For centuries, astronomers have looked skyward, curiously beholding the stars above them. Over time, scientists steadily improved their vision of outer space by engineering telescopes of ever-increasing sophistication. However, the biggest advance in the ability to peer into the heavens came with the launch of the Hubble Telescope in 1990. No longer bound to the ground, astronomers could now view interstellar space free from atmospheric distortions. For more than 20 years, the Hubble Telescope has orbited the Earth, capturing images of stars, planets, and galaxies in stunning color and detail. Browsing a gallery of Hubble’s images (http://www.hubblesite.com) offers an awe-inspiring glimpse into the beauty of the vast recesses beyond our solar system.
Leaders, like astronomers, must learn to overcome the limitations to their vision and the distortions of their vision. We all have impartial vision, regardless of our creativity and imagination. Our perception of the future is hampered by our incomplete knowledge, the finite amount of information we’re able to make sense of, and the boundaries of our experiences. Also, after looking at our problems for a while, we habituate ourselves to them until eventually our vision fails to register them. Furthermore, our vision is distorted by our tendency to view the world, not as it is, but as we are.
Capture More Light
The Hubble Telescope does not magnify objects in the cosmos. Instead, the telescope’s far-reaching vision is made possible by its main mirror, which catches much more light than the human eye can capture. The primary mirror reflects the light onto a second mirror, which in turn focuses the light onto the telescope’s scientific instruments.
As a leader, your vision is restricted to what you’re able to see and experience in life. To expand your field of vision, you have to widen the circle whereby you collect knowledge.
• Seek out and form relationships with experts. Obviously, you won’t have the time to learn about everything, so tap into the geniuses around you.
• Borrow experiences from those who are farther along in the journey than you are. Learn from their mistakes so that you don’t duplicate them, and draw insights from their successes
• Whenever appropriate, collect feedback from customers. Who is better suited to critique your performance and give you ideas than those you’re trying to serve?
• Mentor the upcoming leaders around you. In the process of guiding a future leader, you’re able to crystallize the lessons of your own experiences. Also, you’re likely to be surprised by how much you can learn from those you coach.
• Become a lifelong learner. Make a habit of acquiring and applying wisdom from books, articles, training seminars, and conferences.
Be quick to share your own specialized knowledge, and you will gain reciprocal goodwill. People look for ways to add value to those who have aided them. Also, express gratitude to those who broaden your view of the world. Everyone likes to work with someone who appreciates his or her contribution.
Rise Above Distortions
Gases and water in the atmosphere bend light coming to Earth and blur our observations of outer space. That’s why stars appear to twinkle when we gaze into the night sky. The Hubble Space Telescope, from its vantage point beyond Earth’s atmosphere, views the cosmos free from distortion.
Leaders eventually grow accustomed to their surroundings, and this tendency can have the dangerous effect of distorting reality. If you look at dysfunction long enough, it starts to seem normal. As a leader, you have to consciously make an effort to see your organization with fresh eyes. This may mean shifting your vantage point by working on the front lines instead of a back office. Or, you may need to take a personal retreat to refocus. At other times, you may need to hire a consultant to come in and point out problematic areas you’ve been overlooking.
Clean Your Lens
Before the Hubble Space Telescope’s main mirror was approved for assembly, it underwent what’s known as a null lens test. In the null lens test, a small lens optically alters the mirror so that it appears spherical to incoming rays of light. Viewed through the null lens, if the mirror appears perfectly spherical, then it passes inspection.
Unfortunately, an undetected fleck of paint caused the null lens to be manufactured incorrectly. Consequently, the faulty lens misled scientists into approving the Hubble telescope’s main mirror, even though it not built precisely to specifications. As a result, NASA was horrified when the first images transmitted to Earth from the Hubble telescope were blurry. NASA had to send astronauts on an expensive repair mission to fit the Hubble telescope with the equivalent of corrective eyeglasses to fix the problem.
In Winning With People, I shared the Lens Principle: Who you are determines how you see the world. Flaws inside of us warp our view of the world around us. For instance, self-doubt magnifies the obstacles in our path, arrogance shrinks our shortcomings, and fear obscures unpleasant facts.
As a leader, you will have blind spots, and from time to time, your personal biases will color what you see. For that reason, you must surround yourself with trusted advisors to alert you whenever your vision becomes impaired. With their help, you can avoid the trap of faulty vision. As George Bernard Shaw admonished, “Keep yourself clean and bright; you are the window through which you must see the world.”