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


How’s Your Vision?

I know – your first thought goes to an image of an eye chart, doesn’t it?  In this case, however, I am asking about your vision of the future!  What does it look like?

If your answer is “I don’t know,” let’s take a pause and consider the value in answering that question.

Visions are important.

From a personal, team, and organizational perspective, a vision does create that view of the future.  Your vision is your destination.  It is the context that frames your next moves.  A vision provides you with a focal point … a spot on the horizon that becomes your primary motivation.  What will I do to get there?

Standing at the entrance of the Thomas Edison exhibit (The Wizard of Menlo Park) in the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History, a visitor is faced with the following quote written on the wall:

“The fact to be accomplished by me is the invention perfection and introduction into practice of a practicable system of illuminating by electricity which shall effect every object and take the place of the present method of lighting by gas.”

Would you consider this quote Edison’s vision?  Has he expressed his future focus?  Do you believe that all of his efforts regarding electricity were accomplished with the “gas replacement” vision clearly in view?

Visions are compelling.

Many organizations spend hours finessing their vision statements … looking for the best way to wordsmith their future dreams.

We do know that visions serve to bring teammates and organizations together.  Visions are meant to inspire.  So why do we see so many vision statements with a lot of words … and no meaning?

XXX Organization will be everything to everyone at all times.

OK – this is a bit of exaggeration … but it is representative of some visions that exist in companies.  We spend so much time trying to incorporate all of our present and potentially future thoughts into one statement, that the vision becomes broad, vague, directionless, and unachievable.  With the vision above – where would you begin?

I like visions that use “real” words.  Actionable words.  Words that conjure a visual as soon as I read them.  Words that I can latch on to … words that embed themselves under my skin.

My advice – don’t worry about what the vision statement looks like … worry about what it says.  Do you want to go there?  Will others want to go there?  Get real.  Get exciting.  Show that the future is brighter!

In 2009, Apple, Inc. COO Tim Cook, expressed his perspective of Apple’s company philosophy as follows.  (Tim Cook is now CEO of Apple, Inc.)

“We believe that we are on the face of the earth to make great products. We are constantly focusing on innovating. We believe in the simple not the complex.”

Does this vision inspire?  Does it move others into action?  Most importantly – does it stir you?  Does it grab you on an emotional level?

Visions take time.

Crafting your vision statement – whether personal, team, or organizational – takes time.  Or, shall I say, should take time.  How many hours do we dedicate to being the best we can be today – while failing to devote any time to think about tomorrow?

Instead, stop … look up … think.  Ponder about next.  Evaluate yourself (or your team or organization).  Have a frank conversation about where you want your future.  Don’t let others (people or environment) sway you to a place where you (or they) think you should be.  A true vision belies external influence and defines where you want to go.

  • Personally – a vision provides structure for your career development plan.
  • Within a team – a vision foretells of contribution.
  • Within an organization – a vision describes “next.”

Start with some of these basic questions – then create more of your own.  Ruminate on the answers.  Then start drafting that vision.

  • What is your core purpose?
  • What do you do well?
  • What is your value proposition?
  • Who is your future focus?
  • What reputation do you want?
  • What do you LIKE doing?

Important, compelling visions do take time to create.  However, when you get it right, the power of those words drives those who believe toward success.

Need proof?

  • Picture Amazon.com, Inc. as it began operations in 1994:  an online bookstore.
  • Picture Amazon.com, Inc. today: online books, yes … but much, much more.

Amazon’s vision statement –

“Our vision is to be earth’s most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.” 


Say it – write it – do it.

Think forward.  Think future.  Create your vision.  Then go for it.

Hoover Dam: A Study in Creativity, Innovation, and Vision

I had the spectacular opportunity to visit the Hoover Dam in early February 2012.  While gazing down on the Colorado River on one side and Lake Mead on the other, I could not help but wonder about the minds and leadership skills of the people who determined that this dam would solve problems created by a raging river … and that construction of this structure could be accomplished regardless of water, mountains, and rock.  Was the design and building of the Hoover Dam a result of the “leadership elements” of creativity, innovation, and vision?

An example of collaboration of state and federal governments and private enterprises, the construction of the Hoover Dam is a marvel of engineering embedded in the magnificence of a vast vista.  (Photos do not do it justice!)

The structure is 726.4 feet high; 1,244 feet across at the top; 660 feet thick at the base; 45 feet thick at the top; weighs 6.6 million tons and contains 3.25 million cubic yards of concrete in the dam, itself – not counting the concrete in the other structures.

The dam was built to serve a four-fold purpose:  flood control; regulation of irrigation flow; power generation; and silt storage.

With a $49,000,000 contract award to Six Companies Incorporated, work began on the construction of the dam in April 1931.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the dam in September 1935.  Operation of the first power generator began October 1936.  Five years to create “one of the seven modern civil engineering wonders of the United States” – as named by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1955.  (By the way, the dam was completed ahead of schedule and under budget.)

So where did creativity and innovation come in to play?  Some examples –

  • The creation of Boulder City, Nevada – the company town where 80 percent of the company employees lived during the construction period; designed as a model company town with green space and recreational areas.
  • The drilling of four huge tunnels through solid rock in order to divert the Colorado River around the dam site while excavation for the foundation was underway and until the massive concrete barrier was partially erected.
  • Construction of 30 miles of railroad track (a private and federal government collaboration) for the transportation of materials and equipment.
  • The use of a refrigeration plant to cool the poured concrete reducing the concrete cooling period from 125 years to 20 months and enabling the grout to be poured without threat of the dam cracking.
  • The building and use of ten aerial cableways spanning the Black Canyon constructed to transport men, materials and machinery up and down canyon walls.
  • The power plant construction process where the structure was erected with materials lowered from 600 feet above the ground instead of being raised from ground level.

Should you be thinking … “So what?  This was just a construction project.”  … remember the climate – remember the location – remember the times.

And who were the visionaries?  I am sure many contributed.  However, three stand out to me.

  •  Arthur P. Davis, Director of the U. S. Reclamation Service in 1918, proposed the concept of controlling the Colorado River through the building of a dam in Boulder or Black Canyons between the Arizona-Nevada borders.  He envisioned the possibility of power as an aid to enterprise, and he proposed a dam of unprecedented height and a reservoir of unprecedented capability.
  • Frank T. Crowe, general superintendent of Six Companies Incorporated, was responsible for carrying through the details of the contract.  A veteran dam builder, this was Crowe’s biggest challenge.
  • S. R. DeBoer, landscape architect from Denver, Colorado, was commissioned to design Boulder City.  His original plan to have a “garden city” was looked upon with derision, but later implemented in 1932 by landscaper William Weed.

Visitors to the Hoover Dam view monuments on the Nevada side honoring the dam’s designers, builders, and workers.  Etched onto the stone base of the American flag is the following dedication quote:

 “It is fitting that the flag of our country should fly here in honor of those men who, inspired by a vision of lonely lands made fruitful, conceived this great work and of those others whose genius and labor made that vision a reality.”

I’d be interested to know if you agree with the Hoover Dam as an example of creativity, innovation and vision.  And – what are your examples of these three “leadership elements” at work?


  • The Story of the Hoover Dam.  Booklets compiled from Compressed Air Magazine, 1931-1935.  Las Vegas, Nevada:  Nevada Publications.