Bifocal Leadership: The Dual Vision of Executive Success

By Scott Stephenson

Generally attributed as an invention of Benjamin Franklin in the 1700s, bifocals are eyeglasses with two distinct optical powers that give wearers the ability to see clearly objects both near and far. While improving the poor eyesight of many since then, Mr. Franklin’s bifocals also provide a lesson in the kinds of vision a leader must possess to be successful. One of the biggest challenges for a leader is to strike a balance between the effective management of the moment and the foresight to create the opportunities of tomorrow — to see clearly what’s needed both near term and somewhere down the road.

Meeting that challenge confounds even the most dynamic leaders. Typically, the push and pull of leadership produces one of two types of leaders — someone with an inspired vision but no patience or aptitude to execute on what has to be addressed now or someone hyper-focused on today’s to-do list but with no bandwidth or desire to mold what’s ahead.

Achieving the needed balance between long-term, lofty goals and short-term realities is a necessity in today’s highly competitive and innovation-driven business climate — and attainable by relying on both a deeply embedded, analytically driven company culture and intuition.  

Leaders today must be both data savvy and intuitive. The business I’m in — predictive analytics and risk management — demands a dose of intuition as a critical driver for decision making, but the instinct is predicated on sound insights derived from data we’ve harnessed over years in operation. We make decisions by analyzing the data we have, leveraging the power of the analytics to make the data actionable, and adding perspective to complete the decision making process. Without intuition in addition to historical perspective about how past decisions have influenced future outcomes, leaders at any company will find themselves operating their businesses based merely on what information they have today. That’s risky in any industry and particularly in those where innovations and opportunities emerge over longer periods of time.

Building a culture that assimilates actionable decision making through historical perspective in an analytically predictive manner while also depending on the inner thought process requires a high level of trust in each layer of an organization. I always strive to implement what I call a “tight-loose” approach to leadership. The “tight” aspect means fully understanding and appreciating the depth and breadth of the projects your team members are working on and why those initiatives are important — and making sure your team understand its role, too. I make every effort to be a good partner and encourage team members to understand the data, trust their intuition, and evolve their perspective — to address what matters today and what could happen tomorrow.

Conversely, the “loose” aspect of this tight-loose approach requires leaders to stop sweating the small stuff, giving direct reports the leeway to make independent decisions based on data analysis and their intuition — and only lend a hand when there’s truly a crisis. Creating a “tight” foundational relationship with your team allows you to trust that they can thrive on a day-to-day basis as you loosen the reins, which also boosts their confidence.

The power of “visionary yet present” was put to the test in an unanticipated way during Superstorm Sandy. Our company headquarters in New Jersey was bearing the brunt of the storm; meanwhile, we were providing claims processing and risk assessment services to virtually all major insurance carriers — an industry that was facing one of its worst catastrophes ever as the storm moved up the East Coast. We sprang into action — focusing on the needs of the moment by getting our employees and technology assets out of harm’s way while also providing real-time data to our insurance clients so they could assess the damages. At the same time, we were tracking, storing, and analyzing the superstorm’s data in a way that would enhance the ability of insurers to identify trends and earmark related risks to help policyholders meet the challenge of the next potential catastrophe. Today, we’re acting on that data and our intuition, harnessing the historical perspective to build new technologies and anticipate future risks.

Ben Franklin, as history attests, was a man not only with clear vision but foresight. To be visionary yet present — to see what’s now and understand what’s next — is truly the definition of bifocal leadership and the basis of success today and in the future. 

Scott Stephenson is president and chief executive officer of Verisk Analytics.