Years ago, when corporate giants Shearson-Lehman and American Express merged, they ran a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal with the headline, “Vision.” Then they gave my favorite definition of all time:
Vision is having an acute sense of the possible. It is seeing what others cannot see. And when those with similar vision are drawn together, something extraordinary occurs.
Something in my soul still comes alive when I read those words, written about 30 years ago. Nothing in leadership is more vital to the energy creation of an organization or its leaders than vision – that “acute sense of the possible.”
Over the years, of course, as with anything vital, I have also seen plenty of posers – people who used the allure and “sexiness” of the idea of vision as tools of manipulation, ego promotion, or cotton candy management (all flavor and no substance).
Having just had a great consulting experience with a wonderful church congregation in South Carolina, where we did some serious vision creation and casting (still a work in progress there), I have some ideas flowing about vision in leadership. Take a look, and consider how these may apply to your leader or leadership and your organizations.
1. Vision without strategy is a seedbed for cynicism.
And churches and many other organizations are full of cynics for that reason. Many people have seen people come and go in places of leadership, all with their own new “vision” for ministry or work. But somehow those visions never seem to be combined with a strategy for reaching them. As a result, after a while, cynicism takes over, and nobody takes the visionary seriously anymore. That may explain why, if you just landed with your fresh ideas and goals, nobody seemed to get that excited or take you that seriously.
2. Vision that isn’t shared isn’t an organizational vision.
It’s an invention. Or a mumpsimus (a persistent belief in a mistaken idea). Or a magical fantasy. The only vision that ever truly transforms a group into a team or a pack of failures into a successful organization is the vision that is shared by everybody. What I’m saying in practical terms is that if you haven’t sold or transferred your vision to a place where the people in your organization own it, your vision is powerless to accomplish a thing.
3. It’s OK for the leader to have the vision first. But it’s not OK for the leader to have the vision in isolation or exclusion.
I still don’t understand why people in places of authority or power get the idea that they have to somehow copyright their vision for an organization. Rightly understood, shared vision is a partnership. It’s an ongoing dance of faith, hope, and love, followed by a lot of non-glamorous planning and work. Vision belongs to “us.” Not “me” the leader exclusively, unless I plan to be an organization of one.
4. It’s OK for the leader to be the source of the vision. But it’s not OK for the leader to reject ideas from others because he didn’t think of it first.
There is no place for insecurity or jealousy in leadership. None. If that describes your “leader,” get a new one. If the vision belongs to “us,” then sooner or later one of “us” other than the leader will generate a genius idea. The wise leader will run with it. The even wiser leader will empower the idea generator to run with it and encourage the idea generator to be a leader in his or her own right.
5. It’s OK for parts of the vision to come from others – even pure followers. It still takes a leader to marshal the forces necessary to fulfill the vision.
This is where the genius of leadership can often flourish. Lots of time people in church or business life can come up with partial solutions, short-term ideas, or even audacious and compelling goals, but they lack the ability to see all the moving parts. Or they lack the authority to get the resources or people moving in that direction. Regardless of where the ideas emerge, it still takes leaders to deliver on the vision. So lead, and quit fretting over who gets the credit.
6. Copying someone else’s methods is neither vision casting nor leadership.
How many times have we seen this repeated? Somebody goes to a conference or workshop, or trolls through the leadership/management section of the bookstore and emerges with a new vision. Only the “new vision” is actually somebody else’s success story turned into a fad that everybody is copying. I’m not saying we can’t learn from the successes of others. But true leaders have their finger clearly on the pulse of their own organizations and environment. And the successes of others may inspire new vision, but it’s up to “us” to translate that into something that makes sense for this environment and this team.
7. Leadership can take place at any part of the organization, as well as in front of the whole group.
You already know this. But let’s apply it to vision. If leadership can and does take place throughout the organization, doesn’t it make sense to have a strategy for mining the vision, ideas, creativity, and talent of those leaders? Doesn’t it make sense to recognize both the leaders with formal titles and the informal influencers who capture the imagination of others in their realms of the organization? Doesn’t it make sense to give them the tools to fulfill their own division or department or team’s vision of success if it contributes to the whole? Shared leadership is no place to play manipulative games or take side ego trips.
That’s where my wheels are turning these days about vision. Where is your “acute sense of the possible” taking you lately?
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