This morning I had some trouble finding my watch. I eventually did find it, wrapped comfortably around my wrist. Sadly, this sort of event isn’t entirely infrequent. My glasses often disappear until I find them perched on my head, and my keys are often sitting in the exact spot I kept looking for them. I guess if you’re going to hide something, there really is something to the idea of hiding it in plain sight.
Budding pilots are taught to keep their heads “on a swivel,” in case the big sky isn’t quite big enough at any one moment in time and place for more than one airplane. As pilots advance in their training, they learn how to do a dance with their eyes known as “the scan.” It turns out that it isn’t as easy to see an airplane and differentiate it from the backdrop of sky and earth as it might seem to the observer on the ground. The method that pilots are taught– developed from extensive research, is to divide the sky into roughly 10 degree patches, then, beginning on one side, look intently and briefly at each patch of sky, assess it, and finding nothing noteworthy there, move on to the next.
Vision is complex, so intertwined with brain function that most textbooks consider the eyes part of the brain. I have never done the experiment myself, but I believe those researchers who tell us that when you wear glasses that flip the world upside down, eventually the brain will turn it right side up.
Among the other wonders of the visual process, it turns out that while we may experience our entire visual field clearly, only 1% of our visual field is actually “seen” sharply on the fovea (the center of the retina). Outside of that 1% is a blur that our brain fills in. Some sources consulted for this post state very simply that if we look only straight ahead, we miss 99% of our visual field.
Another problem with finding stuff is the fact that it takes the eyes between one and two seconds to focus, so that continuously sweeping back and forth actually creates nothing but a blur. That is why it is necessary to divide the field of vision into small blocks, spend at least a few seconds looking at one block, and then shift to an adjacent block.
Leadership, to me, works the same way. As the head of an organization, one must have a vision, or in the words of management guru Rober Mager, “If you’re not sure where are you are going, you’re liable to end up someplace else.” But keeping your eyes too close to the prize may also lead you down the wrong path, as looking straight ahead for too long increases the risk that something will come at you sideways. Good leaders, it seems to me, focus intently on specifics, then shift their attention to another bit, making certain that they eventually take as wide a view as possible.
There is, also, the problem of attention. It is easy to look but not to see. I heard it said once that motorcycle accident victims often report that the last thing they remember was looking into the eyes of the driver of the car that plowed into them. The car’s driver was looking, alright, but not expecting to see the motorcyclist, simply didn’t.
It is not, after all, looking at the phone while texting or making a call that is the chief problem, but the fact that our minds are occupied on the content of the call or text and not on what our eyes are seeing. We may see the bicyclist dart in front of us, but not register the danger while we are trying to remember what is on the grocery list.
So, it seems to me, the adage that the best place to hide something is in plain sight can be true for several reasons; we may be missing what we are trying to find because we are sweeping from place to place and experience the world as a blur; we may think we are looking straight ahead but in reality only 1% of what is directly in front of us is clear; or our minds may simply be somewhere else.
Now, it could be that the reason my staff used to call me the “absent-minded professor” was because I often did things like search for my glasses while they were on my head, or look for my keys while they were in my hand. That could be the reason they called me absent-minded, but for the life of me, I can’t remember.