“A compass will point you true north from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way.”

-Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln (2012)

Over the years I’ve seen many leaders, including myself, fall victim to the consequences of tunnel vision—being so focused on getting from point A to point B that you forget all about the unpredictability that life throws at you. But while tunnel vision can be useful for train conductors and racehorses, as a leader among the swamps and deserts and chasms, narrowing your focus will only put you on the fast track to ruin.

The common pitfall most leaders encounter is thinking that leadership is some abstract concept with a set of lofty ideals to reach. And most will fail because they are unprepared for what the role actually requires. Leadership is a dynamic process that requires you to be hyper-focused on the present, hyper-aware of the past, and hyper-cognizant of the future. It requires you to be mindful of the human element, knowledgeable about each job that needs to be done, and conscious of the inevitable hazards and traps as you navigate the meandering path to achieving your team’s ultimate goal. To be successful, leaders and subordinates must move synchronously and efficiently towards a common objective, yet they must operate on differing fields of vision. Everyone has their role. The lower someone is on the hierarchy, the more tunneled their vision inherently must be. For specific jobs, tunnel vision is ideal because in a tunnel, your only worry is how fast or slow you are going. When a train leaves the station, the conductor already knows the destination, so the curves, the turns, and the environment through which the train will travel are not as much of a responsibility as is speed.

But leadership is as much about direction as it is about speed. Or in more scientific terms, leadership is about velocity. As you get higher in an organizational structure, the broader you must set your sites. Leadership without direction is just management. Leadership without speed is just dreaming. The leader must be the eyes and ears of the organization, navigating and pacing the team. Like a general on the hilltop, or a captain of a ship in the crow’s nest, you will be much more effective from a detached point of view. When I first started playing chess, I would make it my primary goal, above all, to put the king in check whenever possible. I was so focused on being aggressive that it would often lead me to put many of my valuable pieces in harm’s way. When I learned to step back, survey the scene, and begin thinking several steps head, when I learned to understand the past patterns of my opponent, and when I learned to understand the opportunities with every move and countermove, that is when I improved as a player. One can learn a lot from chess, and ditching tunnel vision is one of the primary benefits.

The payroll company I worked for in my later years of college was a small, nimble company that had the potential to make waves in the industry. The problem was that the CEO was old-school. He focused too much on immediate problems and revenue goals, and he totally missed opportunities in emerging trends and technology. He operated as “the little guy” with the narrow mindset, and allowed the larger companies to run circles around him. He was a train conductor at the helm of a ship. And the company’s potential growth suffered for it. 

Although it is crucial to have an end goal in mind—a compelling vision for your team to see and believe in, it is equally crucial not to prioritize it at the expense of your preparedness for unpredictability. There’s a downside of being a hands-on leader. For if you are too low to the ground, you won’t be able to see the swamps and deserts and chasms that lie ahead for your organization. Leave the tunnel vision to the train conductors. Instead, be the captain of your ship.