Monday, March 29, 2010

All Leaders Have a Vision Problem

All leaders have a vision problem, not because it 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 are prone to 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, collaborate, and decide 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 biological (primarily 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 (more accurate) picture. As a result we often miss critical information and data that can help us to arrive at better all around conclusions.

In addition to this cognitive and developmental pattern, the rest of the vision problem stems from cultural norms. In the US, business schools around the country and much of the associated business media constantly reinforce a reactionary frenzy around the concept of “the rapid pace of business.” I have been guilty of this one too; often feeling justified to rush because the pace and depth of demands on my working life unfold at a speed and intensity that requires short cuts, brilliant strokes of insight in real time, and the necessary sacrifice of reflection and patience.

This cultural norm, which I call the “cult of right now,” fits the natural biological function of the brain seamlessly. However, when these cognitive and cultural factors combine they cause vision impairments for leaders that reduce performance in both the short and long term.

After more than 10 years of work in conflict mediation and executive coaching, my experience has confirmed that as leaders wrestle with their most significant challenges, vision correction (enhancement) is a critical and consistent factor of their success as they work through their concerns and advance on their highest goals.

Tools for vision correction must begin with two simultaneous efforts -- one of them internal to address the cognitive-developmental patterns that compel us to cheat on our process of seeing and considering all available input -- and the other one is external as it addresses leaders’ wrongly rooted conviction and related set of practices that enforce the “cult of right now.”

Implementing these tools requires attitude and behavioral modification, which this blog alone cannot achieve. However, let me offer two very clear starting places for those managers and leaders who recognize the importance of this kind of vision correction.

Regarding the external piece, there is a question tree that can be pursued that can challenge our innate assumptions and force us to at least 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 present my thinking to in order to get a different take on things; now that I’ve stretched the parameters and gotten some contrary views, what are two or three potentially reasonable answers or conclusions; of these somewhat diverse possibilities, which one is preferred…

These questions can be asked in rapid succession, though ideally 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.

Now, regarding the external need to confront popular business culture’s “cult of right now,” my suggestion is to immerse yourself in the contrarian mindset on this one. Model it in your attitude and in your behavior. 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 screams that she wants 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 but resources to meet them do not grow, it is paramount to hone the discipline of choice. To avoid getting caught up in rash decisions and compromises, choose to slow down and absorb the bigger picture in order to make the best decision with available information. Get used to the initial disappointment of false instant accomplishment and instead embrace the imperfection of not getting it all done.

Focusing on accurate information and realistic priorities in this way requires us to be brutally honest about what matters most and to make hard choices about which goals are just not that important right now. In the end, you’ll get more of what matters most done and establish a precedent of reflection and patience that is welcome in any business climate.

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