Visual Leaders

"It’s visualizing that can provide us a sense of the whole, while still honoring and even celebrating the details out of which the whole arises."

- Visual Leaders, page 212

There’s something wickedly ironic about trying to share the lessons learned from a book on visual leadership using mere words to convey the richness of the content. And yet, that is precisely the challenge I need to rise to in order to do justice to David Sibbet’s book, Visual Leaders: New Tools for Visioning, Management and Organizational Change.

This book is jam packed with diagrams, templates, sketches, illustrations and cartoons that demonstrate how visualization tools and techniques can engage people and facilitate better outcomes – be that in business or personal contexts. You have likely heard the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Well, if I stopped to count all the images in the book and then did the math, this book could easily be another 460,000 words and 920 pages long! That’s a lot of potential learning, people!

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Do You See What I See?

"Explicitly working with images and words on paper invites an open discussion of how people relate to different ways of expressing things."
- Visual Leaders, page 47

Sometimes what seems ‘crystal clear’ to us can be quite foggy and complicated to another person. There are lots of reasons why this may be, however the point I want to make in this context is that we will be far more successful in helping someone else ‘see’ our point of view, if we use a combination of images and words to convey our perspectives, rather than simply using words alone.

This is not a new concept although it is one we often neglect. Consider assembly instructions – for everything from a model kit to a bicycle to IKEA furniture. We have more confidence when each step in the process is accompanied by a tiny diagram that shows us what part goes where and which tool we should use. Same goes for Google Maps and GPS devices. We can get by with just the written or verbal directions, however we are far more comfortable when we can see the route map and the street views associated with our journey.

Why then do we circulate a meeting agenda (a visual map of the meeting) only to rely solely on verbal discussions to share our thoughts and ideas on the agenda items with others? The simple act of using white boards, flip chart paper or SMART Boards to capture keywords, themes and ideas can help meeting participants relate more fully to the agenda items and is a powerful way to acknowledge the different perspectives that participants bring to the discussion. Try it at your next meeting and see for yourself how the conversation changes.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

From Mind Maps to Road Maps

"We value maps of places we visit when travelling because they help orient us but aren’t telling us where to go."
- Visual Leaders, page 16

Sibbet does a great job of illustrating how different visual tools and techniques can help leaders actively engage employees to:

  • improve employee alignment with and ownership of the organization’s vision and mission,
  • think big picture,
  • readily recall strategies and plans, and
  • understand how their individual work responsibilities contribute to organizational outcomes and results.

One way in which he helps his readers visualize how they might apply these tools and techniques in their own organizational situation is to provide mini exercises that let you play around with the tool or concept. The other way he does this is by describing, and showing, how the HealthEast Care System used visual tools to help employees ‘see’ their way to extraordinary results.

By telling the HealthEast story and, more importantly, sharing the visual products that HealthEast staff created, Sibbet helps orient us to the possibilities of visual leadership without telling us where to go or how to get there. We can see for ourselves what different ‘maps’ look like (from messy brainstorming ones to pretty public ones) and how they guided decision-making for a complex organization. Visual maps allow people to see how numerous and sometimes diverse pieces fit together into a bigger whole and understand those inter-relationships in a different way.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Seeing is Believing

"Human awareness is a dance between what we are aware of in our thinking and what we are communicating and hearing from others."
- Visual Leaders, page 51

I love the dance metaphor in the above quote. When we dance, and particularly when we dance with a partner, we need to use each one of our senses (except taste) in order to create a positive outcome. While many of us may think we dance like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, our actual moves are often more mechanical and clunky than we would like. With practice and the guidance of a good teacher, we can however become more accomplished dancers.

The same holds true for visual leadership. Visual leaders recognize that employees’ thoughts and previous experiences generally drive their behaviours and choices. A deeper awareness of our own thought patterns and biases is only possible when we interact with and receive input from other people. This exchange of information (the dance) is all the more powerful when leaders use multi-sensory methods and feedback to help employees literally see different perspectives and connections and come to believe that change is both necessary and possible.

Sibbet provides you with numerous tools and techniques that can help you develop your visual leadership muscles. You don’t have to be an accomplished artist to use graphic templates and incorporate visual tools to map out your work. You do have to silence your inner art critic and challenge yourself and your team members to doodle more often. If you are still hesitant to DIY, bring in a graphic facilitator to help you and your team get your ideas on canvas.

As Sibbet reminds us in the introduction of his book, “the younger generation is unabashedly visual. Videos, digital photos, graphics, interactive maps, games, movies and websites are taken for granted.” Quite frankly, the ‘older generation’ (and I’m really not THAT old!) has relied on visuals to champion their causes as well (think organizational charts, GANTT charts, pie charts, flow charts, bar graphs, and more recently PowerPoint and Prezi).

Technology is advancing the ways in which we communicate and effective leaders have recognized they need to leverage these new visual methods to engage successfully with employees and customers. So if a NASCAR driver can master ballroom dancing on Dancing with the Stars, surely you can learn how to become a more visual leader.

Well…what are you waiting for? Grab some Crayola’s and some flip chart paper and get visual!

If you have used graphic templates or have participated in a meeting where visual tools and techniques were used to help stimulate discussion and decision-making, share your story below. What did you like about the process? How did it help your team unleash their creativity and approach a challenge differently?

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Dianne Coppola

ABOUT Dianne Coppola

I am passionate about leadership development, change management, community collaboration and…reading! I’ve been writing for the Actionable Book Club since 2014 and love to share my book insights with folks like you...
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