I have been reading a ton about all of human history in anticipation of a new book I’m working on. It has provided me with a fresh perspective on life that has been an unexpected and welcome surprise. I notice that in so much of my life I see patterns that appear to be quite clear and meaningful. The rise of poverty, pollution and crime are but many of the trends today that give me pause for concern. In my lifetime, it feels like these trends are ever increasing and may never end. By reading about huge epochs in human history, I’ve come to learn that these trends have come and gone. They move up and down. There are long periods in major civilizations when a large group of people appears to be experiencing abundance and then equally long periods of decay. And the wealth shifts. We, in the United States, often have this sense of privilege compared to other countries. And yet our experience is just a blip on the screen — perhaps fleeting. Other countries may be on the rise, while others are on the decline. Brazil, for example, is experiencing a remarkable economic and social transformation and is quickly emerging as a world power. This rise and fall is the way of the world when viewed through the wide-angle lens of history. This wide-angle perspective for me does just that — it gives me perspective, and thanks to it I place less importance on momentary concerns in my life, for they too come and go. Last year’s failure will be but a dim memory in the span of a lifetime. What to me seemed like a critical breakdown worthy of concern and anxiety later becomes but a dim memory and eventually disappears.
While trends come and go, the trends that seem to endure through time are most troubling to me — especially population growth, for there is a limit to what we can sustain on this planet. In a business, the repeated inability to deliver on time and on budget is a trend worthy of attention because it reveals either poor planning, poor goal setting or poor execution. Great leaders focus more on trends and patterns than on moments in time. They see patterns and seek to shift the pattern. One CEO I know and work closely with has an enormous ability to keep things in perspective. He lets others focus on the small things while he puts his attention on strategy, culture and patterns worthy of his attention. In other words, he never sweats the small stuff.
The Principle of Three
There is a principle I have found powerfully constructive in my coaching of leaders. I call it the principle of three. The idea is to rarely if ever intervene as a leader unless there is a pattern, revealed by at least three similar instances of the same problem. It takes two points to make a line, but three points to make a curve. Patterns are curves in time and they are the things conscious leaders tend to care about most. This very same principle invites us to never be reactive. Wait before you act (unless it is an emergency, of course!) and your actions will be far more meaningful and powerful.
Conscious leaders tend to widen their lens when looking at their organizations and life in general. They also tend to lengthen their lens to see the implications of their actions (and others) well down the read. At the Long Now Foundation, they are developing a 10,000-year clock that will measure time in far greater increments than we naturally do in our 24-hour clock. In so doing, they are encouraging a different view of life, much like the Native Americans encourage us to make choices that positively affect the world seven generations down the road. With a longer perspective on life, I see and value things very differently. The whole concept of sustainability is based on a view that I find quite compelling and the more I take a sweeping view of human history, the more I see the experiences I have and that all of us have on this earth at this time as just a blip on the screen.
This larger, more encompassing perspective has everything to do with great leadership — for the farther we see down the road in time and the more we care about what we see, the larger our perspective and the more we will make the kinds of choices that truly matter.