What are you paying attention to?

I was recently having a conversation with some of my teammates at work around what we believe should be done to make our world more sustainable and to reduce xenophobia. My perspective was the following:

  1. Sustainability: I believe we should put all our efforts towards redesigning the way we live. By this I mean we need to change our system of production and consumption to move from a cradle to waste system to a cradle-to-cradle system (for more on this you should read the book Cradle to Cradle  by William McDonough and Michael Braungart).

  2. Less xenophobia: ‘You can’t hate someone whose story you know’ – I read this recently in an article written by Margaret Wheatley (and apparently she read it off the back of a t-shirt!). I think that we can combat xenophobia by having people really understand and engage in each other’s stories. Once you know someone and you empathize with them, how can you hate them?

The perspective of one of my teammates on sustainability is that everyone should do their part; saving light, getting double paned glass on windows, not using plastic utensils etc. And not that I’m against this (and I try in little ways to do it myself), I was just stating my own belief on how we can solve our unsustainable manner of living.

Now what was interesting about all this was when I realized that we were coming to different solutions simply because of where we were looking at the problem from. She saw the problem from the perspective of individuals, whereas I was looking at the problem from the perspective of industry and the global economic system. What’s funny though is that when I took the problem of how to reduce xenophobia, I was looking at the solution very much from an individual perspective.

It was at this point where it struck me that having awareness over what I was paying attention to when looking at the problem meant that I could understand and better explore the other solutions being proposed. It felt like I could take off the glasses I was using, put on another pair, and then look at the problem again with fresh eyes/from a new perspective.

Consciously practicing ‘re-framing’ I believe is an important aspect of leadership. The Chairman and co-founder of the company I currently work for, Tom Cummings, recently co-wrote, with Jim Keen, a book titled Leadership Landscapes. One of the leadership practices that Cummings and Keen talk about in the book is the ability of leaders to ‘re-frame’. Imagine, like I described above, that you view the world through a set of glasses. What happens if one day you take those glasses off and you put on someone else’s glasses? Will things still look the same? How will this impact your thinking? How will it shape your behavior? Re-framing is the ability that leaders have to solve intractable problems by being able to change the lenses they are using to look at the situation.

A re-framing practice that Cummings and Keen suggest is to look at your issue/problem across the landscapes. Imagine a landscape in your mind. When I imagine it I see myself standing on a hill looking to the horizon. At the furthest point of my vision is the horizon (rolling hills, flat plains or the sea) and just in front of me standing where I am is me, the trees, the houses etc. In the context of leadership, Cummings and Keen indicate 5 levels of the landscape: individual, team, organizational, industry, and macro business. A re-framing practice I find useful is to take the challenge I’m facing and ask myself which landscape I’m approaching it from. Once I know that I can either ‘bump up’ or ‘bump down’ the challenge on the landscapes. Changing the context often helps to solve the problem. 

Another article which I believe links to the concept of re-framing across landscapes, is by Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. He wrote an article in Harvard Business Review titled, How Leaders Think. In the article he says that we shouldn’t emulate what leaders do, but how they think.  

Interestingly enough, re-framing also links to my recent post on innovation. Diversity exists in groups because we all approach problems from different perspectives. The ability to switch these perspectives helps to drive innovation because it opens the door to exploring new and creative approaches. 

My perspective on leadership is that we all exercise leadership in some way in our lives since in some we’re all responsible for the well-being of others and ourselves – I’ll write more about this in another post.
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