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Leading With New Eyes

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A little while ago I was told I'd "reached a certain age" - an age that meant my eyesight had detoriated to the point I needed glasses for close work like reading. Although I resisted for a while (denial, vanity?) I eventually gave in - and was shocked at the things I started seeing!

Not only could I read more easily (and without holding everything at arm's length), the food I was eating was suddenly more visually interesting. And I managed to hit the right pieces of food with my fork first time. I could also see the bits of food I was leaving on my shirt. But that's another story ...

The point is that as I'd adjusted to my slowly deteriotaing eyesight I had slowly but surely been missing details and struggling to see the real picture.

Which brings us to this wonderful observation from Marcel Proust: "The real voyage of discovery consists of not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes." "New eyes." It's like the story of the person who got sick of their house and started looking for a new one. The new ones looked so much nicer that they finally decided to sell. The real estate agent visited and said they'd draft up an advertisement so the old house could be sold. That weekend as the home owner prepared to go looking at new houses they looked through the real estate pages in the newspaper and came across an advertisement for a property that sounded perfect. So they called the agent to arrange an inspection ... and were told that the advertisement was for their own property!

I was once invited to a meeting at a large organisation that was exploring whether and how they might pursue a new market. As an "outsider" with some related experience, I suggested that they had so much in the way of resources, facilities, expertise, reputation and personnel that they were in a very advantageous position. Certainly, compared to the comparatively limited resources of most of their competitors they should have had no problem putting an attractive offer to the market.

But their response wasn't enthusiastic. "It's not that easy," they said. "You don't understand." "Yes, but we don't have ..." Their eyes saw limitations, restrictions, inconvenience and challenges. "New eyes" could see opportunities and possibilities. And a few years later new eyes did see those same things and the organisation engaged very successfully in its new market.

So how can we apply "new eyes" to leadership roles? There's a wise axiom that reminds us that "our focus determines our reality". In other words, we shape our reality by what we see - and by default by what we don't see. And if leadership is about "vision", then what we see and don't see is pretty important.

First, see through someone else's eyes. You might adopt the perspective of a customer, a supplier or a board member. What would they see? Or maybe someone who has never heard of your company, department or organisation. Or put yourself in the office of your main competitor. What might they see - positive, negative and interesting - about how you and your people do things?

This is, in part, why retail companies sometimes use "mystery shoppers". It's why 7-Eleven's President and CEO went incognito as a new employee-in-training to find out how the company actually operated at the street level. (It's also part of a new US tv show called Undercover CEO.)

You don't have to be a CEO or have a tv show to do this, of course. Just imagine yourself in a different role, with a different set of expectations or experiences than those you take for granted.

Second, you might try recruiting some new eyes. This might be, for example, a new employee. Or it might be a conversation with a customer or a supplier or even someone unfamiliar with what you do. But remember: seeing with new eyes involves hearing with new ears as well - so it's no good justifying, rationalising or ignoring. Ask, listen and reflect. It's a good way to see things differently.

Another way of recruiting new eyes is to literally recruit them. Got a new employee or a new team member? They will probably be surprised at some things they encounter. They might have ideas or suggestions. So it's important to encourage their questions and input. Because it only takes a few weeks before their new eyes start to see a pretty familiar landscape. Just like we do.

Finally, you can discover new things in your leadership journey by thinking with new eyes. "The 'lateral' of lateral thinking refers to moving sideways across the patterns instead of moving along them as in normal thinking," says Edward de Bono in Think! Before it's too late (2009). "If there is an obvious and attractive route in one direction, we are blocked from taking other, unknown routes. The path leads us that way and we don't explore the edges or beyond."

Formal alternative thinking tools like the Six Thinking Hats; Plus, Minus, Interesting; or Other People's Views - all de Bono thinking strategies - are all useful means of enabling a journey of discovery within the realms of our existing landscape. All applying the principles of exploring with new eyes.

"Vision" is a part of leadership that's easy to talk about but often challenging to do. So it's worth considering what we're seeing - and not seeing - in the vision we are leading and living. And how well we're helping others to see the opportunities for growth and improvement that probably abound in our operating environment.

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