Leadership in the Midst of Disruption

Posted by Chuck Kocher
On November 9, 2018

Big Picture in LeadershipHow the Big Picture is Essential for Leadership in the Midst of Disruption

For most Americans, Franklin D. Roosevelt is remembered as the 32ndPresident of the United States and as the architect of The New Deal. But before he ascended to the Presidency, he had another job that was unbelievably important. As Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he was responsible for the administration of the giant Navy Department. Some 65,000 individuals were employed there and the department had a budget that accounted for 20 percent of all federal expenditures. In that role, he demonstrated how the big picture is essential for leadership in the midst of disruption.

What the Disruption Looked Like

At the time Roosevelt took on the task, the United States was at peace. There was, however, a potential war looming. He had to equip a peacetime navy for the threat of war. That was a massive shift. But there was more: Naval warfare had changed and he was responsible for creating a navy the was second to none in a time of turbulence—and with an infrastructure that wasn’t set up for modern naval warfare.

Many business leaders find themselves in a similar kind of situation. The business world around them is changing. They need to make adjustments (transformations, if you like) in order to thrive in a new world. The opportunities are incredible, but there are significant risks as well.  How did Roosevelt manage the challenge?

Getting the Big Picture

Smart leaders know that while details are important, they need to have the big picture. Roosevelt had a large world map in his office with pins that designated every ship in the U.S. fleet; where all military and civilian personnel were; and where various navy yards, docks, and supply centers were (and how many people were employed at each). If anything changed, the pins on the map changed. It was a dynamic model of the organization. It was constantly changing and he kept track. In her book, Leadership in Turbulent Times, Doris Kearns Goodwin described the situation this way:

With a glance at his wall map, Roosevelt noted dozens of useless navy yards, originally designed for the maintenance of sailing vessels presently operating at a great loss due to patronage and political pressure. Rather than closing these obsolete yards, he conceived of a new plan. He would convert each one into a specialized industrial plant for the manufacture of vessels and equipment needed for an expanded modern navy. The old Brooklyn Navy Yard would specialize in radios to outfit the fleet. Ropes and anchors and chains for battleships would become the province of the Boston yard. Cruisers would be built in Philadelphia, submarines, and destroyers in Norfolk.1

Vision and Strategy

Having the big picture enabled Roosevelt to develop a vision and a strategy for turning the United States Navy from a peacetime status to the most powerful naval fleet in the world. Naturally, there were a lot of other factors (and a lot of other people) involved in this process, but that simple tool—an always updated map—gave him the ability to consider the best way to move forward.

1How FDR learned to embrace humility — and became a better leader for it

Photo by GDJ