The deeper leaders entrench in the boardroom, the further they drift from the frontlines. The result is cyclical (and often cynical): leaders not only become ignorant about what’s taking place across silos, but communication can also become “one-way,” with employees discouraged from asking questions or raising legitimate concerns. Put simply, the higher leaders rise in a company, the harder it becomes to sustain a clear, big-picture view of things as they really are. Titania Veda, a journalist and independent strategic partnerships and communications designer who works with arts, media, nonprofits and social enterprises in Asia, Africa, Europe and the United States, sees this isolation and resulting narrow perspective as a fundamental problem in leadership today.“When you get too much press and you get so high up in the food chain, people are too scared to approach you anymore. If [leaders] don’t make an effort to get down to the floor and actually be with their teams, then you’re up there in the glass ceiling,” she explained in a recent conversation.So how do leaders gain and sustain an accurate, holistic view so they don’t lose sight of the big picture? Veda believes that “getting into the trenches” to be exposed to different people, processes, and unique ways of thinking gives leaders the knowledge and curiosity needed to develop this broad perspective. In short, “Meet and talk to as many different people as [you] can from every single sector, every single industry.”
Getting into the Trenches
As a first-generation Asian immigrant in an American high school, it’s valuable advice she’s lived — and learned from — first hand.
Coming from a background where Veda was shielded from labor, it was a bit of a shock when she learned that her school required each student to have “work jobs” in order to graduate. Every semester, every student in the school worked one of a diverse set of jobs, each designed to build work ethic and contribute to their community.
“I came in as an Asian never having boiled an egg before or touched a broom because of certain privileges you get in Asia… and they [the American high school] made you clean toilets, fold other people’s laundry, work the farms and cook for the entire school,” Veda recalled.
These jobs forced her to come down from her place of privilege and understand what those around her were doing on a granular level. For Veda, it reinforced how important it was to not lose sight of individual efforts and understand how a process works from the ground up — whether it be cooking for a school or running a business.
In today’s fast-paced business environment where leaders often jump from position to position, this sort of comprehensive knowledge can be hard to come by but should not be overlooked. “[People] get immediately entrenched as CEO or as a director and they don’t see it from the ground up and you don’t see what other people are doing,” says Veda. “That’s when you lose sight of the big picture.”
Seeing the Big Picture
Through her jobs in high school, Veda also realized the value of observing a diverse set of people — not only in her community but across cultural and geographic boundaries. This goes beyond just seeing them but studying them like anthropologists or social scientists to gain insights about new ways of doing things.
Veda experienced an eye-opening demonstration of how truly observing can transform one’s perspective on a reporting assignment at a time when she was emotionally in a dark place. The story she was covering centered on how Muslim and Christian graveyards were being dug up to make room for a highway.
“I went to a Muslim grave. It was raining and it was muddy, and there was one family waiting for their son’s body to be disinterred. It took a day to go digging in for all the bones,” she recalled. “The whole time the father was like, ‘Where’s his skull?’ The skull was the last thing that they could find. So [the family waited] all day for this skull to come in … this was a 24-year-old boy who died two years before. When they got all the bones together, his father was cradling the entire body. It was just bones.”
Witnessing this father’s profound moment caused something to snap for Veda, transforming personal darkness into light. By looking far outside of her own world, she gained an invaluable 360-degree perspective that she would have otherwise missed.
In spite of how critical the observation of new cultures and ways of thinking is, Veda reflects on how natural it is to shield ourselves from others.
“We’re getting more selfish and more self-centered,” said Veda during our recent conversation. “I know some young people who are very close to me who would just stay in one city unless work takes them elsewhere and it’s almost like putting blinders on… It’s great to be focused for sure, but I think you also need to have that much [more] of an open mind, which I fear sometimes is not happening.”
Today, Veda employs the lessons she has learned from the people she has met to help other leaders and executives look beyond their boardroom “bubble.” She guides executives to take note of the details and live experiences outside of their usual routine. When this happens, senior leaders are far more likely to tackle the wicked hard problems they often shy away from.
“That’s why I like to do projects outside and travel a lot,” she says, “because as soon as you leave that little bubble, you see what’s important again and I think you need that.”
Titania Veda, a journalist and an independent strategic partnerships and communications designer, talks about the moment she saw the “big picture” with Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center.
Hal Gregersen is executive director of the MIT Leadership Center and a senior lecturer in leadership and innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is the author The Innovator’s DNA: Mastering the Five Skills of Disruptive Innovators and founder of The 4–24 Project. As part of the MIT Leadership Center Video Series, he sits down with innovative leaders to explore how they are solving the world’s most challenging problems.