“Top leaders see what others don’t see. They paint a picture that allows team members and followers to see the why behind the what. Great leaders learn to fly above the immediate hill or valley and get a bird’s eye view of what is best for the organization over the long term.”

Those are words I spoke in a “Top Ten for Young Leaders” talk to a group of millennials in a summer internship. In nearly four decades of leadership, I’ve learned that “Painting a Picture of the Future” is of utmost importance. Leaders look beyond the immediate and they portray it in vivid word pictures so team members are inspired to follow the vision.

For whatever reason, big picture thinking isn’t too hard for me. It comes rather natural. Maybe it’s genetics. Maybe it’s environment. Maybe it’s training and discipline. Probably—all of the above.

Something as simple as parking a car has a big picture side of it to me. I don’t park on the street across from someone’s driveway because someone may back into the side of my car. I don’t park at the bottom of a sloped retail store parking lot because an unattended shopping cart may roll into the side of my car. I don’t park in an exceptionally narrow parking space because someone else may open their door and dent my door. I generally park way out at the far edges and walk further than most everyone else. What’s the upside? I get more exercise. And I have a car that is over five years old with nearly 100,000 miles on it but it still looks brand new because it is virtually absent of dings and dents.

For certain, visionary leadership in a business or a non-profit is of much more importance than a ding-free car. But paying attention to the little things while keeping on eye on the big picture is critical to a healthy organization. Leaders must look beyond the immediate day-to-day grind to see how decisions today will influence outcomes tomorrow. It is also true personally. Social media rants when hurt or angry today will be a big problem six months from now when a potential employer or client sees how you handle stress or conflict. Level five leaders care about the legacy of the organization so they develop succession plans.  Great leaders think about every immediate decision in terms of the potential impact to the future of their career or the organization they lead.

My friend Matt Keller gave some of the best advice I’ve ever received in a talk he gave at Next Level church about five years ago. He gave this pivotal question that must be asked with every decision, both personal and in business leadership. “In light of my past experiences, my present circumstances and my future hopes and dreams, what is the wise thing to do?” That question has consistently helped me make great leadership decisions. That question has been my filter for what I say and don’t say publically as a community leader. That question has kept betrayed spouses from burning all their bridges in a sizzling tirade on social media. That question has helped me hire and fire staff. Seriously, that question, when asked consistently and honestly, leads to big picture thinking.

Much more could be said about developing and strengthening your big picture thinking. Fast Company has a quick read called “5 Strategies for Big-Picture Thinking” that could be a helpful start. Bottom line. Be intentional about developing this skill set. Learn from big-picture thinkers. Read their books and blogs. Listen to their podcasts. Spend less time with those who habitually choose the myopic view. Study the advice of experts such as this short read in Guild. Stretching yourself to become a better big-picture thinker will be well worth your investment—because the best leaders learn to do it well.


QUESTION: What has helped you the most to become a better big-picture thinker? I’d love to hear your comments!


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