I get overwhelmed at times. The noise around me is deafening (like when you need to turn the radio down to watch for a street sign!). I over-complicate a decision or get paralyzed by so many choices (I love data, maybe too much). Sometimes, the potential scenarios lead to fear (I am an expert at imagining things that can go wrong). But every time I get overwhelmed, it’s because I’m focused on the hood ornament, not the horizon.
I learned one of the most meaningful life lessons as Dad taught me to drive. I was nervous. One wrong decision could lead to a wreck. I can’t control the other people on the road; so, it’s not just my judgment to worry about. It wasn’t easy with Dad sitting next to me. Let’s just say it was tense. Challenging. Stressful. For me. For him. Raised voices. Rolled eyes. Mom intervened. Several times. In the end, I got my license and we made memories. What caused tears then leads to laughter now.
But I digress. Back to that life lesson. Dad’s advice seemed dumb but was life changing. It worked then. Even more valuable, his driving advice has proven meaningful to most aspects of my life.
I was scared. My eyes bounced back and forth, left to right, forward and backward. Over and over. If a car pulled beside me, I braked for fear they would violate my lane. I slowed down if a vehicle approached an intersection from another direction even when I had the right of way. You get the picture. It wasn’t a smooth ride. Speed up. Slow down. Sudden braking.
Dad suggested I focus my eyes on the horizon, not the hood ornament. (Yes, I know most cars don’t have them anymore, but they were quite the thing when I was a teenager; a small “logo” of sorts attached to the hood).
“What?” The challenges I faced were in front of the car, not on the horizon. I explained this to Dad (yes, I was one of those kind of teenagers). He was unimpressed with my feedback or tone (notice the theme?). I’m about to learn a “Karate Kid” lesson. He explained, focusing on the hood ornament produces an overreaction to every movement around me. I would nervously react to ordinary actions of other vehicles. But, focusing on the horizon produces a smoother and safer ride. My peripheral vision would still alert me of nearby threats and allow my reactions to be in the context of the larger road conditions.
“Really?” This made no sense. “So, you are saying I should not stare at the car next to me or the one at the next intersection?” This seemed insane. But I tried it. Focus on the horizon. Then focus right in front of the car. Then tried it again. He was right (you know how hard that is for a teenager to admit to his Dad!). Sometimes I had to brake quickly or swerve. But, every time, the ride was smoother when focusing on the horizon.
Turns out, Dad is still right. I occasionally try this experiment again. When I fix my eyes on the horizon, I have a smoother ride. Don’t misunderstand. I have to react when something happens immediately in front of the car. A pedestrian steps out into the road. A car swerves into the lane. Another runs a traffic light. The beauty of keeping my eyes on the horizon is my peripheral vision catches what’s around me, allowing me enough time to react as necessary. But, if I stare at the hood ornament, I overreact. When I lose sight of the horizon, I compromise my smooth ride and risk veering off-course.
The same is true for most decisions in life. When I keep my eyes on the larger picture, I make better decisions than if I focus only on the immediate circumstances. I don’t get lost in the trees. I can see the forest. But, sometimes in life, things happen that temporarily block our vision of the horizon. Things like relationship failure, financial crisis, job loss, and death in the family. They blind our ability to see the horizon, and then the road gets bumpy.
Right now, the world is wrestling with a pandemic that surprised us with immediate risks to our health, interruptions to our daily lives, and blows to our finances. All of us feel it. Some severely. What’s more, it confronts us with long-term, yet still unknown, impacts. We’ll get through this, but what’s on the other side isn’t likely to be a return to the way things were before this started. And, it might take a while to get through this.
The life-changing consequences (health, economic, social) are disrupting most aspects of our lives and careers. All at once. It is overwhelming. It is distracting. How do we navigate it? How do we address the immediate needs? How do we prepare for what’s on the other side?
When life gets crazy, how do we “steady the ride”? How do we look beyond the hood ornament?
Horizon gives hope and inspires courage
We long for something better than we have and bigger than ourselves. In our youth, we want a great life. We dream. Study. Train. Experiment. Begin careers. Start businesses. Launch non-profits. As we progress through life, we want to make an impact and leave a legacy. We all want to build a tomorrow better than today.
Without something bigger to work on, it’s easy to get lost in the activity of the day. Life consumes us if we let it, and that noise keeps us busy but unproductive. We’ll be exhausted at the end of the day with nothing to show for it. Spent with the realization tomorrow will be a repeat of today like that classic movie “Groundhog Day.” Not because there’s a lack of effort, but because that effort lacked purpose and intention.
Seeing the horizon gives hope and shapes a positive outlook. When there’s something better to believe in, there’s no room for pessimism. Knowing your risks and taking action to mitigate them is smart. But, locking your mind on the worst will depress you and encourage procrastination or resignation. In tough times, you need every possible advantage. Pessimism is a disadvantage weighing you down. Optimism is an advantage lifting you. John Maxwell says, “How we view things is how we do things.” Hope fuels motivation, encourages action, and attracts others to move you forward.
Purpose inspires us to invest more today with intention. It strengthens us to wrestle through today’s challenges, knowing tomorrow will be better than today’s struggles, and the day after that even better. For example,
- Children take music lessons so they can make music later
- Teens study coding so they can create games, and even find careers
- Students stretch themselves to earn scholarships
- Athletes practice their sport to win championships
- Neighbors raise funds to send disadvantaged children through a summer reading program
- Teams work overtime fixing defects so a new product can create new revenue
- Couples work a side hustle nights and weekends to retire early
- Friends train for a triathlon, raising money to cure cancer
- Ministers launch summer programs to build youth self-esteem and counter bullying
- Executives launch transformation programs to meet shifting market demands
Why all this hard work? Because a promising horizon inspired them.
Dr. Mabry Lunceford, a favorite Samford professor, was wise and encouraging like a campus grandfather. He knew the power of purpose. To satisfy my degree’s language requirement, I took Koine Greek (New Testament). I wasn’t preparing for ministry, but I thought it would be a good investment. My faith is important to me, and I often led Bible studies. I didn’t anticipate how challenging it would be (for me, at least). Before every test, Dr. Lunceford paraphrased Hebrews 12:2b: “The joy set before you is worth enduring this struggle.” Hope is powerful. That Scripture refers to divine hope, but his paraphrase got the point across: Keep our eyes on the horizon, the struggle is worth it. Purpose compels. Turns discomfort into growth. Gives meaning to difficulty and challenge.
Focus on that purpose motivates and guides action. It helps you make decisions, course-correct, and navigate crises like this pandemic. Whether you’re a business leader, entrepreneur, social transformer, community advocate, pastor, teacher, youth sports coach, or parent, focusing on your horizon will give you an edge, a steadiness, a clarity. Those you lead need that.
So, when you need motivation, when you’re overwhelmed, look at your horizon. What’s your purpose? What’s your goal? Remind yourself and those you lead. “What are we here to accomplish?”
Horizon motivates actions and creates focus
Purpose gives hope. But it is said, “Hope is not a method.” As critical as inspiration is, hope can’t be realized without action. The horizon shapes your strategy and directs today’s action.
Action is important every day, but more urgent in a crisis. Leaders use the horizon as a guide.
- The right action. Not all action is valuable. When directed toward the horizon, intentional action moves you forward. Otherwise, action could move you in the wrong direction.
- Shared direction. A shared vision keeps the team focused so everyone moves in the same direction. Otherwise, actions will counteract each other.
Strengths can become weaknesses. My CliftonStrengths assessment identifies me as a strategist. I’m good at thinking through a puzzle, connecting dots, considering possible paths, and designing a strategy. It energizes me. Every organization needs a great strategy.
They say every strength has a countering weakness. I’m often so invested in designing the perfect strategy, I delay action. I want those first steps to be unwasted. So, I hold. That’s where my gift becomes a vulnerability. The best strategy accomplishes nothing without a first step. An imperfect first step is better than no step at all. Sometimes, you can’t see clearly enough to develop a complete strategy. Action creates the clarity you need to finish designing the strategy.
Some friends are strong on action. They have to get started, even with no idea where they’re going. I’m exaggerating, but they’d rather run in a circle, going nowhere, than stand still and figure out the path. While I’m paralyzed from action trying to figure out a perfect path, they’re too busy taking steps to think through the path. Both strengths are necessary, but best when joined. I push us to think ahead, and they push us to get started. Action without strategy is like aimless wandering in the wilderness. Strategy without action is like being stuck in the mud. Effective action needs a direction.
So, when you need to take action and drive team progress, your horizon helps translate purpose into direction. The horizon informs today’s action. Act today with an eye toward tomorrow.
Horizon corrects course when distracted
Life happens. In our personal lives, cars break down, washing machines fail, roofs leak. In the office, equipment fails, competitors announce price drops, systems go down. They usually catch us off-guard and create disruption. They might require costly repairs. They distract us and even threaten to derail us. We don’t usually have much opportunity to prepare. It’s chaotic while sorting through the situation. So, we find ourselves working to get back on course. It’s easy to lose sight of the goal. Distractions and problems feed pessimism, which leads to inaction. Paralysis is defeating.
An eye on the horizon helps you avoid getting lost in the noise. If you focus exclusively on the trees, you lose sight of the forest. Turn attention to immediate matters, but don’t get lost in the weeds. Step back and look at the big picture: What are you trying to accomplish? Even in complicated situations, the horizon helps us make choices that get us back on track.
So, when the noise obscures your focus, keep your eyes on the horizon so you don’t lose sight of the target amidst the distractions.
Horizon clarifies decisions and priorities
You will be faced with big decisions along the way. New opportunities. Competitors launch new products. A new market emerges. Opportunity expanding to a new territory. The team may be swimming in a sea of projects and you’re faced with the choice of working a little on all of them, or focusing on a handful to finish them. When the list of value-adding projects is longer than your resources, you’ll face burn-out if you don’t make good choices.
The horizon is a guide as you evaluate strategic choices, understand the impacts of different paths, prioritize projects, and make decisions. This doesn’t mean you delay action in the here-and-now, you will have to react and respond; but it will inform those decisions. Focus is powerful. The horizon is a filter for how you spend your time, and which actions to take in a crisis. Ask yourself, “What’s really important here?”
Your actions today shape tomorrow. Short-term thinking creates risk. Small adjustments in the short term have significant impacts over time. If you leave L.A. for NYC, just a 10-degree shift in direction leads to a 500-mile miss. Without a course correction, what seems like a small change, could lead you to Quebec or Raleigh instead of NYC. Some of my worst decisions have been in response to an unexpected event where I reacted solely with a focus on immediate impact, without considering long-term implications. At times, you must take action with long-term negative impacts. But do so after a thoughtful decision. Sometimes, achieving the long-term vision is worth enduring short-term pain. You can’t ignore what’s happening right in front of the hood ornament, but with your eye on the horizon, you’ll make better decisions about how to react.
So, when you have big decisions to make, move your eyes to the horizon so those decisions move you toward that goal.
Horizon creates perspective when the ground shifts beneath you
Sometimes, the world changes around you. Without warning. Today it’s a pandemic, but there are so many other examples of “shape shifting” change. New technology often creates industry disruption:
- Consider how the internet impacted our lives over the last three decades. Online shopping led to dramatic changes in retail shopping, including the disappearance of large companies. How we consume media from entertainment to news. Remote work is possible at large scale.
- Smartphone disrupted many industries and business models, like transportation, banking, photography, music, television, radio, and advertising.
- Consider how these two disruptions led to dramatic change, forcing incumbents to adapt, reinvent, or succumb. Amazon led the way for retail shopping. Uber brought together independent drivers who use their own cars to provide consumer transportation. iTunes disintegrated the music industry. Netflix is disrupting entertainment. Robinhood is upending the consumer investment industry (game-changing free trades).
These changes were deep and irreversible. They are old-hat to us now, but they shook the ground of their industries and competitors at the time. While they felt fast then, they didn’t arrive as fast or catch us nearly as off-guard as this pandemic.
With such deep change, look at your horizon and ask yourself, how do I respond to this big event? Do I need to change course? “I realize this is a big deal today, but will this matter in 5 or 10 years?” If not, then focus your action on getting through the mid-term with an eye on the same horizon. Sometimes, you need to re-evaluate the horizon. What is really important and what is noise? Separate the important from urgent, the significant from the inconsequential.
When change is pervasive like these technology shifts or this pandemic, the answer is probably “Yes, I need to adjust course.” Sometimes, you need to recast your long-term goal and shift the horizon; but do it with intention, don’t just wander into it. As best you can, embrace the opportunity to craft a new horizon. But, be deliberate. Emerge on the other side better, through a thoughtful approach.
Focusing on the horizon doesn’t prevent obstacles and bumps, but steadies your response to them. It reduces the likelihood of overreaction to every surprise, burning unnecessary energy, and chasing distractions. When a strong reaction is necessary, it gives direction and shapes your action.
So, when the earth shifts beneath you, steady yourself and find your path forward by setting your eyes on your horizon. If you need to find a new horizon, do so on purpose, with purpose.
Andy Stanley is right, “Uncertainty and disruption are why we need leaders.” Leaders exist for times like this. Leaders in organizations of all shapes and sizes: Business, non-profits, schools, churches, communities, sports teams, and families. Leaders in boardrooms, conference rooms, classrooms, family rooms, and dugouts. Now is our time to lead.
Lift your eyes to the horizon
An important leadership skill (a life skill, really) is the ability to zoom in and out. Watch the horizon and respond as necessary to movement near the hood ornament. Handle the details of the day with an eye on the big picture.
Now is precisely the time to lift our eyes beyond the challenges and see the horizon. We need to take action grounded by where we are headed. We need to make choices with the knowledge of our purpose. We need the outlook that what we see and feel today is temporary. We may not know when or how, but there’s a future beyond this hood ornament. We can’t lose sight of it. Our team needs this, too.
In times of troubled seas, we need a steady captain at the helm. A captain steadied by: Experience of previous storms; Seeing a bigger picture; Understanding the destination: Ability to separate the important from urgent; Strength of intentional decisions; A hopeful mindset; and, knowledge that if we keep taking that next best action, and don’t give up, the chances of survival are higher, even when we don’t know the full sequence of actions required to get through the storm. Hope fuels resilience and stamps out surrender.
This is true for your organization. Your family. Your neighborhood. Your community. Your church. As you lead your employees, your volunteer team, your peers, your family, look for opportunities to help them be steadied by the horizon.
A healthy dose of perspective during this pandemic: “It’s probably not as bad as you think it is … and it probably wasn’t as good as you thought it was.” (Unknown)
Author: Kevin D. Phillips is a consultant, executive coach, and leadership developer helping clients increase profitability, improve customer loyalty, and navigate challenges of rapid growth. As Build Them Up® founder, he is on a mission to help leaders improve organizational results by investing in the people who create them. Connect at www.KevinPhillips.com or on social media at www.HowdyKevin.com. Subscribe to his community at www.NeverUnderstimatePeople.com for his newsletter, an introduction to his Great Leader Framework, and other resources.
Copyright © 2020 Kevin D. Phillips. All Rights Reserved.
Build Them Up® is a trademark of The KDP Group and Kevin D. Phillips.