Leaders are often exhorted to view the “big picture” – to set a vision, craft a strategy and inspire the troops to follow where they bravely go. This is the glamorous – and important – aspect of attaining higher levels of organizational responsibility. Yet, it’s interesting to note that many of the best leaders are facile and expert in dealing with both the big picture and the details. Yes, seeing the big picture is mandatory for success as a leader, and this is a perspective that many less-experienced managers need to learn. However, time and again it is shown that the most effective leaders are those who can set the vision and influence others while also diving into the details when needed.
I was recently reminded of this while reading leadership lessons from Lyndon Baines Johnson’s presidency. After President John F. Kennedy’s death, Johnson used his expertise as the seasoned Senate majority leader to push through Kennedy’s legislative agenda. Johnson clarified Kennedy’s initiatives, turned them into “martyr’s causes” and successfully transformed them into law. Without his exceptional knowledge of and influence in the congress, Johnson would not have been successful. It was Johnson’s mix of big picture vision and his detailed expertise in Washington politics that made it all work.
Another example of a leader who combined vision and details is John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach. At the beginning of each season, he gathered his team members together to teach them how to put on their socks. Yes, he actually demonstrated how to smoothly roll up socks over the foot. You see, he knew that improperly worn socks could create blisters, and that blisters could sideline his best players. Wooden’s attention to the details – and how much more detailed can you get than how to put on socks? – Along with his vision, strategy and inspiration created the most successful basketball teams in history.
What does this mean for organizational leaders today? Let’s be clear: It does not give a manager carte blanche to micro-manage her employees, nor does it mean that the leader must learn every detail of his operations. Many of the details can be delegated to others. What leaders today must do is learn what both their customers and employees want and need, and use that knowledge to make decisions and shape strategy. A leader who is unaware of the sentiments of the organization’s stakeholders and is unaware of company operations is in danger of making decisions that may be aligned with the strategy but unfit for the particularities of the organization. This is a blindness that plagues many executives today – being unaware of the day-to-day concerns of employees and customers.
The needed combination of detail-orientation and big picture perspective is a good reason for promoting employees from within an organization to positions of leadership. Existing high potential employees already know the details of the operation and its customers, and only need to hone their big picture skills, which can be aided by the skills of an executive coach or mentor. On the other hand, there are times when outside blood can be very useful to an organization. The externally hired executive should take care to learn about his new organization.
In assuming a new position, a good leader will invest time to learn about the organization by interviewing both employees and customers. Studying employee and customer satisfaction survey results is a good way to start, but subsequent personal interviews provide nuance and details that are missing in survey reports. Use open-ended questions that aim to reveal both the positive qualities of the organization and the issues that need improvement. Customers and employees will be honored and impressed by the attention you give them, providing you needed emotional capital to make your future vision a reality.
The best leaders that I know aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and get into the weeds with their employees. They walk the halls, listen and talk to people, visit clients and ask questions with open curiosity. At the same time, they strictly guard their planning and strategy time, and insist that their direct reports likewise take time to plan and review. It is in juggling the big picture with the details – and knowing when to do each thing – that you too will be successful.
Below is the third and final post in a series of three about leadership best practices. If you missed the first two, you can read part one here, and part two here.
15 minutes of aerobic exercise is the last daily habit we recommend. No groaning, please! It’s relatively easy to work in exercise into your day, and it doesn’t have to be all at once. There are some simple ways of increasing your heart rate several times during the day:
The last section of our formula is plus Three, and it refers to doing something creative three times a week. Creative is defined as something that engages your right brain such as music, art, dancing, cooking, baking, sewing, gardening, fly fishing, flying, knitting, woodworking, playing with your kids, etc. It needs to be fun and it’s usually a hobby.
If you can’t do these activities three times a week, then enjoy an armchair version of them. For example, listen to music rather than make music, or read about flying a vintage airplane, or peruse a cook book. The idea is to do or think about something completely different from your work and use different thought processes as a diversion. This is a great lesson for a life well lived.
I don’t have time for all this!
So, you think you don’t have time for 15/15/15 plus Three? We suggest you examine your daily routines to find hidden time bandits that snatch away your precious time. Do you watch TV at night? Instead of falling asleep to the TV, do your daily review before going to bed. We tend to dream about what we think of right before sleep, so listing what you are grateful for will give you pleasant dreams. The opposite is true about watching the evening news before turning in – you will sleep poorly and have agitated dreams.
What about social networking or online gaming time or Sudoku or computer games? Can you take 15 minutes out of the time you spend/waste doing these things?
I know some couples who do their daily review together. To do this, you might light a candle, take some quiet time to reflect and write, then share your most grateful and least grateful moments with each other. It is a sweet way to end your day and strengthen your relationship. It helps to have someone else to share your daily review with and keeps you accountable to doing it.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.” He knew that meditation helped him be highly efficient in the time he had available. It is counter-intuitive that sitting still for longer times will actually make you more productive, but Gandhi certainly accomplished great things. Think of how you could apply this concept to your days.
Realize that you spend time on what you value. Do you value your leadership abilities? If so, you will find time for these important practices. After 30 days, new disciplines become habits, so try our formula for a month and see what benefits you gain. After that, you will miss them if you have to skip a day.
The first two articles in series covered reviewing and planning (Part One) and focused awareness(Part Two).
From the desk of