Leadership Flashlight

What Flashlight Do You Carry?
Finding Your Focus

What is the difference between a manager and a leader? Imagine that two organizational members are dropped into a pitch black room and both are asked to describe the type of room they are in. Leaders and managers would use different tools to accomplish this task. A leader would employ a Maglite flashlight to look around the room whereas a manager might use an LED pen light. Maglite flashlights allow the user to change focus and gain a greater perspective of what lies behind the darkness. An LED pen lite provides vivid focus but in small increments. The Maglite would allow the user to more quickly describe the type of room they are in.

One difference between a leader and a manager is the ability to use different communication tools to focus.  Leaders know how to achieve it, when to apply it, and where to direct it. This is not to say that managers cannot be leaders or that organizational “titles/positions” entail an effective leader. Leadership behaviors can come from any rung on the hierarchy ladder. The key is that leaders are always toggling between articulating and orchestrating a bigger picture (i.e., vision) and the day-to-day administrative duties necessary to keep an organization thriving (i.e., enacting strategy and policy).  Managers tend to focus only on the latter, and this is because they employ fewer communicative tools than leaders do. Let’s tease out the “Flashlight” metaphor to better explore what I mean. Flashlights provide focus and clarity, and so leaders carry around a few different flashlights whereas managers tend to use the same one in all situations.

LED Pen Light: Provides bright, vivid, and clear focus of a very small area. Useful when communicating in an interpersonal situation (e.g., supervisor-subordinate).

Emergency Flare: Provides a brightly colored light that signifies assistance is needed. Useful when communicating during crises, periods of organizational change, or when complex problems emerge and lots of people need to be notified quickly. Can create panic and stress.

Search Light: Provides a very broad, blinding light that covers a large area. Useful when brainstorming ways to innovate, when problem solving, or when communicating from one to many. Can illuminate too many things at once and complicate what to focus on.

Maglite: Provides several focus options that allows the user to see things from a variety of vantage points. Useful in many different communication situations.

Focusing on one event entails overlooking other events, because when you focus on something you give it your full attention. Most humans are only able to focus on a few things at a time, and because of our perceptual limitations, what we choose to focus on becomes even more important (at least to us).  Focusing is usually an unconscious process that is the result of our past organizational experiences, assumptions, expectations, and intentions. An effective leader, however, turns the process of focusing into a more conscious act, something that they deliberately think through and can discuss the reasons behind their “objects” of focus.  Leaders more easily find their focus because they know it is a conscious process and they try out multiple flashlights that illuminate different parts of their organizational experience. This is what makes them seem like they have a clear, holistic understanding of the workplace. To become more conscious of your focus habits, ask yourself two questions, “What flashlight am I carrying” and “What am I choosing to focus on?”

About Zach Schaefer

Dr. Schaefer is a communication consultant who teaches individuals and organizations to use and view conflict as a tool.
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