How The Six Horizons Of Work Relate To Personal Leadership And Management

After decades of coaching many CEOs and senior leaders I’ve learned there is one skill that truly separates a good versus a great leader and it has to do with where they spend most of their thinking time. We all tend to spend time doing the things that come the most naturally to us. Some are analytically trained and think like a strategist without any difficulty. Others are terrific drivers and can easily motivate a team to accomplish great things. Both of these skill sets are terrific and great leaders can do both of them well.

So why do some leaders struggle while others seem to be able to climb their next mountain without much difficulty? I’ve found the answer by studying what great leaders spend most of their time doing, and not doing, and it usually reflects the ‘thinking’ altitude they prefer.

David Allen, the Getting Things Done consultant wrote an excellent article that was published in the New York Times discussing what he calls “The 6 Horizons of Focus.” These horizons are what can be used to determine where you spend the majority of your think time and how you can improve your leadership.

At our firm, MarketCues, we have found The Six Horizons to be a valuable benchmark for CEOs and executive leaders. The primary considerations are in relation to the six horizons of work that help determine what type of thinking a CEO prefers based on where they spend most of their time –– in the air or on the ground, so to speak. Using David Allen’s definitions below, you can assess yourself by approximating the percentage of time every week that you spend in each of the six horizons. This will inform you whether you are more a macro or micro leader.

1. On the Ground level: Projects

This is the ground floor – the huge volume of actions and information you currently have to do and to organize, including emails, calls, memos, errands, stuff to read, stuff to file, things to talk to staff about, etc. If you got no further input in your life, this would likely take you 300-500 hours to finish. Just getting a complete and current inventory of the next actions required at this level is quite a feat.

2. 10,000 level: Roles Personal Management

This is the inventory of your projects – all the things that you have commitments to finish, that take more than one action step to complete.  These “open loops” are what create most of your actions. These projects include anything from “look into having a birthday party for Susan” to “buy Acme Brick Co.” Most people have between 30 and 100 of these. If you were to fully and accurately define this list, it would undoubtedly generate many more and different actions than you currently have identified (But likely they are in your subconscious anyway).

3. 20,000 level: Long-term Goals

What’s your job? Driving the creation of a lot of your projects are the four to seven major areas of responsibility that you at least implicitly are going to be held accountable to have done well, at the end of some time period, by yourself if not by someone else (e.g. boss.) With a clear and current evaluation of what those areas or responsibilities are, and what you are (and are not) doing about them, there are likely new projects to be created, and old ones to be eliminated.

4. 30,000 level: Mission and Values

Where is your job going? What will the role you’re in right now be looking like 12-18 months from now, based on your goals and on the directions of the changes at that level? We’ve met very few people who are doing only what they were hired to do.  These days, job descriptions are moving targets. You may be personally changing what you’re doing, given personal goals; and the job itself may need to look different, given the shifting nature of the work at the departmental or divisional level. Getting this level clear always creates some new projects and actions.

5. 40,000 level: Vision (or life goal)

The goals and direction of the larger entity within which you operate heavily influence your job and your professional direction. Where is your company going to be, one to three years from now? How will that be affecting the scope and scale of your job, your department, and your division? What external factors (like technology) are influencing the changes? How is the definition and relationship with your customers going to be changing, etc.? Thinking at this level invariably surfaces some projects that need to be defined, and new action steps to move them forward.

6. 50,000 level: Personal Leadership

What is the work you are here to do on the planet, with your life? This is the ultimate bigger picture discussion. Is this the job you want? Is this the lifestyle you want? Are you operating within the context of your real values, etc.? From an organizational perspective, this is the Purpose and Vision discussion. Why does it exist? No matter how organized you may get, if you are not spending enough time with your family, your health, your spiritual life, etc., you will still have “incompletes” to deal with, make decisions about, and have projects and actions about, to get completely clear.

Assessing where you spend the majority of your time can greatly assist you in understanding what you might need to adjust. For instance, if you find that the majority of your time is spent working on to-do projects with a micro-managed focus, you might consider delegating them so you can spend more time on higher-level strategic planning.