The World From Upside Down
We are all different. It is the variety of our viewpoints, our personalities, our life experiences that makes the world an interesting place. We should take great pride in our differences, and we should go to great lengths to put ourselves in the shoes of others, to see things with different eyes. The visionary leader has the capacity to understand many perspectives, to see the world from many views.
We all have things we like to do and skills we are secure about using. We also have tasks we dislike, areas where we tread with fear. Some of my friends, when they need to add sound cards and other peripherals to their computers, hire technicians. I think, “How silly! Anyone can open up a computer and add these things!” But when I take my car to the Jiffy Lube to have the oil changed, some of my friends probably think, “I can’t believe how stupid [or lazy] Gary is.”
When I got to college, I met a fellow from Tarrytown, New York, where there was a General Motors plant, just as there was in my hometown of Anderson. He told me about his town: “The middle-income people live up on the hill; the poor people who work at the GM plant live in the valley.” Talk about differing perspectives—in my world, the affluent people worked at the GM plants and the poor people were trying to get on at GM.
Sergio Zyman, former marketing master of Coca-Cola and author of The End of Marketing as We Know It, points out that marketing success is really about studying people—why they do what they do and how you or your enterprise fits into that. Study people’s jokes, see what movies they line up for, check out what music they listen to, what they wear, what they eat, what they drive, what kinds of pets they have. Stop and think about how these things have changed over time.
To evaluate new (often cheaper) shopping bags for BOOKSTOP, I filled them with books and swung them over my head to see if the bottom popped out (do not try this at home). Over the years, I’ve brought home thousands of books, and I know the sadness of finding the book you’ve been hunting for years – and having it fall on the greasy parking lot before you get it to your car. Today, some bookstores provide book bags that work; others give out cheap plastic bags fit only for light items. The leaders of the latter companies aren’t out there using these bags. At least they aren’t buying many books when they do. We must all reach down (or up) and try to put ourselves in the shoes of others, particularly the shoes of our customers.
Understanding the world around us means understanding people — lots of people. Not just ourselves, not just our friends and family, not just people who think like us. It means putting ourselves in the shoes of as many different kinds of people as we can discover.
One thing that holds many people back is that they hang out only with people who agree with them. It’s easy to talk to people who share your religion, your politics, your racial background, or your club membership. That’s not the challenge. Can you hold a conversation with an over-the-road-trucker, a member of the Communist Party, an evangelical Christian, or a hip-hop artist? Can you enjoy chatting with a divorce lawyer, a plumbing fixtures salesman, an Avon lady, a dance instructor? You may be asking, “Why would I want to?” But understanding the world comes from crossing boundaries like these.
It’s equally important to study ideas you disagree with strongly. When I was in college, I had the privilege of being taught by Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize–winning economist. It was the early 70s, a turbulent time on college campuses. Some of the students in the class were ardent socialists and would argue the merits of Marxism with Friedman. These were bright kids, totally committed to their socialism. And yet, every time, Friedman would demolish their arguments in short order. Over time, it became apparent that he won these arguments because he knew more about socialism than anyone he ever ran into. He had read every book, he had taken Marx and Engels very seriously, he had studied all the nuances of socialist theory. In short, he understood the “enemy” better than they understood themselves — a pretty tough position to attack.
When you study a subject, whether socialism or management techniques, abortion or the environment, do you look only at the books and magazines and websites that agree with you, or do you try to look at the issue from different angles? Do you make an honest effort to see the world through the eyes of others, including the eyes of your opponents?