Why is Vision Important to Leadership?

Welcome to the last in my three-part series on Leadership, which I define as “holding the Vision, causing Partnership, and holding people to Account”. Over the last two articles I have explored the areas of Accountability and Partnership. This time I am going to take a look at the key to Leadership: the creation and keeping alive of a compelling picture of the future state of the organisation. In other words, a Vision.

If, as you read this, your organisation has not provided you with a compelling picture, one that seriously excites you, then your leaders are not leading effectively.

If you are the leader of an organisation that does not have a corporate vision you have contributed towards creating, that excites you and everyone around you, and that you are “holding” then you are leading an organisation that has insufficient focus.

What is my Job as a Leader?

Look at the definition of Leadership above. Your key job is to ‘hold’ the vision. What we mean by “holding” is taking full accountability for the job of keeping the vision alive, day in, day out. How you know it’s alive is that people are continually excited, inspired and committed to its achievement. If they are stressed, weary, overloaded and resigned, they’ve lost it. It’s your job to resolve whatever needs resolving to bring people around you back into that state of excitement and inspiration – back in touch with the vision.

How can you do this?

– The first part, though not easy, is simple: initiate a process to engage people in creating a compelling picture of the organisation’s future which is not just attractive to its customers, suppliers and investors, but also inspiring and empowering to those who work in it.

– Design a plan that will fulfil the vision, and focus everyone’s efforts solely on its achievement. A vision is, at its outset, just a set of words; until it is translated into action and results, nothing has changed.

– Now this is the difficult bit! Live, breathe and role-model the vision every day. Successful leaders never assume that their organisation is ‘on board’ with the vision – they go on and on and on about it. This, not the day-to-day detail, is the primary job of leadership.

– Concentrate on clearing the obstacles to fulfilling the vision. Don’t do people’s jobs for them, or chase them to do their jobs; clear the way for them to do their own jobs effectively.

What Makes an Inspiring Vision?

Great visions, and effective leaders, rattle cages. They are radical, contrasting sharply with the current view, and with the past. They demand attention. The question is, “What are we building here?” And the answer isn’t incremental: ‘more’, ‘better’, ‘higher’ are not words which are visionary or inspiring, but ones which are rooted in the past. You can only do ‘better’ if you are basing your objectives on what you’ve already done! Objectives by themselves are not exciting. A great vision communicated by a great leader is, and draws people to both the leader and the vision.

Whose visions are these?

(Answers at the end of the article).

1. To have a computer on every desk.

2. Land a man on the moon and safely return him to earth by the end of (this) decade.

3. All men will be judged by the merit of their character, not by the colour of their skin.

4. Low Prices, Low Costs

5. To become the most competitive enterprise in the world by being number one or number two in market share in every business the company is in.

Now, these examples may not turn you on – they were designed by and for the people they were meant to attract. That’s the very point we’re making here – visions on paper don’t work! You need to breathe life into them with your own passion and commitment. However, notice that every one of them is a bold statement of a clearly recognisable outcome. Every one is capable of measurement, and some have already been achieved. CEOs and executive groups often find it difficult to stretch their thinking toward the future. They’re very “grounded,” realistic people. They are drawn towards missions, which describe what an organisation does now and in the future, rather than visions, which describe why an organisation engages in these activities.

Don’t make the mistake of creating a strategic plan to achieve a strategy or objective in the hope that this will inspire – it won’t. Explore and draw out your vision first, to provide the context for your strategies and objectives. Articulating the vision is sometimes omitted because leaders mistakenly forget that they lead people. Computers, processes and policies don’t need enrolling, inspiring and focusing – people do!

Our experience of working with developing organisations is that the process of drawing out the shared vision is as important as the vision itself. And the process will vary from one organisation to another. But the genius of a great leadership group lies in its ability to create a vision that is simple enough to be really understood and remembered, credible enough to be embraced by all, and, above all, special and inspiring enough to have everyone committed fully to working continually towards attaining it.

Here are some examples of companies who have succeeded through their relentless determination to see through their vision:

Whole Foods Market does not just have a myopic focus on the bottom line or share price, but is committed to a vision with more far-reaching aspirations. They want to change a part of the world in which they operate. Though they don’t obsess over the bottom line, their earnings growth rate is triple that of the industry in which they operate. And their share price over the past two years has more than doubled.

Oakley, a top-end designer and manufacturer of sporting accessories and eyewear, is another good example. It doesn’t even have a formal vision “statement”, but is nonetheless vision-driven. The organisation doesn’t look much at the short term, but is continually stretching its people to be more creative and innovative. It’s an innovation machine, cranking out amazing new products through home-grown technology. They are operating in a very difficult market at the moment, but have huge margins and market share.

eBay gets it, too. Why? Because they realise the best talent is attracted to firms with a compelling vision. The people who work there do so for reasons they consider far more important than things like “maximizing shareholder value.” They work there so “everybody on the planet can do business with anyone else on the planet”.

Profit and share price are the equivalent of the food we eat and the air we breathe; without them, there is no life, but they are not the reason we’re alive!

PS The answers to the originators of the visions listed above are:

1. Microsoft

2. President John F Kennedy. This is the famous challenge issued to NASA in 1961 – a simple, specific task and timeframe

3. Rev Dr Martin Luther King – this is an excerpt from the famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech

4. Ryanair

5. General Electric – this statement was the famous challenge that CEO Jack Welch issued to his division heads in the mid 1980s

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