In the book, Treating People Well, there’s a story about the time in 1955 when Dwight Eisenhower was scheduled to speak at Penn State University’s commencement. The weather forecast was troubling, so aides asked the President if the proceedings should be moved inside. Ike replied: “You decide. I haven’t worried about the weather since June 6, 1944.”[1]

Others saw a difficult and risky decision; Eisenhower saw it as trifling because of his perspective.

Perspective, at least in my definition, is not the same as point of view—it’s higher than that. We all have our own individual points of view on any situation, but it’s often limited. As in the parable of the six blind men and the elephant, our view of any situation is contingent on our available information, individual experiences, and personal temperament. Perspective is the ability to see the whole elephant. It’s a sense of what really matters, of what you can control and what you can’t, of what you can let slide and what to address immediately.

Here’s a personal example, a lasting and valuable lesson in perspective that I received when I was nineteen. I had gotten into an argument with my Dad about something, and I said, “Dad, you don’t realize how tough it is growing up in the 70s.” He quietly replied: “You’re right. All I had to deal with was the Depression and World War 2.” The difference was, I had a point of view, but my father had perspective.

Perspective can make you a better leader, a better persuader, and better person

As a leader, when you’re tempted to micromanage, perspective can remind you to step back and let others grow. It lets you see what truly matters and provides an example for others. Plus, when you’re full of yourself, perspective can set you straight. Perspective bends the effectiveness/efficiency tradeoff toward the former by helping you see beyond metrics to what truly counts.

As a persuader, an outside-in perspective makes it easier for you to frame your messages to better resonate with others’ points of view. It also helps you project an image of maturity, competence and confidence that boosts credibility.

Perspective probably has the greatest impact on the quality of your personal life. It smooths the rough edges of life. When you’re wallowing in self-pity, perspective can lift you up. It can help you frame situations more positively. As  G.K. Chesterton said, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.”

Four vantage points to gain perspective

Perspective is fundamentally about comparison and contrast, and having a rich storehouse of experiences and impressions gives you more vantage points from which you can evaluate any situation. Four ways to “make things look different from here” are big picture, long view, outside-in, and gratitude.

Big picture. From a height, things look much smaller and can more readily be placed in relation to others. In business, CEOs are at that 10,000 foot level, but you don’t need to be CEO to take a big picture view; anyone can raise their perspective by “thinking like an owner”, or as Drucker advised, focusing on contribution and not job description.

Long view. The present situation only gains meaning in relation to both the past and the future. By looking back, Eisenhower was able to reflect back on his long experience to gain perspective. You can also expand your time horizon by looking forward in time. When problems and criticisms jostle you off your path, focus on the long-term goal to keep oriented on what’s important. Occasionally it may remind you that, “You will never reach your destination if you throw stones at every dog that barks.”

Outside-in. What I call outside-in thinking is what psychologists call perspective-taking or cognitive empathy. It’s about stepping into the other’s mind and seeing it from their point of view.  It’s especially useful in crafting presentations and working towards win-win negotiations.

Gratitude. If you take the time to step back and consider it, we live in the best times ever in human history. We are safer, healthier and more prosperous than any generation in the history of mankind. You don’t even need to go back in time; just look at the world around you. My wife and I came up with a phrase when the Iraq war was raging that we still use: ” At least we’re not in Fallujah.”

How to improve perspective

Perspective probably can’t be taught, but I do believe it can be learned and cultivated, if we can just take the time occasionally to step back from the press of daily life. I’m reminded of this quote from A. A. Milne:

“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.”

Here are a few ways to step back:

Travel more. Personally, a great way to gain life experiences is to travel widely, and experience other cultures. It will help with big picture and outside-in perspectives.

Read widely. You can also “travel” in time by reading history; you’ll learn quickly that most of what’s happening in our political scene today, for example, has happened in many other versions throughout our history. Read Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus to learn about Stoic philosophy, which will help you clarify the difference between what you can control and what you can’t.

Gain business acumen. When is the last time you read your own company’s annual report or 10-K? I strongly recommend it; if you want to think like an owner you have to read what the owners read.

Be curious. Be curious about other people, dig beneath the surface of conversations, and practice your listening skills. Be curious about your business, your industry, and the wider world.

[1] Lea Berman and Jeremy Bernard, Treating People Well: The Extraordinary Power of Civility in at Work and in Life. Digital.

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November 19, 2013

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