Leadership Lessons from a Jigsaw Puzzle

Jigsaw puzzle - blog imageI operate at a fast pace. I walk fast. I talk fast. I like projects that can be completed quickly. Quick is good. Start – finish – move on to the next.

This preference for fast doesn’t equate to a desire for simple, however. No – I love the complex. I just like to complete the complex – quickly.

Take, for example, my fondness for jigsaw puzzles. Sitting down with puzzle pieces spread all over a table has always been an enjoyable activity for me. I love the challenge of putting pieces together, but I have decided long ago that 500 pieces are “just right” time-wise.

This past Christmas I received a jigsaw puzzle for a Christmas gift. The puzzle picture shows a representation of African animals – zebras, rhinos, hippos, giraffes, impalas, leopards – all nestled in and around the African savannah. This puzzle had all the trappings of a perfect gift: a great activity – a remembrance of a great past travel escape – and given with love.

Perfect – except for one thing. This is a 3,000-piece puzzle. This bears repeating – 3,000 pieces. 6 times larger than my preferred puzzle size. 4 feet by 3 feet. So many pieces I needed to bring in a “satellite storage location” (a card table) to hold some of the pieces.

The dilemma: my internal pressure of pace is now battling 3000 pieces.

Progress to date: I am still working on it.

In the last four months, I have experienced huge amounts of frustration. I have had to rethink my approach – several times. I have often walked away from this behemoth. Many times I have wanted to just shove the puzzle in the box and take it to a new home.

But I don’t. I know that if I give up now, I will always wonder “what if”. The immediate satisfaction I would gain from uttering “farewell, you nemesis” will be overcome with the regret of what I didn’t do, the task I didn’t accomplish.

Putting this in perspective:  Slowly but surely, it is all coming together, one-piece-at-a time. Sometimes you just can’t rush things. Sometimes you have to enjoy the moment – that sense of accomplishment with small wins – knowing that these small wins will contribute to achievement of the bigger goal.

“Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”

-Warren G. Bennis

Through this context, I see leadership lessons that can be derived from this puzzle-completion experience.

Lesson 1: Leadership is about being goal-oriented.  However, movement toward that goal doesn’t come at the same pace each time. Each small move forward is an indication of progress. So have the patience to let it happen.

Lesson 2: Vision is key. A leader without a vision is similar to a pile of puzzle pieces with no accompanying image of the final result. Keep the bigger picture in mind. And don’t give up!

Lesson 3: Distance is an ally. Take the time to walk away and gain a new outlook on the situation. Before you do anything rash or finite, breathe and reevaluate.

Lesson 4: Leadership is a dynamic skill. When you meet an obstacle, change your approach. Flexibility is key.

In this interconnected, relational world, we each represent a piece of a puzzle linked with another. No piece is an island.

Regardless of your leadership challenges, the size of your change initiatives, or the obstacles you see in front of you, please remember the lessons of the 3000 piece puzzle and

“Have patience. All things are difficult before they become easy.”

– Saadi