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Leadership Secrets of Toys

May 16th, 2014

Ever notice how many books promise to reveal secrets?

I started collecting leadership books when I was in graduate school and I’ve been intrigued by them ever since. The first I acquired was “A Book of Five Rings”, on the leadership secrets of samurai warriors, followed by “There’s a Customer Born Every Minute: P.T. Barnum’s Secrets to Business Success.” Two of my favorites are “Leadership Secrets of Atilla the Hun”, and “The Leadership Secrets of Santa Claus” (Santa and Atilla apparently did not exchange secrets with one another).

When my niece was a toddler and my sister asked me to watch her for a few hours, I would generally take my newest leadership secrets book to scan between talking and playing. During one of those babysitting sessions I was mulling over a problem I was having in my work and I was too districted to peruse my newest book, “Make it So: Leadership Secrets of Star Trek the Next Generation.” I had been thinking about the problem for a few days and didn’t see any good options for solving it.

My niece was engaged in one of those sing-song dialogues that 3-year-olds have, partly with themselves and partly with an imaginary playmate. She was surrounded by her toys and one of them caught my attention. I knew that if I showed interest in that toy, she would decide that she wanted it. So I gingerly said, “Um, can I look at that?” She had obviously read The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, but after a few minutes she went back to her dialogue and I settled back on the couch with the toy.

It was a kaleidoscope.

An inexpensive, low-tech toy with bits of plastic inside a rotating cylinder. I started turning the kaleidoscope and as the patterns changed – same bits – different perspective – it occurred to me that the secret to solving my work problem wasn’t “out there.” All I needed to do was shift my perspective. I thought about my colleagues and how each of them might view the problem, and soon I had several possible solutions.

No matter how sure you are that your point of view is right, sometimes you need a reminder that your perspective is one of many possibilities. Ever thought or said, “That’s not the right way”, or “That’s not how I’d do it”? It’s at those moments that you most need to turn the kaleidoscope in your mind and see things from another point of view.

I keep a kaleidoscope on my desk to remind myself of that fact every day. When I become too fixed in my thinking or no longer believe there’s more than one action to take, I give the kaleidoscope a turn or two. The secret to solving problems isn’t in a book. It’s in changing our perspectives.