News & Insight
August 2008

Characteristics of Effective Leadership: Vision

In our September 2006 newsletter, we described WJM Associates’ Leadership Point-of-View by highlighting seven characteristics of effective leadership. To see the full article, as well as best practices for developing effective leaders within an organization, please click here.

The next several issues of the WJManagement Advisor will each include an article focusing on one of these characteristics. In this issue we address the fourth of these seven: Vision

“Some things have to be seen to be believed; some things have to be believed to be seen.”
--St. Exupery, The Little Prince.

One of the chief things we agree upon in leadership development is that we count upon our leaders to provide “vision.” This is reiterated so often that it is virtually a cliché of leadership, but what does it really mean? And how can we as coaches and executive guides help our clients fulfill this essential part of their role?

Many in organizations confuse “mission” and “vision.” They are related but not synonymous. Here is the difference: the mission of the organization is its purpose—what it is chartered to do and be. It answers the question “what are we here to do?” The mission is ideally built on corporate core values as well as culture, identity and knowledge of the business environment. A vision hypothesizes the future image of the organization, what the organization strives to become like creating a movie of the organization’s future state. The vision paints a picture of how the mission will be realized in the next era. It lays the groundwork to align and motivate the individual talents and energies so that the whole organization can move as one to achieve its greatest potential. It provides the glue for “e pluribus unum” making one out of many. And as such vision provides the means for a leadership cadre to “author” or architect the future.

Albert Einstein said that one of the most troubling dysfunctions in modern life was the inability to distinguish between means and ends. The vision provides the target, the result, the goal at the end of the journey (the end). Then, strategic planning provides the bridge for how to get from here to there (the means). Working with a coherent vision in mind, key decision-makers and those tasked with execution can work backwards from the goal to the present and then chart the course for how to get there, step by step, objective by objective. This works only when those throughout the organization “get” the vision and then create their own part of the design to make it happen.

“Envisioning” is a very visual word : most people need to “see” an image of the future before they can step into it and move forward step by step to create it. How can organizations, groups and whole cultures build a bridge to the future if employees and staff don’t “see” the future goal and hold a very palpable common image of what future they are mapping to? Visioning involves “creative visualization.” The vision must be grand enough to inspire energy and commitment, without being so ultra specific that it limits creativity and initiative in those who must carry it out. It must be mind-stretching, exciting and inspiring, without being overwhelming.

One essential component of this core leadership competence is seeing the big picture as well as having the imagination and the practical courage to “dream”. As one leader put it, visioning involves the courage and positive perspective to create the future, not just reacting to the “balls hit to you,” but playing offense—deciding where to play and what success looks like. Playing in the visioning business is certainly not for the feint of heart or the uncertain. It is risky business. It also involves a rather hard-headed ability to scan the environment and calculate the cost and benefits of attaching to this particular dream for the organization. The leaders hold responsibility for evaluating the likelihood of success of their goals.

As Max DePree, author of Leadership as Jazz, said, “the leader’s job is to create meaning for people.” By creating a meaningful vision and communicating it so others want to participate in its realization, the leader can inspire and energize employees, lifting them up beyond the details and silos of day to day life to see how their work results in something bigger than themselves. Experienced leaders take the time to communicate the vision with real clarity and allow for dialogue, discussion, debate and questioning as a means of getting commitment to it. The vision is a guide or a map; it gets people on the journey, but it is not written in stone. There are unknowns-- many things will change and affect it along the way. Leaders are careful not to inhibit others’ creativity: they delegate specific execution to those at many levels of responsibility, allowing them to participate in shaping it and thus to own it at their own level.

Once a vision is developed by the leader or leadership cadre, the next step is to make sure that key stakeholders within the organization are aligned on the vision. This means getting buy in and commitment, not just compliance. This means the leader takes time to communicate the vision, in terms that have real meaning and substance. Often once the vision is developed (often by the top team in a retreat or working with a consultant team) there is little attention paid to making sure that the vision is understood and cascaded across the organization horizontally and vertically. The top team has probably spent a great deal of time debating rival ideas and directions and has through process come up with the future vision. Often they neglect to take the employees through the same thought process and ask them to “buy in” without understanding the whys and wherefores which shaped the decision. It is an important part of the leader’s role to make sure that employees understand and commit to the vision and that they can participate in it by linking it to their own personal visions about the future. In this way, the leader’s vision becomes the organization’s vision, creating a common bond and cause among the workers. It becomes a story that is “co-authored” by leaders, managers and workers.

A word about personal vision: leaders symbolize and embody the culture and values of the organization. Although the organization vision is not the same as the leader’s personal values and vision, the leader’s own heart, mind and spirit should be resonant with the organization vision. A coach can do a great deal of work helping leader-clients clarify their vision and act in a manner consistent with the vision in everything they say and do. Walking the talk provides authenticity. People pay more attention to what you do than what you say. When the leader’s own actions are true to the vision he or she espouses, this creates trust and strengthens the leader’s ability to inspire and energize others to move into the common vision of the future.

Dr. Marilyn Stocker is a Chicago-based member of WJM’s Faculty. She is an experienced executive coach, organizational consultant, change agent and teacher. She has served as both Associate Dean of Executive Education at Loyola Chicago’s Graduate School of Business and Chief Consultant for Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studio Leadership Initiative. Her latest book “It Still Requires Humans: Leadership and Technology” will be published by Prentice Hall this year.

Join our newsletter

Stay up to date on all things happening at WJM Associates