“Leaders communicate perspective. We show Soldiers that who we are, what we do, and why we do it are important… Soldiers who understand why and how their efforts fit into the big picture, perform better. Informed Soldiers are effective Soldiers.”
This simple quote from a previous boss and current mentor of mine has become one of the most profound leadership lessons I have learned in my now 10-years of practicing leadership. Though clear and concise, this quote can actually be unpacked to become one of the most complex and important leadership skills that I’ve tried to study and practice. We need to talk about leadership and communicating perspective.
One of my personally favorite definitions of leadership, and one I feel is the most complete, is from the U.S. Army. It states that leaders influence others by providing three things: purpose, direction, and motivation. Perspective is a critical way to provide the purpose. Leaders must create and communicate that perspective for their people.
Perspective is a means for leaders to make rational cognitive connections for their people, especially their junior members, to help them understand the why behind a decision, change, situation, and for organizational clarity on what is important (refer to the quote above). Communicated perspective helps make sense of things for people who may not have access to certain information or awareness of what occurs at higher echelons within the organization.
The issue is that communicating perspective is a high form of leadership art. There is no objectively right way to go about ‘doing’ it; there is no step-by-step process to follow to communicate and achieve perspective within your team. Further, there is not much written on the topic of leadership perspective and how to better make sense of things for your people. But I believe this is a critical leadership topic, and one that many leaders struggle with. So, I aim to offer my ‘perspective on perspective,’ sharing what I’ve experienced, learned, and feel is important to better equip you on how to effectively communicate perspective – also known as intent, purpose, and the why.
A Predication: Perspective Mindsets
Before we can dive into the details of leader perspective and how to communicate it, we need to explore a few precursor mindsets that must shape our approach. These must serve as the guides or guardrails of our thinking as we work to think through, create, and communicate perspective to our people.
- We are Just One Part of a Whole: Often addressed as being only one piece of a full puzzle, or through the idiom of, “don’t lose the forest for the trees.” Our people as individuals and our collective team are just one small part of a much larger whole. We often do not have access to or the ability to see much of that bigger whole – especially our more junior team members. Communicating perspective is a means to broaden their view and awareness to better inform them the relevance and importance of the issue or topic at hand.
- Empathy Up: Leading with empathy is an important and popular leadership topic (and one I’m passionate about), but one dynamic to it is often ignored – having empathy up our chain of command or organizational chart. It is common to believe that our next higher headquarters has no idea what they are doing, make some of the most nonsensical decisions, or giving terrible guidance. However, I’m going to resort to a quote that is imprinted on a sweatshirt that I own: Assume others are doing the best they can. There are particular conditions, restrictions, and reasons for what is published from our higher HQ. Just as we show empathy down to our people, we also need to demonstrate empathy up our chain and know they are well-intended. We just need to search for and make sense of those good intentions.
- We are Not Victims of Our Circumstances: This is a personal core life principle I aim to live and lead by. It is a primary mechanism for me to demonstrate resilience and grit and minimize the emotional sine wave of daily life. It is also an important mindset to help others achieve ownership, commitment to, or at least informed compliance to the issue at hand. We first must role model not being victims of our circumstances and then work to make that attitude contagious to others.
Levels of Leader Perspective
To help us think about perspective more concretely, I offer what I view as the three levels of perspective. We must start by practicing and achieving the first level before we can move on to the second, etc. We explore six ways to address all three in the below section to help operationalize them.
- Seek & Understand Perspective Yourself: Before we do anything else, we must achieve clarity of perspective for ourselves. If we don’t know it or aren’t clear about it personally, we are unable to advance to any of the following levels. Seek personal perspective clarity first.
- Create Perspective: At some point, we get paid to and must transition to being able to create the perspective ourselves. We will reach a point in our leadership where the why is not as easily communicated, if at all. We have a responsibility to fill that void and think creatively to create the perspective for our people.
- Communicate It: Finally, share it and do so in compelling, relevant ways down to your people. In his book, Call Sign Chaos, Jim Mattis states that leaders who cannot talk with the most junior members of their organization have lost touch. I believe this applies with perspective as well. We need to be able to effectively communicate purpose, intent, and the why to the most junior members of our team in ways that are relevant to them and ways they will understand.
6 Ways to Achieve the Levels of Perspective
While this is certainly not an all-encompassing list, I feel these are some easy places to start addressing all three levels of perspective introduced above now. Each idea offered below starts with a (#), where the number shown relates to the level of perspective from above.
- (1) Ask Questions to Verify Intent: If you are unclear on the intent of a specific issue from your higher HQ, don’t be afraid to ask questions to seek clarity. These can be simple questions to your boss or a supporting higher-HQ staff member like, “What are the environmental factors contributing to this decision?” or “What is your intent behind this new policy? What led to the creation of this new guidance?”. You have a responsibility to solicit that information for your team if it is not clear.
- (2) Ask the 5 Whys: If in a position of not receiving direct purpose or perspective, we can work to create it by asking five whys of the current issue. If the purpose of a decision, policy, or situation don’t make sense, try asking why to yourself and assess a likely answer. Then, again, ask why to that new answer aiming to discern a broader reason. Repeat a few times (it doesn’t have to be five, but as many as needed) to arrive at a sufficient idea that hits the heart of the overall perspective.
- (2) Think Like Your Higher HQ: This may take some practice but will also improve with practice. Try and place yourself in your higher HQ’s shoes, aiming to think like they think. What are the inputs, processes and systems, and restrictions or restraints that they are working with? This is wedded to the “empathy up” mindset, but something we can try and practice to operationalize it and, hopefully, gain a little more clarity on how they think, decide, and act – and why.
- (3) Relate Apples & Oranges: Thinking with and communicating perspective is about taking seemingly unrelated ideas and actually showing how and why they are connected. Often this comes from experience, showing others how the current issue (orange) is actually connected to an experience (apple) from a previous professional experience, etc. Check out the story in the conclusion below for an example of what relating apples and oranges can look like.
- (3) Tell a Story: Telling a story – whether from past experience, history, or fiction – makes the issue and purpose at hand tangible and concrete that others can wrap their heads around. A story can make the argument of perspective more compelling, relatable, and even interesting.
- (3) Explain the Decision-Making Process: Sometimes, if an issue like a decision makes absolutely no sense, the easiest way to explain why is to describe the process of how that decision was made. The end state alone may not seem logical, but after walking others through the steps of how the organization arrived there, it will seem more rational and acceptable.
Conclusion: A Story About Communicating Perspective
I want to close by offering a story that can help paint a more complete picture of what creating and communicating perspective can look like. I don’t use this as a “right” example or anything like that, just one that stands out to me from my experiences that took a lot of personal creative thought and effort to create in order to provide to others. Also, it leverages many of the above-provided ways to achieve and communicate perspective to help bring them to life for you.
Last year, in my role as a tactical officer of a West Point Cadet company (legal commander for a 130-Cadet company), West Point introduced a “new” policy (not new, just removed from practice for a few years) that Cadets were now required to arrange their barracks room dresser drawers in very specific ways. The nebulous “they” (senior leadership) who imposed the new policy only offered the reasons for the change under the pretense of encouraging the Cadets to build habits and attention to detail. The Cadets did not understand these reasons and thus rejected the intent. It was a pretty emotional response from Cadets due to the new inconvenience in their daily lives with no seemingly valid reason.
After a week of the new policy, I found myself in a room with all my senior and junior Cadets and they asked me why we are introducing this new policy. Having no additional context communicated to me, I tried my best to answer it by telling a story from my past Army experiences.
I asked the room, “who wants to be assigned to Fort Lewis (WA) or Fort Carson (CO) when they commission?” A number of Cadets raised their hands. I responded, “Ok, well if you do, there is a decent chance you can be assigned to a Stryker Brigade Combat Team (SBCT) and be responsible four Stryker vehicles as a platoon leader.” I then asked, “Who has ever seen the inside of a Stryker?” No one raised their hands.
I began to describe the inside of a Stryker vehicle, first relating it to feeling like a spaceship when you first see the inside and painting a mental picture of the complexities of everything that is inside of it. I then began relating this to their responsibilities as the platoon leader. I asserted, “You are responsible for everything your platoon does or fails to do. This includes the load plan of everything inside that vehicle. You’re going to have to conduct pre-combat inspections to verify safety and completeness quite routinely. How are you going to be able to do that effectively when this is the first time you’ve ever seen one?”
Then, I related this matter to attention to detail. Having the discipline to be responsible for these vehicles and everything inside of them requires a high level of attention to detail. Just like a muscle, this is a skill that needs to be practiced in order to develop.
I asked, “So, how do we develop this attention to detail skill?” I went on, saying, “Well, I (West Point) don’t have four Strykers to hand over to every Cadet to practice and build attention to detail. But what do we have? Well, we have barracks rooms. And maybe I can make you arrange your barracks room in a particular way every day over multiple semesters to build that attention to detail. While a Stryker and barracks room look different, the attention to detail necessary to successfully maintain both as needed feel very similar.”
I ended stating, “And while I don’t know if that is the exact reason why we are doing this, this is why it makes sense to me and why I think it is important.”
First, one reason I use this example is it is a very low-threat situation. The inconvenience to Cadets in how they have to arrange their barracks room is of no real consequence in the grand scheme of things. But I use it to show that the power of perspective can and should apply in all scenarios, no matter the scope or gravity.
Though that answer did not receive any sort of standing ovation, it did have all Cadets respond either verbally or in other non-verbal ways saying, “Yeah. Ok. Fine. That makes sense.” And in that specific scenario, that was absolute victory for me.
Looking at the levels of perspective, we can see that levels #2 and #3 were at play. In analyzing the six different ways to achieve those different levels, we can see a few incorporated: I had to think like my higher HQ to come to that response, I related apples (barracks rooms) to oranges (Stryker vehicles that many could be responsible for at some point in their Army careers), and I told it through a story offering a concrete example.
In closing, I want to go back and highlight to what BG Hodne taught me so many years ago: Leaders communicate perspective. We show our people that who we are, what we do, and why we do it are important. People who understand why and how their efforts fit into the big picture, perform better. Informed teammates are effective teammates.
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