Do You Prefer a Telescope or a Stethoscope?

Aug 04, 2020

I spent the day recently with a young CEO client. Great leader. Great company. Big future.

One of our topics on this particular day was his leadership team. During our conversation, I gave him a challenge: Nail down one specific thing each member of the team could target to grow and develop over the next quarter.

It could be a soft skill like asking more strategic open-ended questions, or a hard skill like better agility with the financials. It could be an attitude, a skill, a knowledge pocket, or a character trait. It could be tied to a formal growth plan, or it could be as simple as having a conversation and agreeing on the assignment.

But direct their gazes somewhere. Point them somewhere beyond their daily work, beyond delivering all the results from their functions, departments, or divisions.

Blind Spots: A Common Leadership Problem

Essentially, what I was asking this young CEO to do was to look down the road for each of his direct reports. I was asking him to stop looking at systems and structures for a minute and look down the road for his people. It wasn’t the most natural thing for him to do (which was why I had to remind him), but with a little help, he could do it. He simply needed me to help (re)direct his gaze.

Every leader has the same issue as this CEO. Our gaze naturally goes to one place, and we have to be reminded to look with a different perspective sometimes. We naturally lead in one way (like Tom Fishburne jokes about in this cartoon) and aren’t able to become well-rounded leaders.

In my experience, there are three main “gazing styles” for leaders:

The Telescopic Leader

This is the leader whose gaze is out and up. Telescopic leaders are always looking way off into the future and far down the road. They have no problem with vision. Curves and bends in the road don’t bother them in the least. Clouds and fog don’t slow them down. They see right around them or right through it with their “future vision” lens.

Telescopic leaders aren’t perfect. They often have trouble with execution or with the ROI of their ideas. They often can’t get the exact words to describe what they see because many times, they can only see something dimly. But they’re moving quickly toward that new idea off in the distance.

Think of Steve Jobs, who wrote, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” Time and again Jobs’ innovations changed the game. That’s exactly what you’d expect of a telescopic leader.

Microscopic Leader

Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide won another national championship this year. Of the 13 head coaches in the Southeastern Conference, only one has ever beat Saban. Bill Belicheck and the New England Patriots just competed in their 8th Super Bowl. What’s the common denominator? One is that these coaches are phenomenal at preparation. Commentators regularly say something like, “You give Saban two weeks to prepare, and he’ll come up with something to stop their best offensive weapon. He’s that good.”

That’s the microscopic leader. His gaze is here and now.

These leaders focus on the things happening right now and live very much in the present. Few details slip past them and they have an incredible capacity for data. Checklists are constantly rolling through their mental screens and focus is never a problem.

Stethoscopic Leader

If the other two types of leaders are looking off in the distance or down at the details, the stethoscopic leader seems to have his eyes closed. He’s following instincts and intuition. His gaze is at his own gut, his own heart.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink is about instinctual decision making, and he gives a good synopsis of the idea here:

Notice that he says, “We have no access at all to our reasons why.”

Like a doctor who slaps a stethoscope on a patient’s back and listens for a cough, these leaders are guided by their senses. The stethoscope isn’t tied to some computer spitting out scientific reports. It is tied to the ears and sensory tips of the physician. Her experience, training, and intuition all blend to give her confidence to hear the difference in healthy or sick. This kind of leader might not be able to defend their point of view with data and documents, but they anticipate very well, connect the dots very well, and they can feel when things are not right.

Deciding When to Switch Lanes

This whole idea is something like changing lanes at rush hour on the beltway. Some people look far down the road and analyze which exits will be the busiest, and then move around accordingly. That’s the telescopic leader. The microscopic leader simply looks for gaps and the lane where traffic is moving and jumps over, knowing he can make further adjustments later. The stethoscopic leader has a gut feel for which lane to be in (perhaps trusting his past experience in traffic jams).

It’s the same in driving leading organizations and businesses. What kind of leader are you? Where is your gaze? And just as important, who is balancing out your natural gaze with the other perspective and angles of reality?

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