How to Teach Big Picture Thinkers
I have just written a blog on some very rough and preliminary thoughts on the need for a college curriculum to teach unselfishness. That has inspired me to think about something that I think is related: how to teach students to be what I call “big picture thinkers.” What do I mean by that?
Well, I guess I mean people who are both thinkers and doers but from the perspective always of what is best for the overall organization, country—as opposed to what is best for my organizational unit, my group, my political party.
As some of my readers know, I had the privilege of working full-time for the University of South Carolina for over three decades. And that privilege included working for multiple leaders who modeled for me how to be a big picture thinker.
Example: one day in 1983 I magically became an instant Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs for five of the University’s “University Campuses”. My boss, the Chancellor, sat me down for an introductory homily, the kind for which he was a legend in his own time and asked me if I knew “the difference between a Vice Chancellor and a Chancellor”. I replied that I did not. The answer: “the VC is a mouse trying to act like a rat; and the Chancellor is a rat trying to stay out of the trap!”
He went on to present two main operating principles:
1. “Sometimes, John, we are going to be presented with making a decision between what is best for our units of responsibility and what is best for the greater University. And when faced with that choice, we will always choose the Univesity.”OK, I got the picture. That was “big picture thinking.”
2. “John, in this office we are going to always make decisions as if we were going to spend our whole careers in this job at this university, and in a manner that we would be able to live with the consequences of those decisions for the balance of that career.” And we did. He and I both spent our entire campus based careers at USC.
And I had another boss at USC whom I bet if he said it once, he preached to me at least a hundred times: “John: we must do what is best for the people of South Carolina.” Now there’s a novel idea.
I could go on. I had so many mentors that taught me how to be a big picture thinker. Actually, for me, this process started with my corporate CEO father who worked for the same paternalistic company for 43 years and used to preach to me: “Son, find a good company and stick with it.” Admittedly, it is easier to learn big picture thinking when you are surrounded by people who love the organization, in part, because the organization loves and honors them. Gone are those days. And my process of learning how to be a big picture thinker continued in college, especially when I got very active and held a senior leadership job in Student Government –and when a number of my professors took me under their wings to mentor and teach me how to do what was best for the College.
So how do we teach “big picture thinking” in this new era? I still think it all comes down to mentoring, how adult educators mentor our students, and how we senior educators mentor our junior colleagues. But we have to be very clear and intentional what we are mentoring our charges to do: in this case, practicing big picture thinking.
As I watch the children whom we have elected to Congress refusing to play with each other nicely in the same sandbox during this current discussion of deficit reduction, I have to conclude that most of these elected officials were not taught to be big picture thinkers. Too bad. We all are going to be the losers for this.