“Where there is no VISION, the people perish” – PROVERBS 29:18
It would be a dramatic understatement to state that “VISION” has long been recognized as a key leadership skill and a critical component to a leader’s success. The truth is that thousands of missives and books have been written about “the VISION thing”. Hundreds of leadership experts have exhorted their audiences about the need for leaders to have a vision and share that vision with those who follow them. Holding leadership retreats for the sole purpose of crafting an organization’s vision is a commonplace practice for businesses, non-profit groups, and social initiatives. Almost every corporate headquarters has a prominent wall in the lobby or a conference room or in every employee lounge where a so-called “Vision” is displayed. When new leaders first take the reins of an organization, they are almost always asked to articulate their vision for their leadership and their organization. And when a leader is celebrated at the end of their tenure, having “been a VISIONARY” is often the eulogy given to describe the success that a leader may have achieved.
Conversely, when things go wrong, the “lack of a vision” is often seen as the culprit. Employees and constituents will complain that a leader “has no vision” when they become dissatisfied or frustrated with the culture or performance of an organization. Senior leaders will complain that subordinates don’t appreciate or don’t see “the bigger vision” for an organization or for a team. Partnerships will dissolve and mergers will fail because two organizations do not “share the same vision”. And, when an organization suffers failure, a clarion call for “a new vision” is often the response of a Board of Directors or a leadership team.
This intense focus on the importance of a vision, is not misplaced. Both from observational research, and through common experience, the presence or absence of a powerful vision is frequently the only distinguishing factor between success and failure. Organizations that are successful year after year, are consistently found to be guided by leaders with a strong sense of vision. On the other hand, entities that fail are commonly managed by leaders without a clear vision for the future. And, the power of vision becomes even more obvious when looking at organizations that succeed when the odds are against them compare to organizations that fail even when advantaged – the difference is usually a clear and powerful leadership vision.
So, if VISION is at the epicenter of success, it would seem that this leadership skill must be well understood and ubiquitously practiced by leaders, whether they serve in government, in business, or in social organizations. Sadly, this is not the case. Very few leaders have mastered the art and/or science of leading with vision. In fact, most leaders invest very little time in crafting or communicating a vision for their organization. And, the majority of leaders have never really studied or questioned how to purposefully create and leverage a vision for success.
To break away from these common shortcomings – and, thus, to craft and to leverage a powerful vision for success – leaders must discover three different pathways for success. First, they must learn to recognize what VISION is NOT – thereby, avoiding the many distractions and substitutes that are often mistaken for effective leadership visioning. Second, they must learn a few very tactile and specific skills that can be used to create and communicate a vision for both themselves and their stakeholders – thus, making their vision something very tangible and real rather than ethereal and amorphous. And finally, leaders must learn when and how to effectively use their vision as an effective tool of leadership – hence, transforming their vision from aspiration to results and success.
Re-Envisioning WHAT Vision IS and IS NOT
Individuals who aspire to be visionary and bold in their leadership must first recognize what vision is NOT. With so many authors – this one included – trying to describe leadership vision, there are libraries full of opposing definitions and confusing descriptions of how to think about VISION and VISIONARY LEADERSHIP. As a result…
- Many leaders fail to embrace any clear definition of what a vision must be – always operating in a fog of vague, confusing, and contrarian perspectives without clear focus or specific direction;
- Some leaders simply adhere to the first definition of vision that they encounter during their leadership tenure – limiting themselves to what is often an insufficient understanding of visionary leadership and never looking further for a more meaningful and useful understanding that could fuel their success; and,
- Other leaders become jaded in the search for an effective understanding of vision – ultimately assuming that visionary leadership is a personal trait that cannot be learned and thus abandoning any effort to create and communicate a powerful vision for their organization.
All that said, it must be conceded, that a clear definition of vision will always remain somewhat elusive. After all, defining “vision” is not unlike trying to define “the meaning of life”. And, it will always be easier to see the results of visionary leadership, or the lack thereof, rather than to clearly see or understand vision itself. However, if we take the advice of the infamous literary detective, Sherlock Holmes, and apply a degree of literary license…
By “eliminating the impossible” definitions of vision,
then “whatever remains, no matter how improbable…” — i.e., strange, weird, surprising ––
“…must be the truth.”
By understanding clearly what vision is not, it is easier for leaders to avoid being sidetracked and derailed by incomplete or inaccurate definitions that might entice leaders into thinking that they have created and embraced an effective vision, when in truth they have not. By avoiding these common definitional pitfalls, leaders have a better chance of discovering “the truth” of what vision actually must be. To that purpose, the five most common mis-definitions of vision are…
#1) Substituting Values for Vision (Too Limited): Make no mistake. Values are incredibly important. Values are critical for defining the ethics, the behaviors, the limits, the policies, and the compromises that an organization will accept or will adopt as it goes about its routine work or business. But, values – such as honesty, transparency, fairness, and so on – define HOW an organization will go about its work. Vision must define WHO or WHAT the organization strives to become, and WHAT the work of the organization will ultimately enable the organization to achieve.
When leaders promote the idea of VALUES as being a VISION for an organization, it is usually because the leader is unsatisfied with the values that the organization currently embraces. If for example, a business encourages its sales force to close deals even if that means over-promising what can be delivered to a customer, a new leader may find that objectionable and will be tempted to promote honesty as a “vision for the future of the business”. Likewise, a politician may be unhappy with government agencies who treat citizens poorly and will be motivated to promote “customer service” or “servant mentality” as a “vision for the future of government”.
Shifting values from perversion to goodness is most certainly an admirable ambition. But, it is not truly VISION. Embracing a strong set of values is, no matter how admirable, too limited of an effort to provide direction and focus for an entire organization. True vision must be more encompassing. Vision must articulate a more robust picture of not just HOW the people within an organization will work, but also WHAT is to be accomplished, WHO will be involved and impacted, WHY the organization must exist in the future, WHERE the work of the organization will be seen, and WHEN work is to be done. In short, “vision” is much more robust that values alone.
To that end, three lessons about how values do and do not interact with vision…
- First, although values alone are not a vision, a robustly defined vision will reveal what the values of an organization or of a leader are. So, it is fair to say that values are part of a visionary leader’s perspective and view of what the organization strives to become. Values help to shape a leader’s vision.
- That said, an organization can embrace a powerful set of values and still be wandering without the direction or focus that a vision would provide. For example, a business can vigorously promote fairness for its employees, service to its customers, and honesty to its investors – all good values – and still have no idea where it is heading, what it is striving to become, or how all stakeholders should work together for a common good and future success.
- And finally, the harsh reality is that an organization can have a powerful vision while also embracing corrupt and untoward values. A recent example in the news of such an organization would be Wells Fargo Bank. Wells Fargo has long had a powerful vision that suggested a multi-service spectrum of financial services available to the public, robust technologies to support customers, and an extensive geography of service to make banking anywhere in the USA easy to do. But, Wells Fargo was willing to tolerate an abusive culture, shady sales practices, and distorted reporting to achieve their vision. Those negative behaviors persisted even as Wells Fargo brought its vision to life. Now that those negative behaviors have been condemned, the bank has been reforming its culture and its values. But, its vision for the future of banking and for the future of Wells Fargo remain mostly unchanged.
Without question, strong and benevolent values are a good thing for leaders to embrace and to espouse. But, vision requires more and leaders must avoid the pitfall of assuming that good values alone will lead to good outcomes.
#2) Promoting Slogans or Taglines as Vision (Too Trivial): It is quite common for leaders to embark on a short-term effort to define a long-term vision for themselves and their organization. This often takes the form of the Management Retreat where leaders are brought together, inspired with an aspirational view of the future, and then assigned to spend an hour or two crafting the so-called “perfect vision” or “vision statement” for the organization. These are the retreats that are full of flipcharts and sticky notes, with participants snacking on high energy junk food, convened in fun resorts or hotels to create an environment apart from the daily grind of an organization’s work.
Although these retreats can be great fun, the work product is usually trivial – most often a catchy slogan, motto, or tagline that sounds great in a commercial or as a subtitle to a presentation. And, for purposes of advertising, these slogans can be effective. We all know that General Electric “brings good things to life”! FedEx ships packages “absolutely, positively overnight”! Visa Credit Cards are “everywhere you want to be”! And, at Burger King, you can “have it your way”! But, these famous slogans provide almost no direction for employees, for managers, or for partners to make daily decisions or to pursue long term objectives.
An effective vision must be substantial enough to serve as a compass – not just for leaders, but for all stakeholders who contribute to an organization’s success. Vision must provide guidance to stakeholders on how to make decisions, which decisions are acceptable, how to work with one another, how future products or services should be designed, how staff should be hired and managed, and how success for the organization and for individuals will be defined. Vision, if articulated well, carries and supports great weight for an organization. Vision should make all other decisions and actions easier to get done. Vision should offer clarity when an organization faces paradox. Vision should provide a constant guardrail that helps individuals to know if or when they get off track. Vision should inspire perpetual enthusiasm and effort on the part of stakeholders to do more and to achieve better. None of this can be done with a catchy slogan alone.
Slogans, mottos, catchphrases, taglines, and mantras all have their place and their purpose. But, to reduce vision, which as already explained is the lynchpin between failure and success, to nothing more than a whimsical phrase is to misunderstand both the power and potential that a strong vision carries for an organization and its leaders.
#3) Embracing Hyperboles as Vision (Too Insincere): One of the most subtle traps in which leaders become ensnared is to mistake ultra-lofty hyperbole for meaningful vision. These are the proclamations that leaders make such as…
- “We will be the industry leader in quality and service”; or
- “We are the World Leader amongst healthcare providers”; or
- “We provide our customers with memories of a lifetime!”; or
- “We offer nothing but the best to our customers!”; or
- “We will eliminate poverty in the next 20 years!”; or
- “Our employees have unlimited growth and advancement potential!”; and,
- …the list goes on!
Many leaders make such statements thinking that they are embracing the concept of BHAG’s – Big Hairy Audacious Goals – a term made popular by James Collins and Jerry Porras in their blockbuster management book “Built to Last”. The concept is that super-successful organizations embrace BHAG’s as a way to fundamentally keep their organizations relevant and to achieve great success. Nothing wrong or misguided about this idea of setting huge goals for oneself and for one’s organization! But, there are two problems with these high and lofty boasts.
Goal Setting and Vision Crafting are not the same! Goals are essentially metrics and targets – a way to measure whether progress is being made. In fact, many management consultants stress that goals should be “SMART” – an acronym for “S”pecific, “M”easurable, “A”chievable, “R”elevant, and “T”ime-Bound – ensuring that these goals can be used by stakeholders to monitor success and/or surface problems. SMART Goals are an effective way for senior leaders to make sure that junior leaders are delivering satisfactory results. VISION is entirely different! Not a specific metric, but rather a total outcome! Not a narrow mile marker of progress already made, but a future outcome for which to aspire! Not used to guarantee compliance and performance, but rather an objective that inspires and motivates stakeholders over time. Not something which delineates absolute success and failure, but rather an image that might shift over time, but which guarantees ongoing momentum for an organization. Rather than being “SMART”, a Vision should be BRAVE© —
“B”road – Large and all-encompassing, applicable and descriptive of all meaningful aspects of an individual’s leadership or an organization’s future;
“R”emarkable – Innovative, unique, bold, and awe-inspiring, even if somewhat intangible and unmeasurable;
“A”spirational – Lofty and challenging, even difficult to achieve, and yet exciting and thrilling for individual stakeholders;
“V”alued – Focused on important and meaningful issues for which individual stakeholders will be willing to make sacrifices and to dedicate themselves towards achieving; and
“E”volving – Constantly dynamic and changing in order to stay BRAVE over long periods of time, even as parts of the vision are realized and successes are achieved.
Consider a person who is unhealthy and wants to change. A SMART Goal might be to lose 20 pounds within six months or to exercise 30 minutes a day. A BRAVE Vision would be to play soccer with grandchildren, or to enjoy vigorous walks in the woods, or to no longer be exhausted at the end of a routine day. Specific goals might be used to help make progress towards that vision of the future, but the vision itself is the desired end state to be reached.
Boldness and Belief are not the same! For a big and bold proclamation to be valid, it must also be believed. If a leader wants his/her organization to be the “world leader” then such an aspiration must be embraced by both the leader and by those who follow. Stakeholders must understand what the bold aspiration actually looks like – for example, what does being the “world leader” truly entail? Stakeholders must believe that the articulated state is desirable – for example, is it really important and does it matter to be the “world leader”? And, stakeholders must believe that they are able to reach such a pinnacle – specifically, can their organization with their people in their location achieve this lofty outcome? If the answer to any of these questions is “no”, then the bold proclamation is nothing but hype and will ultimately disappoint.
Case Example: Approximately ten years ago, there was an Orthopedic Surgery Manager in the United Kingdom who was determined to be a visionary leader and to achieve great outcomes for patients. As a result, this manager proclaimed that his department was going to provide “the best orthopedic care in all of England”. Wondering whether this was VISION or HYPERBOLE, the manager was asked if he truly believed in this vision! The manager defiantly insisted that to be “the best” was, in fact, the guaranteed future for his department. In response, the manager was then asked if this meant that Queen Elizabeth II, if she were to break her hip or to need orthopedic care, would undoubtedly be carefully transported to the manager’s department and hospital in order for Her Majesty to receive “the best orthopedic care in all of England”. After thinking for a moment, the manager humbly replied that his department “might not be quite that good”! In other words, this manager could not truly imagine the hype that he himself had articulated. His so-called “vision” was nothing more than hyperbole and empty boasting.
As said, there is nothing wrong with setting bold goals for an organization. And, goals are a useful tool to be used to chart progress and performance. But, vision is more than a set of objectives and metrics to be obtained. It is more than a dashboard that tells you the current and desired level of performance for individuals and for an organization writ large. Vision is the ultimate destination to which an organization constantly strives and a future state that stakeholders are motivated and energized to reach. Ultimately, vision must represent a sincere commitment and devotion on the part of all stakeholders to do whatever might be necessary to achieve the desired end state.
#4) Adopting Strategies as Vision (Too Specific): Similar to goal setting, many leaders assume that developing a business or operational strategy is the same as embracing a vision. And, similar to goal setting, strategy development can be a very useful management tool in the effort to transform a vision into reality. But, once again, strategy alone is insufficient for a visionary leader to be successful.
A strategy is essentially a plan of action. What is an organization going to do in the months or years ahead? Who will be responsible for ensuring that specific actions get done? What is the time frame for work and effort to be completed? How will we know if the strategy has been successful?
The problem with any good strategy is the same problem with any planning effort. As soon as the strategy has been adopted, it is almost certainly already out of date. Circumstances change. Unforeseen problems will arise. Staff members will leave or take different roles within an organization. In response, an organization’s strategy must change in order for the organization to adapt to these shifting circumstances.
Conversely, vision is more constant. Since it is the desired future state, vision is mostly impervious to changing circumstances. In fact, the more circumstances change and the more obsolete a strategy becomes, the more important an effective vision will be for a leader and their organization. It will be the vision that guides a leadership team to a new and different strategy. Assume, for example, that vision is the destination to be reached and strategy is the route to be taken towards that that destination. If the road becomes too hazardous or impassible, an effective leader will not change the ultimate destination to be reached, but will chart a different pathway forward.
Unfortunately, many leaders are more devoted to their strategies rather than focused on their ultimate vision. This creates a very specific and narrow pathway of opportunity and action for the leader to follow. When that pathway becomes unworkable, these narrowly focused leaders have nowhere to turn and end up floundering in failure rather than resetting their pathways forward towards their ultimate vision.
#5) Codifying Success as Vision (Too Mundane): The final pitfall that is commonplace amongst leaders is the tendency to simply adopt the status quo as one’s vision for the future. This is particularly common amongst leaders who have been relatively successful, especially if that success is the result of a bold turnaround from a previous failure. It is also common amongst leaders who have been visionary in the past.
It is understandable why a leader might stumble into this pitfall. Imagine a new leader is assigned to the helm of a struggling and failing organization. Through sheer grit, effort, and perhaps vision, imagine that leader guiding the organization to a place of stability and success. Partly due to relief and/or exhaustion, and perhaps due to ego or over-confidence, it is easy for the leader to view their current plateau of success as something to be continued and not challenged or changed. Thus, when trying to articulate a vision for the future, these leaders are inclined to simply describe the present as that towards which they will continue to strive. Admittedly, leaders might slightly enhance their description of the status quo to make it seem more inspirational or progressive, but at the heart of these “status quo visions” is a mundane continuation of that which has already been achieved.
What makes this pitfall more confounding is that the status quo might be quite excellent in the moment. And thus an effort to continue that which has been successful is unlikely to be seen as a negative by peers and stakeholders. However, over time, these organizations will also stagnate and eventually will slip backwards towards failure or will be left in the dust of irrelevance when competing organizations or alternatives are more innovative, more bold, and truly more visionary.
In summary, defining vision is an incredibly difficult task, and numerous pitfalls threaten leaders who attempt to be visionary. But, if one can avoid the five most common mis-definitions, a leader will be well positioned to craft an effective and powerful vision for their own leadership and for the future of their organization…
- By recognizing that values are important, but that they are guardrails rather than a destination, leaders can use their values to stay on course towards a better future and a robust image of what the organization will ultimately become and will achieve;
- By avoiding trivial slogans and catchphrases, leaders can articulate a vision that is comprehensive and has depth, allowing those leaders to reach a future that is not about one outcome alone, but is rather a future that involves all facets of an organization – people, process, products, purpose, and more;
- By avoiding hype and hyperbole, leaders can craft an image of the future in which stakeholders will believe it is worthwhile to invest their time, their effort, and their enthusiasm to make possible;
- By establishing a vision that is a future state rather than a current strategic plan, leaders will be able to adapt and to change what they do in order to eventually become what they want to be personally and what they want for their organization; and
- By making sure that their vision is more than a repetition of what has already been accomplished, a leader can avoid stagnation and irrelevance over time.
In short, a truly visionary leader will always be forward thinking, comprehensive in their definition of what must be accomplished, dedicated to doing whatever is necessary to make their vision a reality, and always adaptable to adjusting their actions when necessary to stay on course towards their envisioned outcome.
Re-Envisioning HOW to Create a Worthy Vision
Once a leader knows what must be avoided when crafting a vision for their leadership, for their organization, and for their stakeholders, the pressing question becomes how can a leader craft a vision that is truly B.R.A.V.E. – broad and encompassing, remarkable and imaginative, aspirational and compelling, valued and worthwhile, evolving and dynamic? How do we make this intangible concept of a vision into something concrete, applicable, and powerful?
With no pretense that what follows is the only method for creating an effective vision, experience and observation have revealed three simple steps proven to be highly effective and easily followed when trying to develop and communicate a powerful and effective vision.
FIRST…Define the Horizon Point.
This is, by far, the most important aspect of crafting a vision. What do you want the future to look like? If you are successful and you could magically transport yourself forward in time and visit your own organization in the future, what would you see? What would life be like? What would you and your colleagues be working on every day? What would your success entail? How would you be viewed by others?
An HORIZON POINT is exactly as its name implies – a point in the distance, as far away as you can see while still being visible, and where you ultimately want to be. The purpose of an Horizon Point is that it becomes the destination towards which all your effort is focused. Everything you do is designed to take you closer to that point.
The helmsmen of ancient sea-going vessels used Horizon Points to navigate their ships. A helmsman would identify a spot on the horizon – an island, a mountain, a city tower – and all their actions – trimming the sails, adjusting the helm, moving the rudder – would be intended to keep the bow of the ship pointed towards that Horizon Point. When in open waters, the so-called Horizon Point would be a star upon which a helmsman could fix their attention.
We use Horizon Points in our daily lives whenever we want to go somewhere. When we drive our cars, we stay on the road not by looking at the dashboard or the center line painted on the highway, but by looking down the road at a point far on the Horizon. When we sail a boat or paddle a kayak, we reach our desired point on a distant shore by having focused on a landmark on the Horizon – a tree, a specific building, or a hill beyond the spot we want to reach. Even if you walk across a city park, you reach your final destination not by looking at your feet, but by always looking forward to the most distant point along your desired pathway.
For leaders, an Horizon Point becomes the heart of an effective vision. It is an unseen and yet clearly imagined image of what the future will look like. It is a future state upon which all of a leader’s efforts – setting goals, developing strategies, managing people, building products – are focused. And thus, visionary leaders must be able to describe in detail what that future state will be. The easiest way to do this is to answer the six major questions of life…
- WHAT will my organization be accomplishing, producing, and doing at that point in the future? WHAT will our priorities and our points of pride be? WHAT will we be known for and respected for in the future?
- WHO will be involved, and WHO will be working together? How will our people interact with one another and WHO will our partners be? WHO will our stakeholders be in the future and what will they demand of us?
- HOW will we go about reaching this future reality? HOW will we conduct our business? HOW will we be structured and organized? HOW will we operate and HOW will we make decisions?
- WHERE will we be located and WHERE will our work get done? Whether physically or virtually, WHERE will our stakeholders interact with us and WHERE will they find us?
- WHEN will changes happen and WHEN can we expect these changes to be completed? WHEN will our services or our work be needed? WHEN will our work be done and potentially WHEN will our work be obsolete or no longer needed as we know it today?
- WHY will this be important? WHY will employees, customers, and other stakeholders choose to work with us rather than with others? WHY will it matter that changes occur? WHY would we be missed if we fail in our endeavors?
Young people are pretty good at defining Horizon Points that are very much visionary in nature. In truth, there may be no guarantee that these Horizon Points will be reached, but in the moment, visionary youth are confident and without doubt as to where they are headed and where they want to be in the future. For example…
- Although many college students have enrolled in a university because “it is the thing to do” after high school, many college students are truly visionary in there university enrollment. When asked why they are in school, they will answer with a clear definition of their Horizon Point. These visionary students will describe the job they are going to get, the work they will do, the expertise they will eventually develop, where they might live, how they might live, and why they are striving for their future.
- Newlyweds are often able to articulate a visionary future for their marriage and their lives together. In addition to the typical white picket fence that might be in their future, many couples can articulate the jobs they plan to work, the type of house they will buy, the past times that will occupy their free time, how many kids they plan to have, what they will do together and what they will do apart, and even whether there will be a dog or a cat on the porch waiting for them to come home.
- Young entrepreneurs can usually articulate in robust detail the businesses they plan to build. Not only can they describe the products they want to sell, but they can articulate how they will hire staff, how they will manage people, and how their business will be like no other place to work. They can often describe their timeline for success, how they will market their services, and who they hope to partner with to generate good results. And, most young entrepreneurs can even describe how their personal lives will interact with their professional work and what sacrifices they will make to be successful.
Case Example: One of the most vivid examples of a young entrepreneur who has accomplished great things with nothing more than a Visionary Horizon Point is Boyen Slat of the Netherlands. Boyen was a teenager, scuba diving in the waters of Greece, when he became concerned that he saw more garbage in the ocean than sea life. This inspired Boyen to think about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” where the ocean currents of the planet have gathered tons of floating waste that is a danger to the environment. Spurred by the idea that perhaps those same currents could be used to gather ocean garbage and remove it from the ocean, Boyen began to imagine an Horizon Point on the future – when massive collection operations could be launched to clean up the ocean. From that moment, he articulated the Horizon Point where…
–> Money would be crowd funded through the internet…
–> to fund the research of scientists and engineers…
–> in an effort to design new technology…
–> that could be deployed in the ocean…
–> where ocean currents would bring garbage to collection sites…
–> after which garbage would be hauled from the ocean and transported to land…
–> where it would then be recycled into high value products that would be sold…
–> in order to fund more research…
–> to further clean the waters of the planet!
With no money, no college education, and no credentials, but with a compelling Horizon Point of what the future could be, Boyen launched The Ocean Cleaup Project, which has raised millions of dollars, funded the development of new technologies, and is today actively working and removing tons of garbage from the ocean. For more information, visit https://theoceancleanup.com.
It is important to note that when describing an Horizon Point details are important. More details will bring clarity to the visionary future. That said, the details should be about the end point, not the journey. So, once again, it is not the goals or strategy along the way, but the end point to be achieved. Boyen Slat, for example, did not articulate exactly how scientists would be recruited or a firm deadline for when accomplishments must be made – he stayed focused on the end goal, and then as a leader allowed strategy, goals, and business plans to advance his initiative towards that goal.
Many leaders ask how far into the future the Horizon Point should be. There is no single answer to that question. But, there are a few rough guidelines that might be useful…
- For most leaders, approximately 2-3 years into the future is an appropriate time frame. Any shorter than that, and the Horizon Point will be too modest and/or nothing more than a goal. Any longer and the Horizon Point becomes too vague and fuzzy to feel tangible.
- That said, the bigger an organization and/or the higher in the leadership rank, the longer the time frame that is appropriate. In short, a CEO of a large organization might articulate a visionary Horizon Point that is 10-15 years forward, whereas a divisional manager might be focused on a point 5-7 years in the future. The larger and more complicated the sphere of influence that a leader oversees, the longer the time frame required to articulate a truly robust visionary future.
- Perhaps most importantly, a leader must remember that a visionary Horizon Point should be constantly evolving. Much like the magical end of the rainbow, as you make progress towards the horizon, or as you follow the line on a GPS screen, the Horizon Point continues to extend further out as you make forward progress. If, for example, an Horizon Point is two years into the future, then six months from now, the Horizon Point will also have shifted six months forward, and will still be two years into the future. An Horizon Point must be constantly, yet slowly, evolving over time.
SECOND…Author a VisionTale.
One of the most common questions asked about vision is whether an organization’s vision must be developed with a broad base of input and involvement of staff and stakeholders. Popular wisdom would direct us to be inclusive as to who might provide input during the development of a vision. But, in truth, vision is an attribute of leader – the leader is the caretaker and author of the vision, even if it is influenced by and developed for the benefit of an organization. Does that mean that when a leader changes, the vision for the organization might change as well? The answer is “Yes!” This does not mean that a leader should isolate themselves from others when crafting their vision – in fact, an effective leader must always by hyper-sensitive to the people, the situations, and the environment in which their leadership is needed. But, at the end of the day, vision belongs to the leader, in the context of the organization in which the leader serves.
As a result, a leader must be able to communicate their vision…
- so that all stakeholders will clearly understand what the Visionary Horizon Point looks like;
- so that the vast majority of stakeholders will be enthusiastic and dedicated to making that vision a reality; and
- so that stakeholders at every level of the organization and in every job will instinctively know how their work and their contributions are needed to reach the visionary result.
In other words, a leader must be able to communicate his/her vision with extreme clarity and sufficient detail to maximize understanding and commitment. When the data show that more than 65% of typical business communications are misunderstood, one might ask whether it is even possible to achieve nearly universal understanding about a concept as complex as the future vision for an organization. The good news is that the answer is YES – it is possible to communicate visions with extreme clarity. It is done through storytelling.
At some point, another Uncommon Wisdom© Essay will dive deep into the power of storytelling. But, for this discussion, suffice it to say that telling stories is how humans prefer to communicate. Children around the world always want their final moment of wakefulness to be a bedtime story. Culture and traditions are passed from one generation to the next through storytelling. We spend hours watching movies, reading books, and even listening to recaps of sporting events already won or lost, because we are drawn to stories. When families sit down at the dinner table, friends gather at the local pub, or business associates recap their daily activities, it is always through stories that messages are conveyed. No one likes to read a data sheet or a stale report of numbers and statistics; but, everyone loves a good story.
Therefore, it is through the power of storytelling that a leader can best convey the robust details of their vision. However, unlike a typical story that has a plot, a crisis, and a climax, the storytelling required to describe an Horizon Point is more like a narrative that accompanies a documentary or like a sports announcer’s play-by-play broadcast as a sporting event. These stories are VisionTales© — stories designed to bring a vision to life. Within these stories, there is great depth of description, enlightening back stories, character development, frequent points of human interest, and even moments of drama. But, a VisionTale is more like a snapshot in time rather than a plot that unfolds sequentially.
Case Example: An example of an effective VisionTale comes from a group of healthcare leaders in Europe who wanted to redesign their healthcare systems and improve the quality of healthcare provided to their fellow countrymen. To do this, these leaders defined their Horizon Point as to what a revitalized and repurposed health care system should look like, five to ten years into the future.
These leaders then crafted effective VisionTales – stories of how this futuristic health system would provide services, described through the eyes of several characters. An elderly couple, the couple’s daughter who was part-time caretaker and who was married to an unhealthy truck driver, the couple’s son who was single and health conscious, a granddaughter in her early 20’s already a single mother and pregnant with a second child, a great-grandchild with development disabilities, and a host of neighbors, friends, and other characters whom you might imagine within a community. The VisionTales described how each of these characters might interact with each other and with the healthcare system, and how each character had different needs when it came to managing their health. The VistionTales even provided a robust narrative of technologies to be used, partnerships to be formed, and services to be designed as part of the futuristic healthcare system.
Through these stories, stakeholders across the healthcare system – from nurses to patients to government officials, and more – were able to share a clear understanding of what the future healthcare system in that European country would look like. More significantly, as the VisionTales were shared more broadly – with educators, government officials, patients, business people, and more – the VisionTales was expanded to include more characters. Teachers were written into the VisionTales as monitors of student health, businesses were included in the VIsionTales as managing staff in ways to improve community health, government leaders introduced new forms of reimbursement to move money upstream from the hospitals, and more.
By defining a robust Horizon Point, described through a vibrant collection of VisionTales, the entire community was able to understand the dramatic changes that the hospital leaders were advocating and support for these changes was nearly universal in scope.
The power of storytelling cannot be overstated. Stories self-define what is true and what is possible, so stories can convey bold ideas that might otherwise be rejected or questioned. Stories are detached from real characters and people, and thus most listeners will not feel undermined or threatened by the change and upheaval that might be suggested. And, because stories rely heavily on imagery and universal concepts rather than statistics and technical details, stories can be equally understood by stakeholders from all walks of life and all levels within an organization or community.
By relying on storytelling as the conduit for explaining an Horizon Point, leaders will have created an effective vision for the future and can be assured of maximum acceptance and understanding for that vision amongst their stakeholders and constituents.
THIRD and LAST…Clarify Your Anchorage Point.
The final step in crafting an effective vision is not really part of envisioning itself, but rather an ignition point for action. After a leader has articulated where they want to be and what they want to become in the future, the leader needs to face the reality of where their organization is today. Where is the organization’s “Anchorage”? If an organization were a ship on the high seas, the Horizon Point is the destination towards which the crew must sail the ship. The ship’s Anchorage is the starting point of the journey – the harbor that must be left behind as the ship sails towards the Horizon Point.
Many leaders will argue that defining the current state of an organization should be the starting point of crafting a vision. Unfortunately, this viewpoint limits most leaders in their quest for a bold and effective vision. The concept of starting with a survey of the status quo comes from traditional strategic planning. For example, many leaders who seek to develop a strategic plan will start with a SWOT analysis – Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats to the organization. From that analysis of the status quo, strategies can then be built to help the organization take immediate actions. This is a correct orientation for strategic planning, but a wrong starting point for vision crafting. Vision is that to which the leader aspires – what they want their leadership to create and their organization to become. It must be aspirational and inspirational – unencumbered by the challenges or problems that a leader or an organization might currently face.
That said, once a leader has a clear vision for their leadership and for their organization, defining the Anchorage Point, or starting point, will inform the leader how long and difficult the journey from now to the future might be. Just as two points are needed to draw a straight line, the Anchorage Point, compared to the Horizon Point, will automatically chart a general course forward. It will be evident what must change in current practices, culture, strategies, and more in order to transform the organization from what it is today to the future that has been envisioned.
By completing these three components of a VISION – the Horizon Point, the VisionTale(s), and an Anchorage Point – a leader will be able to craft a vision that is truly BRAVE… Broad, Remarkable, Aspirational, Valued, and Evolving.
Re-Envisioning WHEN and WHERE to Use a Vision for Success
The sad reality is that most visions, even if well thought out and well articulated, are too quickly forgotten and overlooked. Frequently these visions are memorialized in documents that are never used, wall plaques that are never read, or even success stories that are never told. All too often the urgent distractions of the day make us forget where we want to be tomorrow, and as the old saying goes, “tomorrow never comes”.
For a vision to be effective and to make a difference, it needs to be viewed as a dynamic tool to be used constantly by a leader, rather than an archive of information to be referenced occasionally. In order to unleash the power of visionary leadership, there are five action points that leaders can use their vision to STEER their organizations forward. Using the same analogy of sailing a ship towards the horizon, these five points of action, can conveniently be remembered by the acronym S.T.E.E.R. itself…
(S) SAIL – Sail Away from Safe Harbor
As another old saying goes, every long journey begins with a first step. For leaders to steer their organizations towards their Horizon Point, that first step is to actively weigh anchor, unfurl the sails, and make the commitment to leave the Anchorage Point. This is a task far easier said than done, because it requires a leader to essentially indict the status quo as insufficient, to create dissatisfaction amongst stakeholders with the present, and to abandon their natural instincts to resist change.
Many leaders hesitate at this point. Either because of pride in what has been accomplished, or fear of discouraging hard working team members, or just the uncertainty of the journey ahead, many leaders will only half-heartedly separate themselves from the status quo. It is like trying to unfurl sails on a ship while leaving the anchor in the water.
There is actually not much work to be done in order to set SAIL towards a visionary future. It is mostly a mindset and a resolve on the part of the leader to look forward and not backward or around. That said, the importance of this detachment cannot be overstated. Just like personal decisions to get married, or to have children, or to resign a job, there is a clear moment in time where the decision to move forward must become all-consuming and where any options to stay in place are rejected.
(T) TACK – Tack Forward towards the Horizon
Unlike steamships or motorized boats, sailing ships do not journey to their destination in a straight line. With the wind at their back or even at their side, sailing ships tack back and forth in order to make progress moving forward. These tacks are always in the general direction of the ship’s destination, but they are also rarely in a straight line. This becomes an important analogy for leaders. Move forward. Move towards the destination even if somewhat indirectly. Actively STEER back and forth as necessary to eventually reach your destination. If you go too far to the left, correct to the right. If you go too far to the right, veer to the left. Forward progress, even if slow, is the only imperative.
Many leaders try to develop the “perfect plan” when attempting to achieve a goal or to execute a strategy. They look for the shortest path from here to there. Leading with vision is not that simplistic. As explained earlier, a vision is a robust and broad definition of the future with numerous characters and aspects to that future story. As a result, leaders must constantly be thinking about all aspects of their vision – the What, How, Who, Where, When, and Why. Therefore, as leaders make individual decisions and plans, their objective must be to make sure that those decisions move their organizations forward, even if imprecisely. The goal here is to be the tortoise that wins the race, rather than the hare that runs hard and is then sidetracked and exhausted.
Once again, this is an ethic to be embraced by the leader. An ethic of always doublechecking whether decisions are in line with forward progress towards the Horizon Point. In essence, vision becomes a compass to help calibrate decisions within a range of options that are forward focused at all times. It is advisable that this compass be visible to all – that whether in meetings, or in emails, or in other settings a leader constantly frames all decisions by the objectives of the leader’s vision. For example, if a new position is created in an organization, it should be defined as critical to the long term vision being pursued. If a new policy is adopted, it should be framed by how it will take an organization closer to its visionary Horizon Point. And likewise, when proactive decisions – such as strategies or tactics – are being discussed, the vision of the leader should be both starting point for these discussions and final test to make sure that decisions keep the organization on tack for the future.
(E) EDGE – Edge the Ship’s Course with Clear Boundaries
Although values alone are do not make a vision, the values, ethics, and principles that are important to a leader and to an organization must be articulated and embedded in the leader’s VisionTale that describes what the future will be like. Part of the narrative must be how people treat one another, how customers or constituents will be approached, which decisions might be considered acceptable, and what type of actions are always off limits. It is critical that these edges be included in the leader’s vision, because they provide guidance to staff and stakeholders. No leader can do it all, and effective leaders always delegate decision making and authority to others. By clearly delineating the edges and tolerances that are acceptable, a leader will effectively give their associates the necessary guidance to make good decisions without constant oversight.
Adhering to an organization’s values is not complicated, but it is difficult to do. Leaders and stakeholders will constantly be tempted to make exceptions and to compromise values and principles – pushing against the edges that have been established. In order for a leader to make these edges hold, it is critical that values-based decisions always win.
Case Example: Several years ago, there was a consulting firm that had promised to support one of its clients with robust onsite services. Over time, it became obvious that the firm had miscalculated the cost of those services and the client was no longer profitable. During one meeting, the suggestion was made to deny the services that had been promised unless the client was willing to renegotiate its contract and payments. As the discussion progressed, one member of the leadership team reminded her colleagues that a critical value of the organization was to “over-deliver on promises”. That reminder paused the debate. The organization agreed to continue losing money for the remainder of the contract; employees volunteered to work extra hours even when on fixed salaries to serve the client; and, in fact, the Client Manager emailed the client to ask “what more can we do to ‘over-deliver’ on the promises we made”. In short, the values that had been articulated became the deciding factor for setting direction and making decisions. The happy epilog to the story is that by over-delivering, the client became a client for life and the consulting firm prospered over time.
As said, with the outer edges of acceptable decision making clearly defined, all stakeholders are able to help an organization advance towards an envisioned future. With all stakeholders comfortable in how best to focus forward, momentum towards the vision will actually increase and an organization’s vision will be realized more quickly.
(E) EXPLOIT – Exploit the Power of Adversity to Accelerate Progress
No leader and no organization will always have an easy journey forward. Problems arise. Plans are derailed. Staff members leave for other opportunities. Competitors introduce superior products. Conflict and disagreement will surface. The list is almost endless as to the difficulties and challenges that a leader will face as they strive to achieve their vision.
When problems arise for a leader, the most common response is to focus on the problem itself and to do whatever is necessary to neutralize and/or eliminate that problem. But, a common side effect of directly trying to fix problems — without doing so as part of an ongoing visionary journey — is to become distracted by the problem, to have the “wind taken out of your sails,” and to stall forward momentum. If the problem becomes the focus of the leader, it is easy to lose sight of a longer-term vision.
Effective visionary leaders, however, recognize that when problems surface, there is a power – a force, an energy, an urgency – within those problems that can actually be harnessed for the advantage of the organization. In other words, in a moment of crisis, visionary leaders can use those moments of distress to clearly STEER their organizations toward their visionary horizon point. Rather than thinking about specific solutions to a problem, visionary leaders think about responses to that problem that will also advance their pursuit of their vision.
Once again, this is mostly a mindset – leaders refusing to take their eyes off the ultimate vision even when immediate problems seem overwhelming.
Analogous Example: Sail boats would seem to be at the total mercy of the wind and the waves that it encounters. But, in truth, skilled mariners, are able to harness the wind and navigate the waves to always further their journey to a final destination.
Imagine sailing a boat across a lake to a distant shore. The sailor on the boat would be tasked with trimming the sails, adjusting the rudder, and shifting the weight on the boat to always keep the boat tacking towards a point on the horizon. Further imagine that a huge wave – perhaps caused by a speeding motorboat – begins rolling towards the sailboat, threatening to capsize the boat with its force and energy. In such a situation, the sailor has two choices to deal with the threat of the wave.
The first option is to confront the wave directly – focusing on the wave and how to survive it. This would require the sailor to turn the boat directly into the oncoming wave, allowing the boat to ride up and back down the wave as it crests beneath the sailboat. Two outcomes would be guaranteed. The sailboat will survive the threat of the wave without capsizing. And, the sailboat will be off course with the wind taken out of its sails.
The second option is to be mindful of the wave, but to keep focused on the horizon. As the wave approaches, the sailor would need to turn the boat towards the wave only briefly. As the boat rides up the wave and it crests underneath, the sailor would need to immediately shift course back towards the horizon – effectively sliding down the back of the wave towards the sailboat’s original destination. Through the magic of physics, the force of the wave would actually accelerate the boats progress towards the distant shore, and the sails of the boat would stay billowed and full with the wind.
In this analogy, the sailor is the leader, the boat is the organization, and the wave is the problem to be addressed. The optimal outcome is to use the crisis of the wave to accelerate progress towards the vision, rather than to simply survive the challenge of the wave itself.
Without question, when problems arise, effective leaders must analyze the problem, understand the scope of the challenge to be faced, and be mindful of how to survive the problem itself. But, when crafting a solution to a problem, a visionary leader will once again use their vision as a compass for setting direction – making sure that their response to the problem at hand becomes an opportunity to move closer to the envisioned future. For example, a business that must reduce staff because of budget shortfalls, will use the opportunity to eliminate jobs more important to past successes and less critical to the future vision. Policy leaders might use a tax shortfall to rethink budget priorities in order to further a vision for a community. Or a leader might use a conflict between two valued stakeholders as an opportunity to remind those stakeholders how each can best contribute to the organization’s visionary future. Once again, this effort to exploit problems in order to advance a vision is mostly about mindset for a leader – always remaining focused on the vision and using every opportunity to move closer to the horizon.
(R) REFOCUS – Constantly Refocus the Horizon Point to Revitalize the Vision
The final opportunity to STEER an organization towards its vision, requires that a leader take every opportunity to keep their vision dynamic and vibrant – always relevant, exciting, and powerful. This is a two-pronged effort.
- First, a leader must become a broken record when it comes to the vision that they have embraced for their organization. The VisionTale – the story that describes what the organization will become must be a story that is told and retold time and time again. New staff members must be told the story when they join the organization. Leaders must be retold the story during meetings or critical events. The public must be reminded of the story at every opportunity. This constant repetition will feel awkward for a visionary leader. The leader will likely worry that the story will become stale or boring – that stakeholders will no longer listen when the story is retold. These fears will only come to pass if the story is uninspiring in the first place, or if the organization fails to follow the story as outlined in the first four action points of S.T.E.E.R. When a VisionTale is truly inspiring and powerful, that story will not grow old. It might be familiar and, hopefully, it will be committed to collective memory. But, it will not exhaust itself. It is not dissimilar from the repetition of stories that are part of every holiday that is celebrated around the world. Whether religious or secular, holidays are always a time for revisiting familiar stories that inspire us and shape our cultures. Retelling VisionTales is essentially the same thing – guaranteeing that every stakeholder shares a common language and a common understanding of what the leader’s vision is all about.
- The second effort requires a leader to be constantly enhancing and revising their vision and their VisionTale that describes the future point towards which an organization will strive. As explained earlier, an Horizon Point is not unlike the outer edge of a GPS map. As a car makes progress down the road, the map is constantly moving, and the edge remains a certain distance ahead of the vehicle. A leader must, likewise, be mindful of that furthest Horizon Point and must adjust their vision to always be ahead of the status quo and to be describing that Horizon Point towards which they strive.
It should be noted that this is also more of an ethic than a process. It is not suggested that the evolution of a vision be done in fits and starts on a schedule – every six months or year, etc. That might be appropriate for goal setting and strategy planning, but not vision crafting. The concept of an everchanging vision is more about an evolution – incorporating new ideas in the future to be imagined, adjusting what a leader wants to become based on lessons learned, or shifting expectations to account for new social norms or technologies.
By always being open to a changing future state, a leader can be assured that their vision does not become a limiter or a barrier not to be broken. By being willing and able to constantly fine tune and refocus their vision – even if barely noticeable to stakeholders – the leader will constantly be revitalizing their vision, their work, and their leadership.
As already stressed, STEERing an organization towards an envisioned future is not about major revisions or abrupt changes to a vision document or a vision statement. Rather, it is a steady and constant focus on the Horizon Point – never taking one’s eyes off the destination, constantly retelling the story of what the leader wants their organization to become, and always testing every decision and every solution against the vision just as an explorer constantly checks every step they take against a compass that points to True North.
If a powerful and vibrant vision is the foundation stone for success, leaders should take comfort that becoming a visionary leader does not require advanced learning or the mastery of complex skills. It is not about correct analysis, or detailed planning, or complex communications. In many ways, becoming a visionary leader is about doing that which comes naturally to us as human beings. Setting our sights on an optimistic and better future. Telling stories about our aspirations and our hopes. Being true to our values and principles. Never giving up and always moving forward. Visionary Leadership is about always and forever being mindful of what can be, of what we can become, and how our organizations can be transformed over time.