You know the scene in The Polar Express.
The train conductor hears the gasps. His neck becomes taught, as he looks skyward at the pending disaster on everyone's lips. He frowns, then clears his throat before cupping his hands together to make a horn shape.
“You need more Altitude!”
His words send the elves in the basket into a panic.
Quickly, they turn the burners up, increasing the hot air the balloon needs to rise. Their efforts must ensure the balloon —along with the all-important Christmas present sack hanging underneath — clears the steeple.
Of course, it’s a children’s movie, so catastrophe is avoided. Once past the weather vane, they begin the process of descending to place the oversized sack on the back of Santa’s sleigh.
Seeing the bigger picture.
When Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940, he held two distinct views.
One was very public, and the other — now obvious — was less well known.
The first was this; Hitler was evil and nothing short of his destruction would stop him.
On the 14th of July, 1933 during a radio broadcast, Churchill said this of Hitler:
"This wicked man, the repository and embodiment of many forms of soul-destroying hatred, this monstrous product of former wrongs and shame, has now resolved to try to break our famous island race by a process of indiscriminate slaughter and destruction."
Churchill’s view was a contrarian one.
Although others shared similar concerns, recent memories of death made many Britons weary of war. They would rather seek peace, whereas Churchill was more convinced Hitler would need to be defeated. Events only stiffened Churchill’s resolve, as invasion and annexing of countries followed failed ‘peace agreements’ across Europe.
The second viewpoint was a high-level understanding that the remaining forces at Churchill’s disposal wouldn’t be enough.
He would need the help of the United States to win.
It was a view he held even before the capitulation of Europe. Churchill knew that Britain alone did not have the resources to build the planes, boats, and tanks needed to win the war in Europe.
When you drop a stone into a pond, the impact creates a disturbance — a ripple.
The ripples move out from the centre, gradually losing energy the further they travel. It’s easy for us to see this from our lofty position. The stone is a fraction of our size and height.
But now imagine you’re an ant on a boat.
Then the ripples become a tsunami. Each wave is huge — and you’re so small you can’t see the next wave that follows it.
But then imagine dropping two stones into the pond, with a few seconds between each one. Now the poor ant is seeing waves hitting each other and sending secondary waves in different directions. At the poor ant’s level, it’s chaos.
The ant can’t take evasive action.
He can’t see what’s coming. He has to react in an instant, pointing his bow into the wave to avoid capsizing. A hit on either side would be deadly. Just as the crew deal with one wave, another comes from a different direction. It is extremely challenging.
Cursing, the captain dreams of a bigger boat with a lookout to help see the waves before they’re about to hit.
With altitude, you can see further.
When you’re making decisions, having a high-level perspective is vastly underrated.
The elves in their hot-air balloon needed it. Without the altitude, the elves would have become snagged on the weather vane. It was only with the increase in their height that were they able to steer clear of the obstacle in front of them.
It appears a lofty position is a wise position.
Strategy accommodates this big-picture thinking, as Winston Churchill showed us. The two viewpoints Churchill held were not blighted by the details of battle or plans of invasion. No, those two strategic views gave the framework in which all of the future decisions Churchill would make.
Churchill would never have formed these views without the altitude to see the bigger picture. Maybe it’s obvious with hindsight, but these two focal points gave Winston the purpose others had lacked.
We live in the details.
We are like the ants in the boat. Waves are the consequences of our choices we don’t see coming. Living in the detail, we become fixated on each decision.
Every choice is isolated from the future until it’s made. Then, the consequences come at us fast, creating new decisions for us to make. It is a deadly trap one can only escape with altitude.
Rise above your decision.
Look down on it, but then look ahead of it. What do you see?
You can’t expect to be able to ask these questions with the hope of a reasonable answer without altitude. Don’t fear the bigger picture, instead seek it first.
Never be afraid to tell yourself, you need more altitude!