Small but very close
In a classic scene from the sitcom Father Ted, the priest is sat with Dougal, his less-than-clever friend, in front of a caravan window looking out at a field. He is holding up a toy plastic cow while pointing out the window and utters the immortal line: “This cow is small but very close. That cow is large but far away.”
This is what happens when you lose your sense of perspective. Things that are actually quite small loom large, things that should be significant seem small. You pay attention to the wrong things. You ignore massive problems. You over- or under-react. Your judgement, wisdom and intuition as a leader depend on your sense of perspective.
The easiest way to lose your sense of perspective is to stay too close to a problem for too long. And unfortunately this means that – just when they need it most – leaders who are under sustained pressure face the greatest risk to their perspective. When you work long hours, when you dwell on problems, taking them home, lying awake at night agonising over them, chewing over them with your spouse, coming back early in the morning to start on them again… You get too close.
The first consequence is poor judgement: silly mistakes, uncharacteristic slips, puzzling omissions, strange moods and unjustified rages. I have spoken to people looking back on long periods of pressure followed by mistakes and very often they have said the same thing: “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
This is sad for the leader and their organisation, but the second consequence is more insidious, if thankfully rare. As well as eroding professional judgement, loss of perspective can erode ethical judgement too. It creeps up on you: you work late, why not expense the taxi? You never see your family, why not put a meal with them on the books or employ your nephew? The accounts don’t reflect the real effort behind them, why not ‘adjust’ them? And step by step you cross the line into corruption.
The tragedy of this loss of ethical judgement is that it can happen to some of our most brilliant leaders – the ones who regularly and willingly face the most intense pressure. They often produce outstanding results in the most difficult circumstances while making very questionable choices. You only have to look at the downfall of some feted ‘super heads’ or celebrity CEOs to see this.
The remedy for loss of perspective is the reverse of the problem. Step back. When you get too close to things, back away – completely, cleanly and clearly. Go and do something completely different. Things will rapidly acquire their proper proportions.
This should not simply by an emergency response to a difficult time. (Although definitely do that when you need to.) It should be a habit. However important your role and however difficult your challenges, you must build in regular times when you switch completely off. You must have other interests: your family, your friends, your hobbies, your studies, your sport, your faith, your club. You name it. You need something different to get completely absorbed in. Great leaders have a hinterland.
I was struck at one time, for instance, by the number outstanding head teachers I met who were smallholding farmers. You wouldn’t have thought they had time to do both well. In fact, doing them both made them better at both.
Your duties are serious. People depend on you. It is therefore not a luxury but a duty that you protect your judgement by keeping a sense of perspective, that you cultivate and devote yourself wholeheartedly to outside interests and responsibilities. If you value a smart and honest workforce, it would also be wise to create a culture in which others can do the same.