Should leadership always be big picture?

There’s a lot of talk about ‘big picture thinking’ in leadership and it’s always in contrast to being ‘detail oriented’. The question is, are the two ideas mutually exclusive? Can you really only ever be one or the other or does strong leadership lie somewhere in the middle?

Is it either/or?

A common line of thought among today’s leaders is that there’s no use worrying about the small things. There is no doubt you’ve heard the phrase “Don’t sweat the small stuff” more than once in your life. After all, most leaders are involved in creating or championing the vision of the organisation as well as setting goals, so it makes sense to focus on the bigger things rather than the small and most people can easily see the danger of only looking at the details and never looking high enough to see what the small things are working toward.

Of course, this limited view is a very real danger for anyone who is a little more detail oriented but there is also a danger for anyone who is strictly big picture. If a leader only ever thinks big picture, they’ll miss seeing what goes on behind the scenes and they’ll miss all the tiny cogs that work together to make the big goal a reality. It’s a little like learning to drive in a manual car with no concept of how the clutch works – you know you want to take a trip to the shops, but you have no real idea what needs to happen to make the car move forward.

So, if it’s no good getting bogged down by the details and it’s fruitless to only ever look at the big picture, how exactly do we find the balance?

  • Know how everything works together. This will be easy for some leaders of small organisations, after all, the smaller the team, the more you see of the day-to-day operations and it’s likely that you have a fair amount of hands-on experience with the smaller tasks. If you’re a leader in a larger organisation, spend some time really knowing exactly what each individual in your team does and how they all work together to make big goals happen. The best way to learn about it is by doing it yourself, even if it’s just one time! Leaders shouldn’t see themselves as too high up to get involved with the everyday operations and the smaller tasks.

    I worked in an organisation where job swaps were part of the internal culture and leadership development. The leadership team works for one day in the role of others – warehouse, customer service, debtors, etc – and in turn, those workers are given the opportunity to be senior leaders (even the CEO) for the day. This kind of exercise is a great way for everyone to get involved and understand what each role encompasses – the joys and the stresses!

  • Know you can’t tackle everything. Your team is here to take care of those small tasks, the ones that you couldn’t possibly stay on top of if you were just going solo. Beyond knowing how it all works together, a leader’s job isn’t to always get involved with those kind of tasks. Instead, your job is to make sure they all know exactly what the big goal is that all their hard work is going towards. Accountability, encouragement and direction are the leader’s tasks – wider goals, but no more or less important than the small ones.

It’s important to remember that while the big events and the big milestones are worth celebrating it’s equally as worthwhile to recognise and acknowledge the smaller steps that it takes to get to those big goals. Everything is a balance.

If you’re ready to find the balance between the details and the big picture in your leadership, People Make the Difference can help you to get your message across with the right words.To find out more, visit or call us on 0412 333 415. Our online leadership training videos start from $99 for a year’s access, with new video training added each quarter. Great value if you’re committed to growing your leadership potential.