Date: May 23, 2022

Author: Matt Coyle, LeaderImpact Global

In his book, Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek points out that as leaders rise higher in an organisation the volume and complexity of input information required for decision making increases.  In order for a leader to manage this increase there is a natural move to create information abstractions - spreadsheets, databases, reports and visualisations. However, Sinek argues, the more the leader's decisions rely on these abstractions alone, the more the leader runs the risk of losing touch with the very people they are trying to serve. I have certainly experienced this in my own life - and it is not just because of the volume of information either. Reliance on abstraction can also be a function of being so busy as a leader. Indeed, I have also felt this reliance on abstraction because, personality wise, I am naturally introverted, so I can find it easy to hide behind the numbers. Sometimes I have simply passed it off as "leading with information." 

Of course I am not saying that the leader should ignore the data.  A good leader needs to make the best use of all the tools available to them and this certainly involves using abstractions.  I know that I am not alone in my desire to have a lasting impact. Like you, no doubt, I love achievement and the sense of satisfaction that comes with accomplishing a goal. What I have come to discover, though, is that I glimpse real impact when I see it in the faces of real people, especially those that I serve.  If I want to have a lasting impact then I need to actively stay connected to the people that I am responsible for leading or the customers I am responsible for serving. Here are a few practices that help me maintain a fruitful tension between the need for numbers, data and abstractions and my hope of creating lasting impact grounded in connection with staff or customers. 

1. Run the numbers down the food chain.  I need to find a way to walk the shop floor and ask people, 'these are the trends that I am starting to see in the data, what is your experience of this?' Or even simpler, “what trends are you noticing?” You might be really surprised by the insights you uncover. 

2. Tell the story behind the numbers.  The more context you provide the better, so not just the story, but the name, the experience, or the specific moment behind the number as well.  This enriches the data, sure, but it also allows you to speak with confidence and lead with impact because you can talk about what you want to be true for the person whose story you told. 

3. Report the data so that the customer has a voice at the table.  With so many great data visualisation tools out there, try transforming some of the numbers so that they could be said as statements from the lips of a customer or client.  

I have done each of these things at different times and in the different leadership roles I have had. Of course I have not done it with every piece of data, or every abstraction that I need to make use of to lead well. Nevertheless, the very practice of trying to do these things keeps the customer front and centre in my decision making and sets up a guard rail to prevent me from losing touch. 

Reflection Questions: 

  1. Take an inventory of the amount of abstraction you make use of in your role, how do you manage the risk of losing touch with the people you serve? 

  2. The author said, “... I glimpse real impact when I see it in the faces of real people, especially those that I serve.” Whose face comes to mind first when you think about your impact as a leader? 

  3. Do you have other practices that you use to maintain the tension between information abstractions and stories from the field? 

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