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Vision and Leadership

Great Leaders Are Visionary.... Not Necessarily

The conventional and over-celebrated view of vision is that it's something a good leader first must “have” and then convince followers to adopt.

I do not subscribe to the conventional view.

Exceptional leaders don’t impart a vision, rather they cultivate the emergence of a vision – a huge difference.
High achievement and meaningful success are more likely when an organization’s vision has a life of its own. The leader is a catalyst for the vision, not necessarily the primary source. While the seed for a vision can certainly originate from a leader, there is incredible power and energy when a group of people to discover their collective vision.

Discovery comes through meaningful exchange of personal ideas, views, and values until a shared collective image of the future emerges. When it’s right, the vision creates a sense of ownership, that people feel the vision belongs to them, and they belong to the vision. A vision that has a life of its own provides genuine motivation for action and a sense of belonging to something larger than oneself.

An organizational benefit of a shared vision with a life of its own is reduced dependency on any one individual, safeguarding an organization from shifting course precipitously every time there is a change of leadership or organizational structure.

Are you eager to see a shared vision benefit your organization? The following are seven actions that experienced leaders use to tap into the power of a shared vision:

Facilitate and Encourage Dialogue That Lets the Vision Emerge
Rather than simply impart their vision, exceptional leaders assemble the right people and ask, “what is our vision?” Effective leaders create organizational structures and cultivate a climate where fierce dialogues can occur, and in fact are expected. They use meetings to focus dialogue on meaningful issues for the organization.

Let the Vision Evolve
Crafting a vision, discovering a vision is more than coming together for an afternoon and crafting a set of words everyone agrees represent a “vision” statement. A powerful and meaningful vision often arrives over time, emerging in successive stages.

Articulate the Vision on Behalf of the Group
As a vision is discerned by the group, it is indeed a leadership function to articulate that vision. Leaders must be able to communicate the vision so it is clearly understood by all stakeholders. Leaders must also communicate the path to achieving the vision (or at least the next step), and how it is that people will benefit. For an inspirational example of one of the most masterful articulations of a vision, listen to a recording of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous I Have a Dream speech.

Encourage and Showcase Champions of the Vision
People who promote the vision can come from all ranks, and probably need to. Effective leaders lend the halo of their leadership position to champions for the vision, providing support and encouragement when needed. They set about the task of publicly recognizing the work of champions as a means to promote the vision.

Empower and Support Action that Moves the Vision Forward
A vision by itself is of small value unless followed by corresponding action. Leaders must allocate resources, smooth transactions across boundaries, and otherwise ensure action is taken that moves the organization forward so a vision becomes a reality. Seeking and celebrating early wins can be critical to gaining and sustaining momentum.

Eliminate Structural Disincentives that Hold Back the Vision
Structure forms the boundaries of what people do, much the same way a track sets the boundaries of where a train can travel. Effective leaders seek and remove processes and procedures that are in conflict with the vision. For example, basing performance pay on how well employees stick to a prescribed script is incongruent of a vision where employees go the extra mile for customer service.

Influence the Culture to Embrace and Align with the Vision
I define ‘culture’ as the default behavior and attitudes that happen without effort on anyone’s part. The power of an organization’s culture to either propel or hinder achievement is often vastly underestimated. An organization’s culture is a strong current that either automatically pushes the organization in a way that supports a vision, or drains off a significant level of effort long before any forward motion is achieved. Leaders influence the culture by finding and rewarding elements of the desired culture that already exists. They also influence the culture profoundly by living the vision, i.e. walking the talk. Southwest Airlines is well-known for creating a culture where everyone pitches in, demonstrated by executives who hand out peanuts or help stack luggage whenever they were on a flight.

"Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come," goes the well-known quote by Victor Hugo. Exceptional leaders know that the most powerful vision for an organization is one whose time has come. Exceptional leaders cultivate discovery and emergence of a vision that people feel belongs to them, and inspires them to go beyond the edge of what seems possible to realize extraordinary achievement.

by Tom Stevens (c)2011
Tom Stevens helps leaders create and sustain exceptional organizations. To contact him, visit

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