I think I know how Johnny Cash felt when he wrote that song.
I can see clearly now the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright sunshiny day
As I write this musing, I am near Essex, Montana, on the edge of the Glacier National Park. It is 4:00am in the morning, and I can stand on the deck of our cabin and follow the band of the Milky Way from the east horizon to the west horizon as it arcs across the dark Montana sky. I have been looking at the stars for over an hour and have also seen two shooting stars when they flamed out entering our atmosphere.
I don’t think I have ever seen the Milky Way from anywhere in Oklahoma. There is too much light pollution. The stars are there, they just can’t shine through the light that is all around us. Here however, there is so little light coming from the earth that the sky is truly dark, and the stars are all visible. This morning, with no moon, no haze or clouds, and no ambient light, the conditions are perfect, and I can see with absolute clarity the structure of our galaxy.
The cabin where we are staying doesn’t have wifi, and there is no cell phone signal out here either. It took a little while, once I got here, to stop checking my phone. It’s a habit, obviously. At some point though, it finally sunk in that I was not going to get any texts or emails, and I finally put it away. Still, there were several times during the first evening as we ate dinner and watched the sun set over the mountains that I started to reach for my phone to look up something, only to remember that I couldn’t.
It’s quiet here too. There is a train track that I estimate is several miles away, and yet I can hear the engines as they struggle to bring the cars up from the valley and take them over Marias Pass. Every once in a while, we can hear a vehicle on the two-lane highway down in the valley, but as it gets later, even that stops. We are just a long way from anywhere.
So, I find myself in the early hours of the predawn staring at a billion stars in an amazing band stretched across the sky, and I realize that the stars haven’t changed or moved; I have. I put myself in a place where there are no distractions and no noise to drown them out, and now I can see them clearly.
We live in a world that is full of distractions and noise. We live in a time where clarity seems impossible to find. However, like the stars, clarity is out there, it is just being eclipsed by the world around us. If we want to see clearly, we must find ways to reduce the noise.
When I am in the city, the lights all around me serve a purpose. They illuminate my immediate surroundings and allow me to navigate across the room, or across the street, or even across the whole city. At the same time though, they prevent me from seeing the galaxy I live in. I am well equipped to manage the things that are near me, but I am blinded to the vastness and complexity of the larger world.
It is easy to believe that more information leads to more knowledge and better decisions. In some cases, this may be true, but just like the lights in the city, information can be noise that prevents me from seeing farther out. If I am not careful, I can find myself trapped in a bubble that is well illuminated and highly defined but also constrained and small. Out of necessity and practicality, we must spend a significant portion of our time paying attention to the things that are close and immediate. However, as a leader, I must also create some space where I can escape that bubble and catch a glimpse of the galaxy to get my bearings.
A good friend and mentor recently reminded me that it was my responsibility to have a vision for where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. He cautioned me that it is easy to replace vision with strategy and then believe that the strategy is what I should hold on to. Strategy is the stuff illuminated by the lights and explained by the data. Strategy is the noise of our daily lives. Strategy must change as conditions change. Vision is the glimpse of the galaxy and the ability to see the stars and know where we are going on a much larger and grander scale. Vision is our north star. Vision survives present conditions.
I know I have been spending too much time lately looking down at the ground, lit by the lights of noise and distraction, and not enough time looking up at the stars. To change this requires that I intentionally make the effort to find space where I can block out the distractions and see the vision. I must find the mental and emotional equivalent of the mountains in Montana, where there is significantly less to distract me.
You may be saying, “I’m not sure it’s worth the difficulty of getting that far off the path and off the grid just to see the stars at 4 o’clock in the morning.” It is easy to tell ourselves that it is impossible to look up from the millions of things that ask for our attention and keep us focused on the ground in front of us. It may actually require physical distance from the noise and distractions to create the mental and emotional space necessary to see clearly. As I look at the stars, I know it was worth it for me.
There is something therapeutic about realizing, in a visceral way, the vastness of the world I am part of. I need to be reminded that the things I worry about every day—COVID-19, our balance sheet, products and services, and all the other strategy stuff—are rather insignificant, relative to the time frame of the universe. Compared to the galaxy, the part of the planet I spend all my time focused on is pretty small.
Likewise, taking time to “re-see” my personal and corporate vision helps me put my current difficulties in perspective. It helps me to acknowledge the transient nature of present circumstances. It allows me to relax and refocus in a way that creates a calm sense of purpose. These two things are connected. Getting away from the physical noise and distractions opens the door to seeing through the mental and emotional ones. This is why I strongly encourage our leadership team to take time off and completely disconnect from work. Separating ourselves physically from work and the associated distractions puts us in the position where we can also disconnect from the mental and emotional noise.
As leaders, we need to transmit purpose and calmness to those we serve. Our people have plenty of inputs that signal they should panic and flail around. They are experiencing the noise and distractions just like we are, and they may not be able to “see” the stars anymore. Great leaders have the ability to handle the noise on the ground while they keep their eyes on the stars—maintaining the vision while surviving the day. If we can’t do that, our people will lose vision too, and then they will perish in the turmoil of the immediate.
A healthy community has an awareness of the vastness of the time and space we are in. The humility and calmness that comes from this realization provides the strength needed to strive against the daily noise. Great leaders help block out the light and noise of distractions so we can see the stars of our vision. They remind us that there are a billion stars up there, even when we can’t see them clearly. Putting ourselves and our team in position to see clearly is our responsibility as leaders, and it is The Kimray Way.