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To gain the power of perspective, go deep not just wide

Change your leadership perspective by asking one simple question that can take you deep into your company's power source, writes Larry Robertson.

6 min read



Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

Leadership and perspective are linked to one another, so much so that they are often equated as if to suggest that not only is perspective valuable, but that somehow, leaders come by it by default. For example, we assume those at the top possess perspective their followers don’t or can’t by position alone. Yet, in truth, work in any organization today is so complex and layered that no one perspective yields a complete picture. 

From the standpoint of value, it’s often suggested that by assuming the perspective of a customer, employee, partner or even competitor, leaders and their organizations can somehow see the world through their constituents’ eyes, gaining insight into their experiences and, in turn, gain an advantage. However, recent research points out that doing so doesn’t actually or accurately reveal what others truly want, think and feel enough to service them better. Where the value of perspective-taking does seem to hold up is at the individual level, offering the benefits of self-awareness and growth. Still, as leaders, our concern ought to be enabling the collective to thrive. 

So, can senior leaders harness the value of perspective for an organization? Yes. Indeed, there’s a well-tested, decades-old method that gives us access. But first, they must understand what’s holding them back. Then, they must understand how, when and why perspective offers us a source of great power.

3 things that hamper perspective

Three things account for the lion’s share of the unrealized potential in perspective-taking. First, when we pursue perspective, most often, we don’t do it collectively. Second, when we do, we don’t delve deeply enough. Third, even when we gain perspective, we fail to nurture it and navigate by it ongoing. Is all hope lost? Hardly. This is where understanding the how, when and why of perspective comes in.

Like individual people, organizations are living, breathing beings. When a person loses perspective, they sense it as stress, slowly at first, but eventually with enough compounded effect to trigger the body’s fight-or-flight responses to play a leading rather than supporting role in our thinking and decision-making. According to psychologist and clinical professor at UCLA Jenny Taitz, the effect is both mental and physical. “Your pupils dilate, narrowing your field of vision, making it harder to find perspective, literally and figuratively.” 

When the equivalent happens in an organization, leaders clamp down, focusing on short-term moves like cutting costs and thinking less about undercutting brand, reputation and competitive positioning. They’re less strategic, less innovative and less resilient. It’s a steep and slippery slope. Yet, as Taitz makes clear, there are ways for individuals to counter it. It’s true for leaders and organizations, too.

“If you can intentionally adopt a more panoramic view,” Taitz says, “it’s easier to feel less sucked into what seems challenging,” narrowing or both. It’s one reason people find value in taking a walk outside in nature. Your actual view can change your cognitive one. Believe it or not, for organizations, the equivalent comes by asking a surprisingly simple-sounding question: What business are you in? This, it turns out, is step one in that proven method for tapping the power of perspective.

The question comes from Peter Drucker, who famously used it to test an organization’s likelihood of thriving far into the future. The distinction in Drucker’s use was that he asked the question five layers deep. In other words, to each response, Drucker would repeat the same question, seeking a more profound answer. By the time a company’s leadership pushed five layers deep, Drucker believed they’d arrive at the real source of power that drove the business, its leadership and their success.

Finding your company’s “power source”

The exercise alone yields a unique perspective. But left at just the exercise, the impact is momentary. The true power comes from applying the perspective as a lens – to everything the organization does, to every decision it makes, and in every moment, good or bad, and ongoing. In this approach, the five-layer deep answer is what I’ve come to call a company’s Power Source

Airbnb’s power source, for example, which they derived by using the Drucker test, is “belong anywhere.” Like other power sources, it’s enormously simple and open, unlike, say, a mission statement or strategy. That’s purposeful. A power source is used like a compass consciously imbued with flexibility. That’s its power. Airbnb uses it to navigate their interactions and related decision-making with anyone touching the organization, from guests and hosts to employees and partners. They do so perpetually, in times good and bad alike.

Moreover, they empower everyone in the organization to employ it. Famously, for example, rather than panicking as many organizations did during the Covid shutdown, Airbnb employed their power source, asking, “What will allow all of our constituencies to feel they ‘belong anywhere’ in our business, even as we weather loses and uncertainty?” Doing this enabled Airbnb to come out stronger and build back faster than any business in their sector, arguably in any sector. 

Others similarly navigate by such five-layer power source perspectives. Walmart steers by its power source: “Live better.” Subaru operates by a constant reference to their deceptively simple one: “Love.” It is, as they remind often, “what makes a Subaru a Subaru.” Similarly, Reese Witherspoon’s billion-dollar juggernaut Hello Sunshine has grown and thrived as quickly as it has while crosscutting sectors that others never thought to interrelate by constantly reminding themselves that be it book publishing, clothing retail, movie production or home decor, all of it is about being in the business of “enabling storytellers.” 

No doubt, there are many ways to lose your perspective. Yet, finding your power source, five layers deeper than the obvious … allowing it to be collectively used and applied … and nurturing and navigating by it, raises your odds of not only seeing but succeeding. So, what business are you in?


Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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