Stretching the Cube: Getting Leaders to Think Broader, Deeper, Higher

Cube

It seems a lot of leaders are sitting in tiny cubes.

In the past few months I’ve had conversations about leadership with  1) a VP of Learning and Development for a Fortune 100 company; 2) a consultant who designs leadership training programs for companies of all sizes; and 3) a CEO of a fast-growing midsize technology firm.

I asked each of them what leaders at their company (or client companies) needed to do in order to be more effective, prepare themselves for more senior roles, and contribute to the firm’s success. Their replies sounded like this:

“Most of these folks are too stuck in their own little areas. We need them to pick their heads up and take a larger view. We need them to think beyond their function or business unit, beyond the day-to-day details and firefighting, and beyond tactical issues to strategic issues.”

Of course, they each phrased it a bit differently. The Learning and Development VP talked about diversity of thought and expanded perspectives. The consultant talked about complexity and tolerance of ambiguity. The CEO talked about wanting his executive team to have “a 360-degree view, not 180 or 270.”

But these three experts, at bottom, have the same worry.

Leaders at all levels of their organization, they feel, are thinking too narrow, too shallow, and too low. It’s as if each leader is sitting cramped in a small box, and they want each one to—no, not think outside the box—but make the box bigger along three dimensions: broader, deeper, and higher.

The other thing I asked these three individuals was: What type of leadership education or training had their people received in the past, and why hadn’t it resulted in the kind of broader, deeper, and higher perspectives they were hoping for? They all said something like this:

“Some of our leaders have an MBA, but all that gives them is financial and basic business knowledge. A lot of them have gone through our own management training program(s), and they come out of there knowing our performance management process and maybe with some better coaching and feedback skills. And last year we did a whole big push around [insert name of latest business fad]; we brought in [insert name of hot business guru] to do a series of workshops.  It’s all been useful, but nobody really seems to be thinking differently.”

Here’s where most MBA and corporate leadership programs falter:  they don’t talk explicitly about the need to think bigger in three dimensions, let alone show leaders how to do it. True, you’ll emerge from such a program having encountered a number of new concepts and tools, maybe improved a skill or two, but your personal cube—your mindset and outlook as a leader—won’t have grown much larger.

Here’s the sort of learning leaders need if we want them to think broader, deeper, and higher:

  • Broader:  Situations in which they not only are exposed to the perspectives of different functions, regions, and roles, but also are asked to analyze and solve problems from those diverse points of view.
  • Deeper:  Opportunities for them to immerse in, discuss, and apply a range of essential leadership concepts—big ideas such as change, justice, dilemmas, competition, decisions, vision, and motivation.
  • Higher:  Instruction in the levels of leadership—not to be confused with rungs on the corporate ladder—so that they know exactly what it means and what it will take to increase their impact as leaders.

Think broader. Think deeper. Think higher. That’s what my three friends were trying to say to leaders in their organization.

In other words:  Stretch the cube.

***

Next time I’ll go into more detail on the three dimensions and how to expand each one. Right now, I’d love to know what you think: Are leaders in your organization sitting in too-small cubes? How would you describe the different kind of thinking that’s required? What does “broader, deeper, higher” mean to you?

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About Jocelyn R Davis

Jocelyn Davis is Principal of Seven Learning, a leadership development firm that creates a lasting lift in leaders' effectiveness using classic books, films, and stories.
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2 Responses to Stretching the Cube: Getting Leaders to Think Broader, Deeper, Higher

  1. Jeffrey Baker says:

    Great post. Your observations really resonate with my current leadership development work in our Fortune 100 company. Our global growth goals require mid-level and senior managers to take more initiative and calculated business risks than they have in the past but these leaders can no longer rely on the detailed guidance from their direct bosses as they may have done in more junior roles. Mid-level and senior managers are often more technically competent in their respective fields than their bosses who look to them to push the envelope. And even if their bosses could match them technically the (effective) bosses know they themselves must focus on other, bigger issues.
    So a critical challenge these leaders face is developing a broader perspective of not only their business, but of people and society in general; a perspective that will give them access to more external information and internal wisdom in order to make smarter, more nuanced decisions.
    Because perspective is a cognitive skill we can’t simply demonstrate it as we might a behavior, such as “3 steps to open any meeting.” One of the many classroom exercises we developed to help our managers expand their perspective involves questioning – both asking thought provoking questions and responding to them – with respect to a real, strategic challenge each is facing. It is a surprisingly simple yet effective approach to inviting the learner to discover their own limitations to how they perceive a situation and possible responses to it. The debrief discussion of this exercise emphasizes the value of skillful conversation among individuals with very different perspectives. Our learners also reflect on how often and how effectively they engage in “exchanges of perspectives” and “provocative conversations” with others and they consistently report low frequency compared to other management actions such as developing a strategy or executing plans.
    I look forward to reading about more ideas in your future posts to address this important developmental task for leaders.

    • Jeff,
      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I like what you said about these abilities not being as easily demonstrable as “three steps for this or that.” I saw a blog post once titled “Three Steps to Become a Legendary Leader” – if you can believe it! I think sometimes people find daunting the idea of teaching leaders perception or insight, but as you point out, it can be as simple (though not easy) as asking better questions.

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