In January 1992, I had the thrill of spending an hour with baseball great Ted Williams when he was an inpatient at the University of Florida Health Shands Hospital. As Williams was arguably the greatest hitter in Major League Baseball history, I asked him how he so consistently hit a ball that was 2.9 inches in diameter, traveled close to 100 miles per hour, and took less than half a second to reach home plate after it left the pitcher’s hand. His answer, “I don’t know, the ball just shows up as hittable,” left me befuddled at the time.
What I did come away with from our conversation was a sense of how much discipline is required to achieve mastery. Early in Williams’s career, certain strikes didn’t show up for him as hittable. He had to practice day in and day out, despite his impressive physical skills and incredible eyesight. He watched thousands of hours of film, studying the way the baseball left the pitcher’s hand, its spin, its movement, and its velocity. He studied film of his own swing to perfect his technique. Williams even broke the strike zone down into 77 mini–strike zones and determined his batting average in each one.1 He “conversed” with the ball as it rocketed to home plate, scrutinizing and learning from it, adding another observation to his archive each time. He took his visually recorded memory and built an intricate mental database of how different pitches show up, each with its own diagnostic clues and cues. Essentially, Williams mastered the physiology, biochemistry, and anatomy of the pitch and the bat’s relationship to it.
Whether it’s hitting a baseball, playing the piano in Carnegie Hall, or painting the next Mona Lisa, mastery exists once a particular skill becomes part of your intrinsic self-expression such that whatever you’re dealing with occurs as hittable. You don’t need to try to remember and apply what you master; you don’t have to think about what you’re doing. What you master guides or “uses” you. When you’re on your A game, effectiveness seems to flow out of you, effortlessly. If you try to describe the experience while in the flow state, it interrupts it. That’s why, in response to my question, Williams said, “I don’t know, the ball just shows up as hittable.”
Hittability, as it relates to leadership, refers to whether or not a specific leadership challenge (e.g., health care reform) shows up as hittable (or solvable) for those who are responsible for taking it on. A hittable leadership challenge is one that shows up for you as solvable and for which you simultaneously show up for yourself as capable of tackling. The hittability of a challenge is associated with confident and resilient leaders. Conversely, an unhittable leadership challenge is one that shows up for you as unsolvable and for which you show up for yourself as incapable of taking on. The unhittability of a challenge is associated with doubt and burnout among leaders.
Conventional thinking holds that the primary determinants of your performance as a leader are the result of what you know—your expertise, fund of knowledge, and skills2 (see Figure 1). According to this thinking, leaders should focus on honing those attributes by acquiring more experience, taking another course, and/or attending another workshop. Although these factors are unequivocally important, this Commentary argues that a consistently overlooked but equally important determinant of leadership effectiveness has to do with how leaders see the hittability of the challenge they are confronting. All the skills and knowledge in the world are not particularly helpful if your leadership challenge shows up as unhittable. Mastery is the result of the right skills and the hittability of the challenge, tempered by years of practice.
Thus, leaders must possess the requisite skills and expertise to be effective, but what distinguishes exceptional leaders is that they see, understand, and deal with leadership challenges differently than most people. They understand that when someone says that a particular challenge is difficult or unfair, such pronouncements only live in language. They are able to separate the facts of the challenge from the various narratives that the stakeholders concoct, which mitigates the drama that often derails progress on the challenge. This ability to “see” differently is key to leaders being able to frame challenges as hittable (see Figure 1).
That challenges show up as hittable for exceptional leaders is not the result of some rare gene or special gift. It is because the frame through which they see leadership challenges is different. The fact that challenges show up as hittable to them isn’t so much a function of what they’re dealing with or how they’re dealing with it. Rather, it is a function of the framing lens they bring to the challenge. Great leaders don’t just listen carefully; they also recognize that their framing lenses and their listening are inseparable. Both the place from where they listen and what they listen for shape their framing lens. Listening from the place of “this person has something important to say” and listening for the future she or he is committed to constitutes a very different framing lens than listening from the place of “this conversation is a waste of my time” and listening for the first chance to end it.
Framing lenses comprise the beliefs, values, and worldviews that shape our understanding of how leadership works; they mold our sensemaking (the process by which we give meaning to our experiences) of the various leadership challenges we encounter.3,4 A framing lens is both a frame and a lens. The frame part of a framing lens acts as a border, limiting what you can perceive—that is, what you observe is confined to the area within its boundaries.
And the lens part of a framing lens acts as a lens through which we see. Lenses always create some level of optical distortion which results in image deformation. Lenses can also be smudged, obscuring what shows up. We always see others through our framing lenses, and they see us through theirs. When we change our framing lens, we change what we see. But because we look through our framing lenses rather than at them, they are often imperceptible to us.
Intriguingly, in addition to our own personal framing lenses, the future that we are “living into” is the framing lens for the present. This is especially important when dealing with difficult challenges where the future is uncertain. As Fritz J. Roethlisberger, the late Harvard Business School professor, observed 50 years ago: “Most people think of the future as the ends and the present as the means, whereas, in fact, the present is the ends and the future the means.”5 In other words, having a clear picture of the future you want to create is critical because it acts as an inspiration that alters your ways of being and acting right now so as to bring that desired future into the present. A stand on behalf of a powerful, compelling goal (future) alters the possibilities in the present.
The future is our primary temporal dimension of existence because we invariably press ahead into future possibilities.6 You live from the future but you only live in the present, and the future is the means by which you change your behavior in the present (ends). In particular, if the future you’re committed to is a future that is bigger than you are (larger than your personal agenda), your commitment will create a powerful narrative that shifts the unhittable so that it shows up as hittable. The resulting new behavior “summoned” by your commitment and the powerful narrative that accompanies it shapes the present, which in turn alters the future, and the cycle repeats itself.
Look for yourself. If the future you’re living into is bleak, your leadership challenge (e.g., complying with the Affordable Care Act) won’t show up to you as hittable. Your ways of being and acting—resigned and defeated—will be consistent with that future. On the other hand, if the future you’re living into is one that shows up for you as optimistic and you show up for yourself as capable, your ways of being and your actions will correspond with that future. You’ll be motivated and resilient.
Given the importance of the framing lenses you bring to any leadership challenge (see Figure 2), the key question becomes: How do we reframe our health care challenges so they show up for us as hittable, and how do we reframe ourselves so we show up for ourselves as able and confident?
The beliefs, values, and worldviews that make up our framing lenses are constituted in and accessible through language. They come to mean what they mean as a result of our conversations about them. While they tend to reside in our subconscious, our beliefs, values, and worldviews live day-to-day as the stories (or narratives) we tell ourselves to make sense of our experiences and provide continuity between the past and present. British literary scholar Barbara Hardy7 reminds us that “we dream in narrative, daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate, and love by narrative.”
Thus, to change our framing lenses when our challenges are not showing up for us as hittable, we have to change our narratives through a linguistic process known as reframing (see below).8 Your narrative about the future has an enormous impact on the present.3 For example, rather than denouncing health care reform, what can you say about it that would inspire you? What complaining and blaming could you let go of so that you assume less of a defensive posture and live into a future with greater possibilities? Once you begin to explore these options, you’ll discover that the future you are committed to starts to shape your being and actions in the present so that they’re consistent with realizing that future. Unless and until we shift the way in which health care reform shows up for us, from a problem that is someone else’s to one that we’re each responsible for, our default ways of being and acting will prevail, and the future will just be a continuation of the past.
Broadly, there are two types of reframing—content and context.9 Content reframing entails a different way of looking at a leadership challenge. It occurs when the leader is able to see a different meaning (interpretation) of the situation he or she is dealing with. For example, the leader may see the Affordable Care Act as an opportunity to learn to provide more cost-effective care, rather than a hassle. As a consequence of content reframing, there is a shift in the way in which the situation shows up for us, and changes in our way of being and our actions naturally follow. In content reframing, the framing lens remains the same while the sensemaking of the situation is changed directly.
Context reframing, on the other hand, is indirect in that the reframing is accomplished by placing the leadership challenge in an alternative context, in a different light. It involves changing your narratives that frame the leadership challenge, which alters the way in which it shows up for you (e.g., as a benefit rather than a problem) and, inherently, your behaviors change. For example, the frame (context) through which the leader sees the Affordable Care Act might shift from “Don’t tell me how to practice medicine,” to “In order to continue to practice medicine, I have to abide by these new rules and regulations.”
Both types of reframing are inextricably linked, and as we reframe in our day-to-day activities, we often use both simultaneously. Both methods use language (which includes feedback from others) to shift the unhittable so that it shows up as hittable.
Reframing is by no means easy. It doesn’t deny that we all have our long-standing biases, inherited investments, and entrenched perspectives. But we are more likely to face our challenges successfully if they are seen as hittable (i.e., as opportunities for growth), rather than unhittable (i.e., as defeats).
In our example, we often cannot alter the content of health care reform, but we can always choose our framing lens by way of changing the narrative we tell ourselves. “We spend much of our lives struggling with the way things are,” note philosophers Bruce Hyde and Jeffery L. Bineham,10 “rather than savoring the malleability that a constitutive view of language, fully distinguished, might lend our world.” In order to create a new framing lens, we can’t be constrained by past narratives. Effective leaders understand their organization’s history and the language that created it, but they don’t let those narratives become barriers to needed change. A new future requires a new narrative.
Following Figure 2, we can ask ourselves: What can I say about the future that I am committed to so that it provides me with such a compelling narrative that my leadership challenge, no matter how daunting, shows up for me as hittable and I show up for myself as competent? Once your challenge shows up for you as hittable and you show up for yourself as capable, the appropriate ways of being and acting that will ensure your effectiveness will intrinsically follow.
When they are hitting well, baseball players often say that the pitched ball shows up bigger than it actually is and thus as more hittable. Former first basemen for the Red Sox George Scott put it this way: “When you’re hitting the ball [well], it comes at you looking like a grapefruit. When you’re not, it looks like a black-eyed pea.”11 This relationship between hittability and performance isn’t limited to baseball. Tennis players say the ball looks bigger, golfers say that the cup looks bigger, and basketball players say that the hoop looks bigger.12 Good leaders know this relationship as well. As they get better at what they do, hittability goes up (i.e., leadership challenges look less daunting).
Mastery of any discipline entails both the requisite skills and the ability to see things as hittable. Skills take years to acquire and, as they are honed, they tend to increase a person’s ability to see things as hittable. But even without years of experience, a leadership challenge can very quickly shift from unhittable to hittable if it is seen through the right framing lens. Because the future is always the framing lens for the present, the hittability of any leadership challenge is very much a function of how the leader sees the outcome (future) of the leadership challenge. For our example, those who see health care reform in a positive light will see it as hittable, while those who see it negatively will experience its challenges as unhittable.
Seeing things as hittable doesn’t mean you won’t strike out from time to time. It won’t inoculate you from all the curves that life throws at you. And, your ability to shift the previously unhittable to the hittable won’t be, first and foremost, because you acquired some new aptitude or know-how. Rather, it will be the result of reframing your circumstances so you see them as hittable. It’s not about knowing more or working harder; it’s about seeing differently.
Whether one is learning to play the piano, hit a baseball, or lead more effectively, the goal of training and practice is to shift the way in which the phenomena specific to that domain (the piano keys, the baseball, the leadership challenge) show up for the learner. This reframing, which is a linguistically mediated process, enables the learner to progressively make finer and finer distinctions, which naturally translate into more productive ways of being and acting. And because the reframing process occurs by way of language, which grants us access to our challenges and their contexts, it is eminently teachable and learnable.
Framing lenses aren’t inherently bad—without them, we’d have a hard time making choices. Every challenge you deal with is circumscribed by a framing lens.3 But, unlike the content of your leadership challenge, you’re never stuck with any particular framing lens.
If you want to improve your effectiveness as a leader, you can do what many people do: take another course, hire a coach, or keep slugging away at the proverbial to-do list. Those strategies may help, but the real strike zone is found in your framing lens. That’s the path to hittability.