What Children can teach us about Leadership: Seeing both the Trees and The Forest

By David De Cremer  and Hannah De Cremer

Leadership and management are two different things. Managing a work force today implies taking up the role of a controller in which on a weekly basis metrics are used to evaluate employees in how they execute the tasks that they need to do. Managers keep the boat steady and try to minimize disruption as much as possible. Leaders, in contrast, live because of disruption. Indeed, leadership is needed when the boat is rocking and change is needed. Change implies that the situation we used to know will be different in the future and this transformation process needs to be guided. It’s in that transformation phase that leaders create value for their organization. They do so by pointing out the direction that should be taken, for what reason we need to do so, how we will do this, and, finally, what kind of value it will bring to the organization as a whole.

For obvious reasons, people feel uncertain in times of change and leaders then also face many challenges when motivating them to contribute positively to the transformation process. A specific challenge that leaders face is to make everyone part of the transformation journey by being able to clearly communicate the overall picture of why the organization is changing and at the same time still be guiding the daily activities and responsibilities of employees. Motivating employees takes here a dual perspective in which transformation can only succeed if the work force recognizes both the forest (the overall strategy and vision) and the trees (the specific tasks that have to be done). Leaders therefore need to be able to take the perspective of different levels of action required for the transformation journey to succeed. Many among us consider this kind of orchestration where we see both the forest and the trees as something of “cognitive gymnastics” that especially under times of pressure is difficult to maintain. Some have argued that because at later stages in our careers, when we have developed ourselves into leaders, our mind becomes less flexible, we may learn from the young minds on how to balance a higher level style of processing information (the big picture) with lower-level more concrete styles (the specific tasks to do). And, I agree. Why? Well, I have started to learn some lessons of life by observing my four-year old daughter Hannah.

We may learn from the young minds on how to balance a higher level style of processing information (the big picture) with lower-level more concrete styles (the specific tasks to do).

Hannah has a strong interest in drawing and in her journey to develop her own style it has been fascinating to see how she constructs her own stories about reality. While her drawing skills have developed at a very fast pace (the young mind at that age develops in creative and spectacular ways) so has her way of looking at that reality she is trying to put on paper. Specifically, she has gradually become an artist able to look at both the bigger picture (e.g. a castle, a playground, a city) and the individual characters that are supposed to live in that context (e.g. dinosaurs, princesses, father and mother) at the same time. Yes, she seems to have transformed herself into someone who looks both at the overall scene and the details within that scene to shape up the stories that she tells her parents. To her, everything is related and both the general idea of the drawing and the details she adds to it are important.

This kind of working has definitely implications for making what she’s doing understandable to the rest of the world (as leaders also try to do). Indeed, when she starts drawing she has a story in mind that gradually builds when she starts adding more and more details. In a similar vein, when leaders respond to change they need to know the story of what is happening and once this story is recognized the specifics will have to be developed to get the work force going. In the case of Hannah, working this way allows her to make a drawing where a lot of action is happening within the context of a bigger setting. In more psychological terms, Hannah is clearly looking at the world in what can be called a “holistic” way where she focuses on the context at hand, but, in her case, this tendency goes hand in hand with also an eye for concrete details that she considers fixed such as the personality of a dinosaur or a princess.

Interestingly, within the psychology literature, humans have been shown to focus on and process incoming information in two different ways (Smith & Trope, 2006). Specifically, people either engage in more abstract information processing or in more concrete information processing. Abstract processing involves looking more at the central aspects that make up the context (i.e. the forest). It also includes detecting relationships between the different objects within that context. This tendency to zoom in on the relationships between the parts of a whole to see the entire context corresponds with being a holistic thinker. Concrete processing, on the other hand, involves looking more at the exact details of a situation and identifying the differences between these details and objects (i.e. the trees).

Being able to stand back and see the overall picture, but at the same time also able to embed yourself in the context to look at the more concrete reality seems more kids-play, but then in the difficult sense of the word kids-play.

The above makes clear that Hannah in her drawings considers both the trees and the forest in taking action. As adults, who often feel more comfortable within predictable boundaries rather than setting out on creative and rebellious explorations (Nayar, 2008), there are some lessons here to understand the art of leadership. As leaders, we need to be able to communicate in both clear and effective ways. We need to make clear why we are doing things, how we have to do it, and what we want to achieve. These three questions (why, how and what) require a kind of thinking that is fed by both an abstract and concrete mode of processing. This is not an easy thing to do because in the complexity of the business world, it’s easy to lose track of the vision when confronted with the details of the execution and vice versa. Being able to stand back and see the overall picture, but at the same time also able to embed yourself in the context to look at the more concrete reality seems more kids-play, but then in the difficult sense of the word kids-play. Indeed, the way kids move around the world by embracing both modes of processing allow us to identify the following dimensions relevant to being a more effective leader.

  1. Effective leaders can tell a story. This is important to be effective because a story that people can recognize themselves in promotes commitment to the idea and vision articulated. A story where both the big picture is clear and the details are nicely developed helps people to make sense of the situation at hand while at the same time appealing to their responsibilities. So, when engaging in story-telling imagine being a child drawing a story while being unlimited in how you want to colour the story.
  2. Telling a story is of course not enough. Once the story is out action needs to be taken. And, this is where kids are amazing examples. As I have witnessed many times, once Hannah has finished her drawing and the story line is clarified, the fun really starts. The idea now really comes to live and is continuously modified, which makes for the additional bonus that her parents sometimes have to listen to the story the entire evening, but every time the story is a little bit different. This ability to modify and adapt the story shows a high level of agility in a child’s mind and this is exactly what leaders need to do when dealing with changes. So, as leaders bringing your story and vision to life clearly should include an element of change itself. Indeed, as we all know, the only thing unchanged is change itself. As such, do not be afraid to modify your story to keep motivating people, but assure that the gist of the story remains.
  3. Of course, once a story is set into motion, the leader needs to stay confident and keep endorsing the direction that has been set out. This sense of confidence is something that kids in their favorite activities have abound. When Hannah has drawn a story, she truly believes in it. The story is hers and at that moment it defines her. It is who she is. She believes in it and she does not lie, she represents the reality as it is and she adds things to it that we as adults do not pay attention to anymore (seeing the invisible).
  4. Finally, motivating a group of people means that one also needs to work with diversity in the team. And, this is where the dual model of processing comes in handy, because likely your teams are composed of individuals using one of these two modes. In a similar vein, this diversity also reflects the cultural dimensions that many business leaders in today’s globalized world have to deal with. Interestingly, within the psychology literature, the more abstract reasoning (holistic) where the context at hand is focused on is suggested to be more present in collectivistic societies (a proxy for most Asian countries) whereas the focus on more concrete processing and analytic ways of looking at the world is more present in individualistic societies (a proxy for most Western countries). Studies have indeed shown that, for example, participants from East-Asia spend more time focusing on the context of an image, whereas participants from the US were focusing on the details of the image (Chua, Boland, & Nisbett, 2005).

These four dimensions that are clearly present in kid’s play potentially outline what leaders can do to promote a dual way of looking at reality when motivating others:

  • Be a participant of the story but also an observer at the same time
  • Be comfortable with changes
  • Stay authentic and tell the truth (honesty)
  • Accept diversity and work with it

Finally, and interestingly, these suggestions do not only help us to activate the child in ourselves to find our own leadership abilities (Nayar, 2008), but also can uplift us to transcend a specific context and culture. Indeed, as we noted earlier, these two modes of processing (abstract versus concrete) correspond with the way Eastern versus Western societies look at reality (i.e. context-oriented versus detail- and object-orientated). As such, the abilities of our children may therefore fit well with the skills needed to facilitate leadership in a globalized world. As it has always been the case, children are the future, and this also seems to be the case in the field of leadership in today’s world.

About the Authors

David De Cremer is Provost Chair and Professor in Management and Organisations at NUS Business School, National University of Singapore, a former KPMG endowed Professor in Management Studies and current honorary fellow at Cambridge Judge Business School, and a fellow at St. Edmunds College, University of Cambridge. He is also the founder and Director of the Centre On AI Technology for Humankind. He is named one of the top world’s top 30 management gurus and speakers in 2020 and is a best-selling author with his latest book being on “Leadership By Algorithm: Who Leads and Who Follows in the AI Era? His personal website: www.daviddecremer.com

Hannah De Cremer is an enthusiastic four-year old exploring the world by asking questions, testing ideas and wondering about life’s deeper meanings like the necessity to bring the entire Sylvanian family together. She is a global citizen (UK, Singapore) with a multi-cultural identity and foundation (Belgium, China, India). Early on she became interested in unfolding the reality of perception by focusing on her versus other’s interests. Young of age, she also served as an inspiration for the book “Leadership by Algorithm: Who leads and who follows in the AI era?

 

References

  • Chua, H.F., Boland, J.E. & Nisbett, R.E. (2005). Cultural variation in eye movements during scene perception. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, August 30, 102 (35) 12629-12633
  • Nayar, V. (2008). What leaders can learn from children. Harvard Business Review, November 10.
  • Smith, P., & Trope, Y. (2006). You focus on the forest when you’re in charge of the trees: Power priming and abstract information processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 90(4), 578 –596

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