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Check Your Assumptions, Broaden Your Perspective

September 14, 2020

It is Monday so it must be time for more good words from Gary Burnison from Korn Ferry.

This week’s insights are particularly important to me. They touch on several of the core aspects of my Going To Paris walkabout. In particular, what assumptions am I making, are they valid and what impact are they having on my thoughts and behavior? Looking at this situation with different sets of lenses, how do my perspectives, thoughts and actions change? Am I stuck (trapped) in an old way of looking at and interpreting the situation I am facing? And how do I make a positive difference with the people and situations I come in contact with each day?

Here’s this week’s letter:

Has the world gotten smaller, or have our minds become narrower? Look at the photo on the right, what do you see? Do you notice an elderly man, walking slowly, carrying something in his right hand—a cane, perhaps? Narrow perceptions, though, can be far from reality.

We need a corrective lens. I can remember when I was growing up in Kansas and there was a solar eclipse. Every kid heard the same warning—at school, at home: don’t look at the sun! So, when my uncle told me he could show me the eclipse, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Then he took out a tall paper cup and used a small nail to punch a round hole in the bottom. Standing outside on the street, my uncle turned the cup upside down and used the hole like an aperture in a camera to project the image of the solar eclipse on a piece of paper. I was amazed! That tiny pinhole was the gateway to the entire universe. It’s analogous to what we’re experiencing in today’s shrinking world—and we’re trying to peer through a pinhole. We need to adjust our lens—tapping Google Earth as we zoom out before zooming in. Otherwise, we’ll never imagine tomorrow’s promise when tomorrow, at first, might myopically appear like today. Over the past few months, the world hasn’t become smaller—but perhaps our perspective has. Take a look at the picture again. The man isn’t just walking down the street. He is a jazz saxophonist, making music simply for the benefit of others. 

To truly see the entire picture, we must escape the attic of our minds. All of us are quick to judge, to make assumptions. It takes about seven seconds for us to form an opinion about others—even in job interviews. Is it fair? Absolutely not. But it is a sad truth of human nature. To widen our lens, the starting point should be humility, which can serve as our guide. We see beyond our own insularity into a bigger world—a world that’s not about us. It’s about others. I’ll never forget another walk down the street. It was about ten years ago, and I was strolling down the cobblestones in a small town in Mexico with former Mexican President Vicente Fox, who led his country from 2000 to 2006. We were deep in conversation when President Fox suddenly looked up. I followed his gaze across the street to an elderly woman with a cane, walking slowly and looking around as if she had lost her way. Immediately, President Fox went over to her. The woman did not seem to recognize this tall man as he listened intently, then put his arm around her shoulders and led her in the right direction. When President Fox rejoined me, he never mentioned what had just transpired. It wasn’t for show. He wasn’t running for president—he wasn’t running for anything. Humbly and with great empathy, he truly saw the woman and responded to her needs. It’s all about looking up, looking out, looking beyond.

Here are some thoughts:

  • Pause, reflect, act… Transformation always starts in neutral—a “gear” we may not fully appreciate. When I was barely a teenager and learning to drive, my dad took me to the Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College parking lot, which seemed huge then—but not as big as I thought it was. My dad’s car was a “three on the tree”—a three-speed transmission with a shifter on the steering column. I can still remember the H pattern—first gear, second gear, third gear, reverse, with neutral in between. Once my dad showed me, it became intuitive. Fast forward to today. My wife’s car has buttons to operate it, in seemingly hidden places. When I took it to the grocery store and tried to back out of a parking space, I kept hitting the wrong buttons. Neutral, reverse, forward…I still don’t know. All I remember was the other cars honking at me. That’s what people are going through today. In the chaos, we don’t know if we’re in drive, park, or reverse. What we may not appreciate is the role of “neutral” as the pause between the old and the new, between being stalled and moving full speed ahead. “When we go through any transformation—organizational or personal—we are creating a new identity. We have to take some time to pause and let go of the old before we can build the new.” That pause is the “neutral zone,” and without spending some time there, we can get stuck. When we go through the pause, we acknowledge that the old is dead, and the new is being built.

  • …and remember empathy. It’s time to pause—and broaden our view. Are we farsighted? Do we see things just from our own perspective or from the perspectives of others? Do we react and jump to conclusions, or do we reflect from every angle? We need to have empathy for ourselves and others. When people are working from home, they are not just reacting to the demands of their jobs or the tasks they have to perform. The job may not be the problem. They could be manifesting their frustration as their worlds collide. They’re impacted by “personal life creep,” and so much is upsetting. It’s harder than ever because the natural barriers between work and home have disappeared—the daily commute, in-person meetings, business travel... Each of these activities was like smoothly shifting into a different gear. Now, we’re grinding our gears as we’re trying to make all parts of our lives work in increasingly narrow spaces. We need to see clearly what’s happening and why we’re reacting the way we do. We need to acknowledge what we’ve lost—those small but important rituals that provided structure to our daily lives—and think about the things that drive our passion and help us thrive.

  • Open heart, open mind. When I reached out to our Korn Ferry Institute researchers this week to talk about the importance of “looking up, looking out and looking beyond,” they took it even deeper. In a recent study of 24,000 leaders to identify those who are inclusive, our team noticed two basic patterns. There are inclusive leaders who “look out” as they lead with their hearts and connect through relationships. They tend to be stronger in building trust, being authentic, and being emotionally intelligent. And, there are inclusive leaders who “look up” and lead with their heads as they connect with ideas. They tend to be more adaptive, inquisitive, and open-minded. Open heart or open mind—neither type is better than the other. But the key word is open, and that begins with self-awareness—to understand yourself before you can understand, appreciate, and connect with others.

Nearsighted or farsighted. Very few of us have 20/20 vision, particularly and ironically in the year 2020. But we can each strive toward a corrective lens of humility and self-awareness. Humility is the grace that constantly whispers, “It’s not about you.” Once we see the total picture clearly, then—and only then—can we pause and shift gears from “this is what is happening now” to “what this means for our future.”

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