I can’t tell you the number of times over that past few weeks that I’ve heard the term seeing the big picture. I pay attention when something is said two or more times; there’s something to be mined for myself and perhaps for others.
Seeing the Big Picture; what the heck does that mean? What requires one to see the big picture? And, what dilemma becomes apparent when considering the leap into really seeing the big picture? “The Leap?” you might ask. Why would it take a leap?
I’ll give you a number of analogies that might be helpful:
The Fishbowl Analogy:
We are all immersed in a paradigm and reality, much like a fish in the water it swims in. A fish can’t distinguish itself from its water, just as most of us don’t distinguish ourselves from our thoughts, emotions and body sensations. And, just as most of us don’t distinguish ourselves from the work, roles and details to which we’ve been attending. Without considering the value of our contribution, the degree of fulfillment, toxicity or dysfunction we may contribute to, and the productivity gained from a business or financial perspective, we can’t see the overview of how we are actually being in our lives.
The Life Guard Analogy:
If I’m a lifeguard, and if I’m in the pool swimming around with the rest of the swimmers, I’m much less likely to see any swimmer in distress. I have to be up above the pool in order to get more of a bird’s eye view; this way I can see much more activity and take actions more quickly.
Director of a Play Analogy:
If I’m a director of a play, I’d not be able to see the whole representation of a scene if I were on stage directing amid the characters. Seated off stage in the audience or even in the balcony I can see the bigger picture of how the actors engage with each other, the lighting, the set design, the sound quality: I can see things I wouldn’t be able to if I didn’t set myself apart to view the Big Picture.
Here’s an example: Allen hired me as a business coach – a thinking partner, to assist him in seeing the bigger picture of how his company is running. In the business environment, seeing the bigger picture is what Allen wants of his new CFO, Chantal so she can do her job more effectively. And, seeing the bigger picture is what Chantal wants from the manager, Marko, who she is hiring next week. and, it’s what Alon’s manager is wanting from him, too. Do these individuals have the capacity to see the Bigger Picture and then make leadership decisions that will support what is desired for all?
It’s challenging to pop out of your current fishbowl or context in order to see the Bigger Picture. Again, like a fish, we don’t know that there is a reality outside the fishbowlwithin which we are immersed. We say “What Fishbowl? What Bigger Picture?” It’s not that we are ignorant, it’s that rarely is there a context that allows us to get that there is a Bigger Picture to see.
Until Chantal was hired as the CFO, it didn’t occur to her that she would need to operate differently from the way she had been working just months ago. Most of us take our Operating Procedure Manual(OPM) with us to the next level of leadership only to find that we are drained by juggling what we’ve been doing with the requirement of working as if you are holding the Bigger Picture; before you even know what that means. Chantal realized that in order to fulfill her roles as the CFO she’s got to let go of her limiting OPM and take the leap.
Like the woman on the flying trapeze, Chantal will have to let go of a known way of viewing the world. She’ll have to operate from a different and larger perspective, which requires a letting go of the known for the unknown. She’ll be surrendering her invulnerability, and the survival mechanism she developed, that worked well enough to avoid vulnerability. Like all of us, Chantal wants to avoid that moment when she meets the “I don’t know how to make that leap without possibly falling on my face and looking like a complete fool and failure.”
Everyone of us who aspires to something greater than our current fishbowl, our current job, position, role, or level of responsibility has to risk this moment of vulnerability and failure. What makes a good leader and someone who is more likely to get promoted over and over again is the willingness to jump out of the fishbowl, out of the pool, off the stage, in order to see the Bigger Picture from which to lead far more effectively.
The bigger the picture you can hold the more valuable you are to your company and organization
One aspect of being an executive coach that I love is that I’m in a sense a leader’s leader. I hold the bigger picture for my executive clients to live into. I give them a bigger bandwidth within which to experience themselves, their organization and the role they intend to play. I empower them to make the leap and while in the leap experience the transition from who they thought they were to who they are becoming. This noticing of what it’s like to be in the leap – noticing the various muscles that are used to engage, maintain and complete the leap is also an aspect of the Bigger Picture that we don’t think about when we ask our direct reports to shift or change their context in order to also see and act from the Big Picture.
Moments of Transcendence
Quite often we have moments of lucidity, where we get the big AH-HA! However, this moments of transcendence dissolve back into are reality that we call normal. Exercising the muscles of awareness through noticing, which constantly nudges one to stay awake and aware, is required for most of us to truly shift our paradigm to include this next level of the Bigger Picture.
The dilemma, which will surely arise is that we are generally committed to maintaining the level of comfort and invulnerability within which we don’t feel threatened and are in jeopardy of losing respect or losing face. In order to let go of the trapeze bar of one level of functioning in order to swing to and grasp another, you have to be committed enough to let go of what no longer serves. Some of us aren’t willing to do this unless we know that there is a secure and well-placed safety net below that will catch us unscathed if we do fall.
One distinction of a good leader is that they are willing to risk the scathing, the failures, and the vulnerability because they are able to see from a bigger picture that these potential risks serve the Bigger Picture. They are committed to this bigger picture enough. Without the ability to see the bigger picture they would not have the level of fearlessness required to make those hard choices.
Rising to the level of incompetence
Formulated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull, the Peter Principle states that “in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence,” meaning that employees tend to be promoted until they reach a position at which they cannot work competently.
Peter’s corollary states that “in time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out their duties” and adds that “work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.” “Managing upward” is the concept of a subordinate finding ways to subtly “manage” superiors in order to limit the damage that they end up doing.
With the Peter Principle in mind then, one perhaps rises to their ability to see the Bigger Picture and then be able to act with competence, fulfilling their duties. It takes commitment and a capacity to expand one’s reality. What are you willing to practice in service to seeing the Bigger Picture and perhaps meet your incompetence? Every great leader must face this exquisite and essential moment of reckoning. And, if they can learn from the experience they have a great capacity to empower others to do the same.
Enjoy the adventure!