the forest for the trees

You have probably heard a comment something like this: “That guy can’t see the forest for the trees.” It’s a way of saying that someone is focused on the details to the exclusion of the big picture. They’re missing the macro because they’re too preoccupied with the micro.

The implied solution is that the person hyper-focused on the trees needs to “look up” and see the forest. This has never made sense to me, though. If you’re in the middle of a forest and the trees are all you can see, you can’t simply look up to see the forest. You have to get some distance.

This brings us to an important principle of effective leadership. To gain the perspective necessary for wise leadership, leaders have to master the “Discipline of Distance.” This means that they must figure out a way to perceive the whole of their organization, its reach, and its administrative mechanisms and thus gain the perspective that informs effective leadership.

Too many leaders are mired in the details. They spend their days with their faces pressed up against the immediate. They’re too much on call, too responsive to crises, and too much “in the weeds.” Now, a leader certainly has to be in the thrust of the battles his organization must fight, but he or she will lead in those battles better if they have previously found time to perceive the whole.

One leader I know packs up diagrams, maps, and even world history charts and heads off once every six months to a cabin in the woods to examine and ponder. This gives him the sense of distance—and thus the perspective—he needs. I know another executive who drives his pickup truck to a hilltop near his plant and from there is able to envision the whole of the plant’s global operation. You see, a little physical distance helps him create vast intellectual distance in his mind.

I also know a female CEO who gains distance by talking to her company’s customers on the street without disclosing who she is. By doing this for days on end, she sees her firm from a distance—through the eyes of those who know only the company’s products and branding, not its daily operations and challenges. She always comes back from her “walkabouts” with brilliant innovations in mind.

Life moves fast, hits hard, and tries to tether us to the immediate. This is naturally where we human beings spend much of our time—in the tyranny of the moment. Yet leaders have to have a broader view, a longer-range vision, a more holistic understanding. The Discipline of Distance grants us this.

So here is the question for you. What is your discipline for acquiring distance and perspective on your leadership and the organization you lead? I mean by this far more than a vacation. I mean more than just a rest. I’m talking about the discipline that allows you to step back from the daily to perceive the whole. What is this discipline and how often should you do it? Then, how can you make it a priority?

The Discipline of Distance. It is part of the art of great leadership that every leader must master.

That’s it. Have a wonderful Fourth of July Weekend.


2016-06-30T10:00:39+00:00June 30th, 2016|Leading Thoughts|