July 1863 found our nation embroiled in a costly civil war. That summer, Confederate General Robert E. Lee had led his army north into southern Pennsylvania, hoping to build on the Southern Army’s rapidly growing momentum. For three long days the armies of the North and South were locked in a fierce battle at the small college town of Gettysburg. It was a battle that would result in 50,000 American casualties.
It was also the battle that proved to be the turning point of the war.
As hostilities on the battlefield progressed, both armies sought to capitalize on opportunities to tip the outcome in their favor. Every inch of ground was precious and both sides knew a single misstep by the other could signal the difference between victory and defeat.
Every advantage was sought.
Every mistake was exploited.
In the midst of the battle, Brigadier General G. K. Warren, Chief Topographical Engineer of the Union Army, climbed to the top of one of two rocky hills to the south of Gettysburg—a hill known to locals as Little Round Top. This site, defended by a small band of his unit’s signalmen, held a commanding view of the entire battlefield. From this high ground, the general knew he could observe troop movements, check the placement of key artillery and, perhaps most importantly, relay critical information to his field commanders engaged in combat.
Warren’s ascent to the top was not an easy one as his main fighting force was currently engaged in a fierce gun battle with Confederate soldiers. His brigade had already suffered tremendous losses earlier in day. But he knew it was critical he check on his men perched atop the hill.
As the general ascended the final crest he saw something that made his heart skip a beat. Looking at the forces arrayed below him it was immediately obvious his Union Army had become inadvertently stretched across the battlefield and one of its flanks was severely exposed and extremely vulnerable. Now, instantly able to see for miles, the general could see how the battle would very likely unfold if something didn’t change—and change quickly.
Quite unexpectedly, Little Round Top had suddenly become a strategic position that, if lost, could spell disaster for the entire union army. Now armed with a broader perspective, General Warren could also see how the situation presented an extraordinary opportunity. If his forces succeeded in holding this hill, they could not only prevent the Confederates from placing their artillery upon it, they could direct their own efforts in a much more effective, coordinated manner.
Warren requested additional forces and within minutes, one of the general’s own brigades arrived to reinforce the position. Sometime later, other brigades arrived and together, they successfully defended this key hilltop in what became the pivotal engagement of not only Gettysburg, but likely the entire American Civil War—altering the course of our nation’s future and very likely, world history, in the process.
As the story of Brigadier General Warren so vividly reminds us, the ability to garner a broader perspective of our situation can prove to be a game changer.
So much of our day as leaders is caught up in dealing with the here and now. Too many meetings; too much information; caught in the middle between satisfying the demands of those we report to at the top and providing guidance to those who depend on us for direction. At a time in human history where technology has enabled us to be engaged in countless conversations simultaneously, it’s never been easier to get pulled down into the details and miss the larger understanding of what is actually unfolding around us.
Given the host of competing demands we have for our attention, the only we can we continually assess the best way forward is to make it a priority to assess if our present actions are actually contributing to achieving our future objectives. How can you help yourself adopt a broader perspective? Here is a starter list.
Make some Quiet Time: Leadership is both active and reflective. One has to alternate between participating and observing. Walt Whitman described it as being “both in and out of the game.” With all of the events and chaos going on in your day, it’s often hard to see the big picture. So guard some time every day for thought and reflection. You might be surprised at what you discover.
Decide What to Say No To: Learn to distinguish between what you will say yes to and no to. Often what pulls us off the desired path is that we lose some of our focus and become overcommitted to pursing the wrong goals, addressing the wrong issues or are distracted by the wrong priorities. Become clear on what is worthy of your yes and be bold about what you have to say no to. Don’t allow yourself to lose sight of your true objective.
Ask others their Opinion: The higher up you are in an organization, the more challenging it can be to receive truly candid advice. Seek out no more than half a dozen people who you can trust to look you in the eye and offer their perspective, judgment and knowledge. Why limit your options to only your limited view. Guard yourself from hearing and seeing only what is comfortable or convenient.
Remember, our perspective as leaders is based on the sum of our knowledge, experiences, and choices. It represents the way we see ourselves and situations, how we judge the relative importance of things occurring around us, and ultimately, influences our decisions and actions. Don’t allow the natural fog and friction of your present circumstances to obscure your view of what is really happening around you. Make it a priority to pause from time to time and gain some perspective. Step away from the all-absorbing details in front of you, and reconnect to the bigger picture unfolding around you. You just might be surprised at what you discover when you make it a priority to routinely take a broader view of your situation.