One of the many challenges we face as leaders is where to spend our time and energy. Recently I came across an insightful analogy that can help us approach this problem. It has to do with having a kind of leadership double-vision.
Two Eyes to See With
Coach John Wooden’s accomplishments as a leader, coach, and teacher, both on and off the basketball court, are legendary. Among his accolades are 10 national basketball championships in 12 years with the UCLA Bruins. He’s also written a few books on leadership.
A while back I picked up a copy of The Essential Wooden, and was quickly drawn to an thought-provoking comment in the prologue. Co-author Steve Jamison was describing how Wooden looked at the world with a kind of leadership double-vision, in which each eye sees in different ways.
One eye is like a telescope – We keep this one focused on the distant horizon and the long-term objective. We use that vision to keep our team moving in the right direction, and to make sure that the efforts we are making now will take us steadily closer to the goal we have ahead us.
The other eye is like a microscope – With this eye, we pay close attention to the small things close at hand, the details that matter. To Wooden, doing the small things very well is what leads to excellence in accomplishing the big things.
How can we apply this idea?
Training the Telescope
To lead well, we have to begin by keeping the telescope eye trained and focused on the distant target. That’s easier said than done. Too often, as leaders we can get caught up in the busyness of our daily routines – those urgent but not always important tasks that divert our energy and attention from the things that matter most.
As Stephen Covey once wrote:
Or maybe in our haste, we forget that there is a ladder at all, and are just spinning pointlessly at the foot of the wall, going nowhere.
Dwight Eisenhower famously divided his tasks into two categories: Urgent and Important. He counsels that all too often we become captivated by urgent but unimportant tasks at the expense focusing on things that are truly important but less urgent.
Asking two simple questions can help us escape the tyranny of the urgent but unimportant.
- How does this activity directly contribute to reaching the goal?
- What else could I be doing that would accomplish it better?
The telescope is all about setting the direction and being selective about the actions we take to get us there.
Mastering the Microscope
With the telescope eye firmly fixed on the goal and the actions to help us get there, we use our microscope eye to make sure we perform each of those actions to the best of our ability.
As a coach, Wooden was famous for his attention to minute detail. He set the tone on the first day of practice when he taught his already very accomplished athletes how to put on their socks. The lesson was less about the socks themselves than about the importance of getting the details right. If we are to devote time to any task, no matter how mundane, we should make sure that time is well-invested.
Two questions to ask as we tackle these tasks:
- How else can I do this task better?
- If this action was my personal signature, how proud of it would I be?
This focus on the small is not to say we become micro-managers – that can be a hinderance to progress in its own way. But rather, part of what we do as leaders is teach and coach our teammates to pay attention to those details.
Leadership Double-Vision – The Takeaway
We use our telescope to stay focused on the distant goal and select the key tasks that will help us get there. We use our microscope to make sure that the time and effort we invest on those tasks today will matter in the long run.
With this approach, Wooden’s focus on the details of every practice brought his team to the point that when the big games came around, he did not worry about the outcome. He allowed the score to take care of itself.
It takes a kind of leadership double-vision to lead well, but if we are careful to see with both eyes, our own results will take care of themselves, too.