I walked to a local promontory last weekend, and looked back from where I had started. The view, of course, impressed as panoramic, commanding even.
Then I realised it was about 4km from where I’d started. Some of the things that had troubled me when I set out, such as trying to make headway in soft sand, or the concern of getting soggy trainers as I risked being trapped between an incoming tide and a hideous seawall were literally distant events. My all-encompassing view did not capture those moments and nor did the blips in the distance trigger their recollection.
My travels had given me a new perspective, but not necessarily a better one. I had lost as much as I had gained. This is the problem with vision; the more you can take in at a time, the more you lose the detail. The further you stand back, the more things lose their colour and texture.
My Sunday jaunt was a tale of voyage and return. I appreciated the different vistas, but ultimately, I returned home and reconnected with the granular perspective of my daily life and immediate community.
For too many leaders, their tale is all voyage to a point of no return. They have an obsession with the “vision” thing. Worse, they promote vision statements that a coterie of senior leaders in cahoots with marketing consultants foist on their innocent staff. These blandishments might seem to capture the view from the promontory, but are frequently meaningless for their staff facing incoming tides with nowhere to run.
I once worked for a boss who became so detached from reality and increasingly rude and unreasonable, that the whole firm conspired to keep him on the road, travelling incessantly to conferences, and minimising the amount of time he spent in any one office. While this brought some immediate reprieve for his hapless workers, he was filled with “big ideas” and “visions” to such an extent that it came as something of a shock when he eventually had to be told the business was losing money hand over fist and was weeks away from closure.
Leadership is messy and entangled. It rarely can be effective or long-lived if conducted at a distance, under a table or in a bunker. Yet how often do you hear terms like oversight, vision, looking over the horizon, top of the tree, in the Wheelhouse and countless other metaphors applied to and by leaders.
Details matter. From a distance everything fades to grey, and local features become a blur. The workforce, the constituency, competitors, threats and opportunities can all but disappear, and instead the detail is replaced by ideology, bias, and guesswork. This might be all that is needed if everything is going well. But when the tide runs out, those on the ground can see the damage left in its wake, and that can become a wake-up call for distant leaders.
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