Guest Column - May/June 2013

Embrace the Vase—Leaders Should Only Have One Face

By Michelle M. Smith, CPIM, CRP


Growing up, I loved optical illusions where I would see one picture initially and an entirely different item if I looked at the illusion from another angle. A classic is the inkblot-like illusion with a vase in the middle and two faces on either side. I was constantly amazed that what was so obvious after I discovered it could have completely eluded me initially. I knew there had to be a lesson in there somewhere.

Many leaders today recount a pretty familiar story of having to operate in an environment of budget constraints, discontinued programs, initiatives on hold, and a general state of waiting for the economy to fully recover so they can get on with the business of their business. They're frustrated and immobilized waiting for better economic news.

But other leaders have seen something else and tell quite a different story. They've confronted the challenges of the economic downturn—the aftermath of layoffs, doing much more with much less, and maintaining the trust and morale of their teams. Their view of the situation offers more optimism: They see it as an opportunity to recalibrate and re-focus their organizations, and they've positioned themselves to drive the improvement and recovery.

So what do these two very different "faces" of leadership offer us in the way of guidance? Is one an unrealistic optical illusion, or can both exist simultaneously? The answer is yes and no. Of course both perspectives exist, but as leaders, we have to choose which one we will embrace to move ourselves and our organizations forward. Regardless of the challenges thrust upon us, we always have the free will to determine how we elect to handle a problem.

Be Authentic

While challenges abound for leaders, your employees don't expect you to have all the answers all the time or to be perfect. What they do expect from you is for you to be authentic and to treat them like people. Not as accountants, receptionists or engineers, but to respect—and know—them as the people behind their job titles. Employees will be far more forgiving and generous with their leaders if they feel a sense of human connection with them.

Be a Business Leader

Your CEO doesn't want you to be an HR leader, sales leader, marketing or any other departmental leader. There are far too many silos in most organizations already, and they frequently prevent collaboration and the free exchange of ideas across the organization. CEOs want you to be a business leader with HR, sales, marketing or operational expertise. It's more than semantics—forcing yourself to view challenges and opportunities from a more holistic, corporate perspective will enable you to present your ideas in terms that align with the company's overall goals. You're also likely to see more opportunities and "connect more dots" when you expand your field of vision.

Lead for the Long Term

Organizations need leaders they trust, they need a sense of hope, and they need vision beyond the current challenges. Strategic, responsible, accountable leadership is essential. Building trust, setting the course, communicating priorities, nurturing the culture and making decisions for the organization's immediate needs and the long-term benefit of the company are vital. This isn't the time to sit by and wait out the rough patches, but to get out in front and lead. Step up to the challenges and do what's right for the company and the people who make it run.