article

Perspective
Taking
Capacity

Revel Gordon

Once upon a time, a brilliant marketing idea, product innovation or more efficient supply chain could provide an advantage over competitors for years to come. Not any more. The moment a company acts, its competitors react. Cycle times on product development are measured in days or weeks, not months; AI-driven marketing campaigns can be optimised on-the-fly, and the internet has made distribution ubiquitous. For most companies seeking to compete in today’s VUCA world, effective leadership is the sole source of sustainable competitive advantage.

There are many leadership models, but one that is particularly useful in today’s complex and unpredictable world is Dr Michael Cavanagh’s four-factor model, which comprises: 1) perspective-taking capacity, 2) positivity, 3) mindfulness and 4) purpose.

Of these, perspective-taking capacity is absolutely the crucial, particularly at senior executive levels. CEO’s and other senior leaders need the ability to take a broader, systemic view in issues and opportunities, including being able to appreciate others’ points of view – even if they don’t necessarily agree with them.

Nelson Mandela as a perfect example of this. When he was released from prison after 27 years, he was under immense (and understandable) pressure both from within his own party and the broader non-white population to punish South Africa’s white minority for apartheid. There must surely been some part of Mandela himself who wanted revenge. Yet he realised that if the country spent the next generation seeking vengance, its society would be torn apart. What was needed was to both acknowledge the terrible wrongdoings of the past, and also to have the country come together.

And so Mandela championed the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which allowed people who had suffered under apartheid to come forward and tell their stories. It also allowed some of those who had perpetrated crimes in the name of the old regime to acknowledge their wrongdoings. Mandela’s breath of vision set the country on a path to healing.

He is a towering example, but we all can apply perspective-taking capacity in our everyday lives. When we find ourselves arguing with our partners or colleagues, pause for a moment to step back and ask “What is really going on for them here?”. Often, the true issue is not the one being debated.

When driving home recently I called my wife and offered to pick up dinner for the family. I found her in a less-than-chipper mood. “I’m not hungry! I’m going to the gym, and then straight to bed!” she snapped. On this occasion, rather than reacting angrily, I managed to take a breath, and reflected on things from her point of view.

I knew she’d had a brutally tough day at work, may not have had a chance to eat since breakfast, and was probably suffering from a sugar low. I thought, “If I were her, what would make me happy when I got home from the gym?” So I took a detour to our favourite Thai restaurant, and bought a selection of dishes the whole family loves. My wife came home and we sat down for a wonderful meal. Not a word was spoken about our previous conversation; none was needed. My wife got to decompress at the gym and take out her frustration on some unsuspecting piece of exercise equipment. She also got looked after – without having to ask for it – which is what she really wanted. And I got what I wanted: a great meal with my family. Everyone won.

Rather than taking a traditional binary view, based on “I’m right, you’re wrong”, the capability to take a wider perspective, and then engage in genuine dialogue (that acknowledges others’ points of view) almost always leads to better outcomes. It can also provide a reality check to avoid serious errors. I will sometimes ask senior execs weighing up a fraught decision: “What would it be like if this was on the front page of tomorrow’s newspapers?” It’s amazing how often this simple question crystallizes the choice!

In a world characterized by unpredictability and constant change, perspective-taking capacity is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal to help us respond effectively, in the moment, as challenges and opportunities present themselves. So when you are next faced with a testing situation, take the time to explore things from a wider point of view. The ideas that emerge may surprise and delight not just yourself, but everyone involved!

Once upon a time, a brilliant marketing idea, product innovation or more efficient supply chain could provide an advantage over competitors for years to come. Not any more. The moment a company acts, its competitors react. Cycle times on product development are measured in days or weeks, not months; AI-driven marketing campaigns can be optimised on-the-fly, and the internet has made distribution ubiquitous. For most companies seeking to compete in today’s VUCA world, effective leadership is the sole source of sustainable competitive advantage.

There are many leadership models, but one that is particularly useful in today’s complex and unpredictable world is Dr Michael Cavanagh’s four-factor model, which comprises: 1) perspective-taking capacity, 2) positivity, 3) mindfulness and 4) purpose.

Of these, perspective-taking capacity is absolutely the crucial, particularly at senior executive levels. CEO’s and other senior leaders need the ability to take a broader, systemic view in issues and opportunities, including being able to appreciate others’ points of view – even if they don’t necessarily agree with them.

Nelson Mandela as a perfect example of this. When he was released from prison after 27 years, he was under immense (and understandable) pressure both from within his own party and the broader non-white population to punish South Africa’s white minority for apartheid. There must surely been some part of Mandela himself who wanted revenge. Yet he realised that if the country spent the next generation seeking vengance, its society would be torn apart. What was needed was to both acknowledge the terrible wrongdoings of the past, and also to have the country come together.

And so Mandela championed the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which allowed people who had suffered under apartheid to come forward and tell their stories. It also allowed some of those who had perpetrated crimes in the name of the old regime to acknowledge their wrongdoings. Mandela’s breath of vision set the country on a path to healing.

He is a towering example, but we all can apply perspective-taking capacity in our everyday lives. When we find ourselves arguing with our partners or colleagues, pause for a moment to step back and ask “What is really going on for them here?”. Often, the true issue is not the one being debated.

When driving home recently I called my wife and offered to pick up dinner for the family. I found her in a less-than-chipper mood. “I’m not hungry! I’m going to the gym, and then straight to bed!” she snapped. On this occasion, rather than reacting angrily, I managed to take a breath, and reflected on things from her point of view.

I knew she’d had a brutally tough day at work, may not have had a chance to eat since breakfast, and was probably suffering from a sugar low. I thought, “If I were her, what would make me happy when I got home from the gym?” So I took a detour to our favourite Thai restaurant, and bought a selection of dishes the whole family loves. My wife came home and we sat down for a wonderful meal. Not a word was spoken about our previous conversation; none was needed. My wife got to decompress at the gym and take out her frustration on some unsuspecting piece of exercise equipment. She also got looked after – without having to ask for it – which is what she really wanted. And I got what I wanted: a great meal with my family. Everyone won.

Rather than taking a traditional binary view, based on “I’m right, you’re wrong”, the capability to take a wider perspective, and then engage in genuine dialogue (that acknowledges others’ points of view) almost always leads to better outcomes. It can also provide a reality check to avoid serious errors. I will sometimes ask senior execs weighing up a fraught decision: “What would it be like if this was on the front page of tomorrow’s newspapers?” It’s amazing how often this simple question crystallizes the choice!

In a world characterized by unpredictability and constant change, perspective-taking capacity is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal to help us respond effectively, in the moment, as challenges and opportunities present themselves. So when you are next faced with a testing situation, take the time to explore things from a wider point of view. The ideas that emerge may surprise and delight not just yourself, but everyone involved!