December 14, 2020

Widening Your Perspective as a Leader

Leadership Development

Reading Time: 5 minutes

My son-in-law and I have many similar physical characteristics. We both stand at 5’10”, are slim, bald and fair skinned. We also wear glasses. Out of admiration for each other’s taste in glasses frames, and to make light of our similarities, we attempted a swap. He put on mine, and I, his.

That is when it became obvious that our similarities ended. His correction is quite different than mine. Looking at the world through his lenses gives me a different perspective.

Perspectives in Complex Leadership Environments

Leaders best suited for the complex systems that our healthcare organizations are today demonstrate five common characteristics:

  1. They catalyze connections between people, ideas, and resources.
  2. They are adept at creating environments where constructive conflict thrives.
  3. They embody the skills and behaviors of true collaborators.
  4. They cultivate, sustain, achieve results through high performing teams.
  5. They are facile at creatively synthesizing solutions in the context of polarity.

There are certain learned underlying skills that enable complexity-fit leaders to consistently live out those five characteristics. One of those foundational skills is the ability to take on multiple perspectives.

Taking on multiple perspectives is not the same as understanding different perspectives. To understand merely requires an appreciation of something, sympathetically being aware of, or an acknowledgment that a different perspective exists.

Another way to look at ‘understanding’ is that for us to merely understand another’s perspectives, all we need to do is  listen to win or listen to fix,¹ as one leadership consultant wrote for Forbes.

To us, ‘taking on’ demands more.

Shifting from Leader to Learner

To actually take on another’s perspective requires that we listen to learn, shifting from leader to learner. Learning requires an element of submission, an act of humility and respect.

To be clear, listening by itself does not require humility or submission. I could not see the world through my son-in-law’s glasses unless I took mine off and put his on. Taking on multiple perspectives requires leaders to set aside their perspective (for a time), even if it is closely held, position themselves as a learner, and then become genuinely curious, or, our preferred language, reverently curious of the other.

It’s also important to note that it takes little effort to see perspectives that are like our own. And when we do this, our own development is not truly advanced. The growth edge for leaders comes from taking on perspectives that are unlike our own, those which are foreign. The more foreign, the better.

Novel adaptive solutions are birthed from a leader learning while in unfamiliar territory.  Like traveling to a foreign country, we not only notice what is common to us all, we also marvel at the world through a different lens. Sometimes, after visiting foreign lands, we return to experience our home anew. Sometimes we return changed.

If leaders dare to venture into vastly different perspectives, a transformational experience awaits.

Seek to See Beneath the Surface

It is by way of reverent curiosity that these complexity-fit leaders listen to learn. They are listening for what is underneath the stated positions of those people who hold unfamiliar perspectives.

What lies beneath are the motivations, fears, dreams, experiences, insights, mind sets, mental maps, paradigms, beliefs and mood states that shape the other person’s way of making sense of the world.

Complexity-fit leaders both want and need to know these things about the other so that they can learn (not win, not fix). Then, and only then, complexity-fit leaders can take on the other person’s perspective as their own. They can hold it as equally ‘true’ as their own original perspective and often incorporate various elements of that previously unfamiliar perspective into their ever-expanding one.

The result is that they see more widely, understand more deeply, and can better creatively craft solutions that, with empathy, have taken into consideration the legitimate interest and perspectives of all.

Growing to Take on Multiple Perspectives

Leaders who are truly fit for complexity are in the minority, but with intention, good leaders can grow into even better leaders.

Here are some practices that will be helpful if you’re looking to build this skill:

Recognize Foreign Perspectives

Start paying close attention to the perspectives that are most foreign to you.

Notice: you may tend to frame perspectives as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ That polar thinking is another hint for where there is opportunity to learn.

It is not uncommon to have an emotional reaction to perspectives that are quite unfamiliar. Your emotional ‘knower,’ when it ‘goes off’ is another way you can identify learning opportunities to practice taking on different perspectives.

If you notice an emotional reaction to someone else’s perspective, or you create a story in your head that their perspective is ‘wrong,’ we encourage a shift towards naming those perspectives as ‘unfamiliar’ or ‘foreign’ to you. That shift alone can unlock your openness, and hopefully curiosity, positioning you to listen to learn from them.

Rewire your Assumptions

Almost all healthy adults act out of good intentions. Whatever people do, they tend to do it because it is the right thing to do. However, our brains are hardwired to craft “stories of explanation” about the other person’s intentions that lie behind what we observe about their perspectives or actions.

So, another thing to pay attention to is how often you craft these stories and how they often assume ill-intent of the other.

Short-circuiting your hardwiring to craft ungracious stories can be accomplished by holding to the rule: “Always assume good intent” until proven otherwise. That proof comes only by way of listening to learn from the other.

Allow for Mistakes

Lastly, we tend to assume that others are always acting out of complete competence and intention, and that their actions are always well-conceived and organized. By merely observing our own experiences, we know that sometimes things run amuck, that unforeseen circumstances occur, that we ourselves are misunderstood or misrepresented. Yet we are reluctant to admit that those very same things conspire against others as well.

In the stories of explanation that you craft, leave room for the possibility that someone made a mistake or things just didn’t’ work out as planned. Shit happens to everyone. Leave room for that.

With these ideas in mind, a leader can unlock their mindset from the trap of polarity thinking (right v. wrong) about the unfamiliar perspectives of others. Liberation in this way positions the leader, if they choose to take the humble stance of a learner, to be reverently curious about what lies behind the positions and perspectives of others, especially those that are so foreign.

They can also hold with an open hand the stories of explanation they create about others, giving room for the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous nature of our world, and how those things conspire against the best laid plans of foe and friend alike.

What awaits the leader who learns to genuinely take on multiple perspectives is high interconnectedness, more compassion, and the ability to co-create a culture where conflict amongst members drive collaborative high-performing teams to consistently generate remarkably good solutions.

In the end, what awaits us all is stronger leaders leading to better healthcare.


¹See Jennifer Garvey Berger’s book: Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps.

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About the author

Michael S. Hein, MD, MHCM, ACC

Michael S. Hein, MD, MHCM, ACC has over 20 years of healthcare leadership experience in multi-specialty practice, large integrated health systems, academic medicine, and start-up companies. He has extensive clinical leadership experience and deep knowledge in transformational change.

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