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Six Ways Changing One’s Perspective Creates Wiser Leadership

The way we look at our world, or our leadership perspective, shapes and defines our thoughts, the way we make decisions, and the quality of our actions. Our perspective comprises all the knowledge, experiences, and choices we’ve made up till now. The reason leadership perspective is important is because it represents the way we view ourselves and situations, how we evaluate the relative importance of things, and how we develop a meaningful relationship with others and everything around us.

There are smart leaders and there are wise leaders. Smart leaders tend to view their world through lenses that distort their perspective, which has an impact on the quality of their decisions and actions. They may have lenses that are narrowly focused on short-term goals, but that allow them to deepen their knowledge in their main area of interest of concentration. Or they may be able to see far into the distance, focus on long-term visions, and see patterns in trends that may help them succeed. For smart leaders, both type of visions, or perspectives, are limiting.

However, smart leaders can gain a broader perspective by changing the way they “see.” By changing their “smart” perspective and cultivating practical wisdom instead, they can lay the foundation for a wise leadership style that’s more effective.

Wise leaders view their world from a very different perspective than that of their smart counterparts. Wise leaders continually reframe and reinterpret events through integration and find new meanings within a rapidly changing context. Guided by a noble purpose, they develop a flexible and resilient mindset that makes them act and lead with wisdom–and become more influential leaders.

To become wise leaders, we can start by seeing the world from a different perspective. Here are six ways to do it.

Keep an eye out for odd juxtapositions.
Ophthalmologist Dr. Venkataswamy created a revolutionary approach to curing blindness in India by studying McDonald’s. He was able to develop a high-efficiency, standardized, repeatable business model that organized patients in operating rooms and broke the procedure down into a series of discrete processes so that nurses and doctors could quickly move from one patient to the next. His company, Aravind, is now the largest eye care provider in the world. What unlikely metaphors and connections can help you come up with an innovative mental model and a business model for your work? 

See your limitations, and move beyond them.

Senior managers at Allianz Global Investors, a global asset management company, attended a workshop called Dialogue in the Dark, led by visually impaired trainers who conducted the entire workshop in total darkness. The goal of this experiential learning program was to shift leaders’ perspectives by making them aware of their limitations, while increasing empathy for others. What is your biggest limitation of today? How did you get to have it and how do you plan to transcend it?

Take off your old lenses, and see anew.

Sometimes, shifting one’s perspective is as simple as really seeing what’s in front of you. When Alan Mulally took over as CEO of Ford, the company was losing market share and facing deep losses because of increased competition and globalization. One day, when walking through the Ford parking lot at Detroit headquarters, Mulally suddenly noticed the hodgepodge of Ford brands that had no common attributes in shape or style. This moment of clear-sightedness led to Ford’s trimming its bloated portfolio of 97 models to just 20, selling off Jaguar, Land Rover, and Aston Martin in the process, and focusing on smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. What do you need to “unlearn and let go of” so that increased focus on what you have could make you very effective and successful?

Let desperation elevate your vision.

High desperation can spark epiphanies, so pay attention to what your next crisis has to teach you about perspective. While in a WWII German concentration camp for three years, Victor Frankl realized one day that although the Nazis could torture his body, they had zero control over his mind or spirit. This empowering shift in perspective helped him survive and then to inspire his fellow prisoners to take control of their own mindset. What is the fear, high desperation, that you are attempting to run away from? How do you pay attention to it so that you can walk through the other side of desperation and discover something very new?

Change your accustomed view.

Getting outside your comfort zone is a quick way to experience leadership from a new perspective. In early 2000, while awaiting the court decision in the antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft, Bill Gates decided to step down as chief executive and focus on his passion for software. This jolted his perspective, and that same year, Gates and his wife established the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, taking his leadership in an important new direction. Where is it that you are holding on to an old and unworkable mindset? What extreme step you can take to experience and lead yourself differently?

Seek out books and talks that inspire.

The CEO of a well-known tech firm attended a talk on service-oriented organizations, including the generosity-driven Karma Kitchen, where anyone can eat for free in exchange for committing to volunteer in the restaurant in the future. He was so inspired by the talk that he acted completely out of character and drove straight to the hospital to spend four hours at the bedside of his 80-year-old neighbor. When did you last get inspired by a talk or a book? What actions did you take?


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Prasad Kaipa is coauthor, with Navi Radjou, of From Smart to Wise: Acting and Leading with Wisdom (Jossey-Bass, April 2013). Kaipa is a CEO advisor and coach and a senior fellow at the Indian School of Business. Based in Silicon Valley, he writes a popular blog for HBR.com, speaks and consults internationally, has been featured prominently in the national business media, and is an esteemed thought leaders in the field of leadership development and innovation. Learn more at www.fromsmarttowise.com.

2 Responses

  1. Prasad
    Thank you for the article, interesting reading, being open to and actively seeking multiple perspectives is indeed highly beneficial. I would say this is essential not just for leaders but for every employee in the high pressure work environments. Just this one shift can help increase the level of creativity, innovation and reduce conflict substantially at the work place.

  2. Christopher Richards

    I agree with your main point about cultivating wisdom. But you would serve your readers better if you say what that is. Voltaire said something to the effect that if you want to talk with me, you need to define your terms. Wisdom is not simply the ability to take a variety of perspectives. Multiple perspectives are generated from
    self-knowledge, not a recipe.

    You say that smart leaders’ perspectives are distorted. All perspectives are subjective so the mere idea of objectivity needs hashing out. There has been a lot of literature on this point (see phenomenology).

    (1)
    Your first point about juxtaposition is fundamental to the creative act. Edward de Bono, who coined “lateral thinking,” wrote extensively about this in the 1960’s. But this is not new. Many discoveries, particularly during the Industrial Revolution, took decades to come to fruition. The game-changing invention of the steam engine is a case in point. All the information was there, but the insight to join up the dots, or rather to create transportation and mass power from bubbling water took time. At one time the arts and sciences weren’t divorced from each other. This clumping of minds, such as a group of engineers or administrators, finds it hard to see patterns that would be useful elsewhere.

    (2)
    Your next point about limitations is immensely hard to
    accomplish. The French philosopher, Michel Foucault, is not generally well
    known in the United States but he asserted that to know our limitations we must
    transcend them. I know this to be true as I have sustained many injuries from
    playing decades of squash. I’ve now switched sports.

    There is a saying, “if fish could think, they would be the last to discover water”. All of us have blind spots. Moreover, we easily become victims of success and the curse of knowledge. We think we know better when in reality we don’t. Understanding our individual limitations is a life-long exercise in self-discovery because that self is not static. If we are fortunate we expand our capabilities but unused talents can become
    atrophied. There is a price for the deep knowledge of the PhD. In order to be a specialist you must narrow your perspective.

    (3)
    I agree that perspective shift can uncover new courses of action and behavior. But it is not simple. Just talking about perspective shift is easy. The story about Alan Mulally “suddenly” noticing the lack of cohesiveness in branding is hardly believable. Was everyone in that organization an automaton? No, this says more about the hierarchy of the corporation and the cult of charisma than reality, in my view. Corporate intelligence is distributed throughout. Whether it is tapped into or not is a case of corporate culture.

    (4)
    In my opinion you do your readers a disservice with your claim that desperation is beneficial. It’s probably been 30 years since I read Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. This is an excellent book on logotherapy, but I feel you have drawn the wrong conclusion from it. For Frankl, the main point is that we “create meaning.” This existential action-oriented position has wide appeal in American business. We
    make stuff up! This is the creative act.

    You may or may not agree with his position, but there is no benefit to desperation. Desperation is a last-resort mind-numbed reaction, not the place from which to do our best thinking. The stuff of wisdom is thought, creativity, courage, and reasoned action.

    (5)
    Urging someone to change is not enough. If that were the case, there would be no smokers or overweight people. Everyone would be happy. Don’t worry, be happy! It doesn’t work like that, despite Bill Gate’s needing a change.

    (6)
    I agree with you here and I’d like to know when a book was the catalyst for significant change. I have a professional interest.

    Thank you for putting your views out there.