrive at better outcomes.

In addition to this cognitive pattern, I believe the rest of the vision problem stems from cultural norms. In business schools around the country and within much of the popular business media there are near-constant messages that reinforce a reactionary frenzy to the condition of “constant change” and the unavoidable “rapid pace of business.”

Most of us have been guilty of following these and they often leave us feeling justified to rush because of the increasing demands on our working lives and the speed and intensity with which they arrive. In reality, however, this mind-set requires short cuts and the sacrifice of reflection and patient consideration. This only increases the pressure to get our reactions right the first time and rely on “brilliant strokes of insight” in real-time.

This cultural norm, which I refer to as the “cult of right now,” fits the natural biological function of the brain seamlessly. Translation: our instincts push us toward short-cuts and assumptions, while our primary cultural influences and their dominant messages simultaneously enable a scattered presence of mind that justifies the conclusion that “there is just not enough time for something better.” As these cognitive and cultural factors combine, they cause vision impairments for leaders that reduce performance in both the short and long-term.

However, if leaders wrestle with this significant challenge and achieve vision correction, they can leverage a broader perspective, which is a critical success factor to advance their highest goals. The path toward vision correction begins with two simultaneous efforts, including to:

  1. Look Inside – Address the cognitive and developmental patterns that compel us to cheat on our process of seeing and considering all available input; and
  2. Look Outside – Address the prevailing mind set and related behaviors that reinforce the “cult of right now.”

Implementing these two efforts requires attitude and behavioral modification, which can be achieved through on-going 1:1 coaching. However, within the scope of this blog post, let me offer two very clear starting places for those managers and leaders who recognize the importance of achieving this vision correction.

To “Look Inside,” there is a question sequence that can challenge our innate assumptions and force us to expand the horizon and peripheral observations we include in our analysis. You can customize these questions to suit your specific role and/or industry practice, but the general flow goes like this:

  • What are the current limits I have set around the problem/issue/idea I am considering;
  • In what areas could I stretch those limits to include new and different input;
  • Who could I discuss my thinking with in order to get a different take on things;
  • Now that I’ve stretched the parameters and gotten some contrary views, what are 2-3 potentially diverse conclusions; and
  • All things considered, which one is the most balanced and preferred?

These questions can be asked in rapid succession, or they can be sequenced over a few days to allow for substantial echoes and insights. Following this line of inquiry can help to take the blinders off and promote healthier vision.

To “Look Outside” and effectively challenge the popular myth of the “cult of right now,” my suggestion is to simply immerse yourself in the contrarian mindset. Model it in your attitude and in your behavior. For example, when a colleague says “Look at me, I’m doing the job of three people…” you know that he’s likely just doing less with less and that the miracle of doing more with less is actually a myth. When your CEO demands “an answer yesterday” to one of your biggest challenges, push back and create the space you need to get the right answer even if it requires more reflection and extended analysis.

Know that when demands increase and resources shrink, it is paramount to refine the discipline of selectivity and careful choice. To avoid getting caught up in rash decisions and unhealthy “survival compromises,” choose to slow down and absorb the bigger picture in order to make the best decision with all available information. Get used to the initial disappointment of “instant accomplishment” and instead embrace the imperfection of not getting it all done, but getting the right things done in the right way.

To learn how to integrate these insights into your own leadership development, find out how Sostrin Consulting’s coaching programs can help you accelerate your impact and performance as a leader.

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