Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Perspective Matters

     A few years back, a close friend of the family sent us a note describing an encounter with another traveler as he toured the unparalleled beauty of Yellowstone National Park.
     John, a long-time native of Montana, originally moved to the east slope of the Rocky Mountains as a young man and immediately fell in love with both the land and the people of the Big Sky Country.  The jagged snow-capped peaks, dense forests and abundant wildlife of that region captivated both his imagination and spirit.  Consequently, what started as a trip of discovery became a way of life, and John went on to make his home in what he called ‘Gods Country’ for many years.

      Each fall, in the tradition of the ranchers that work in the heart of Montana and Wyoming, John embarked on an annual ‘riding the fence line’ tour on the back of his Harley Davidson Motorcycle. This ‘fence line ride’ led him from his home, south into Yellowstone, along the Rockefeller Parkway and through Grand Tetons National Park to Jackson Hole, Wyoming and back again.

     Along the way, he would stop to hike, take pictures, camp, visit with other travelers and lose himself in the wonders of that area for about a week.  While he obviously had no real fences to check or repair, he often described the trip as his chance to recharge and renew his soul.  There was just something special about riding through those mountains that made him feel at peace with the world no matter what troubles or pressures waited for him at home.

     The Yellowstone country, for those who have not seen it personally, is a breathtakingly beautiful and iconic part of America that exhibits very different personalities depending upon the season.  In the fall, the foliage colors are particularly vivid against rugged terrain that is partially veiled in early season snow.  The air is crisp and clean.  The summertime crowds are gone, and there are numerous places to stop and enjoy the majesty of the park in relative solitude.

     One afternoon, John stopped at a popular vista to watch the sun retreat across a valley whose far side was a formidable formation of rock.  The mountainside jutted sharply upward against the western sky, casting rapidly advancing shadows and creating a dramatic, serrated silhouette.

     Another traveler had also stopped and was taking pictures of buffalo grazing in the valley’s fading light.  After a few minutes, John struck up a conversation with his fellow visitor and they began to talk about the splendor of Yellowstone.  After a few minutes, the other man remarked that the park was a remarkable place, but very different from his own home in western Texas where he had lived his entire life.

     This was his first time seeing the park and he was indeed impressed!

     John, of course, agreed.  He explained his lifelong love affair with the area and how he spent some time each year travelling through the mountains.  The land reminded him that there were forces greater than man at work in the world.

     The gentlemen from west Texas nodded his assent and extended his hand as he prepared to depart.  John shook his hand only to be stunned by what his new acquaintance said next.

     “This is truly an amazing place . . . the only problem is that the mountains get in the way of the scenery!”

     Speechless, John simply finished the handshake and wished him fair travels.  The words of his letter to us describing his conversation were filled with disbelief of how anyone could actually consider the mountains to be 'in the way' of anything.

     I found John’s story to be a true reminder that two human beings can view the exact same picture, be equally impressed, but still see two very, very different things.  

     After all, when you are from central Montana the mountains ARE the scenery.  When you are from the plains of western Texas, the SKY is the scenery and mountains would get in the way of routinely spectacular, multi-color sunsets.

     Neither John nor his Texan friend is wrong.

     As a leader, it’s critical that you remember that your perspective is exactly that…your perspective!  It is not necessarily that of your team.  Make sure you are taking the time to describe and discuss your vision, where you want them to go and what it should look like at the end.  Pay particular attention to describing what ‘scenery’ is desired.

     Being aware of your team’s perspective is also critical for collaborative problem solving.  Without patience, persistence and relentless communications the team could find itself trying to solve very different problems than you intended or working towards very different outcomes than what is actually required or desired.

     If you acknowledge first that no two human beings have exactly the same perspective on anything, then spending the time to develop common understanding, before moving the team too far down the road, makes perfect sense.

     Any other approach and you stand a high chance of having mountains get in the way of the scenery!

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