“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” – Lewis Carroll
“What is missing is a deep understanding of what it means to develop an organization as a conscious human community. A commitment to achieving a vision that exceeds any individual capacities, a vision that connects people in a common effort with genuine meaning. Such commitment is grounded in people taking unconditional responsibility for their situation and for their ways of responding to it.” – Peter Senge
When I was traveling for my work in the 1980s, I imagined what it would be like to return with my wife, Sally, to the places that captured my heart – London, Edinburgh, rural England – and I tucked that dream away for years. Sally had often talked about her Scottish heritage (her mother was a MacDougall) and how she would love to see some of the family castles that still stood. I always thought it would be great to see where my family originated in Wales. We had established a fuzzy vision, a future direction we wanted to create for our marriage. It was a “big picture” that told us what was important and that we wanted to achieve over a long time. At the time we set it, it seemed far beyond our reach.
Most organizations that I’ve worked with either have no vision statement, except a vague notion in the leader’s head or have a “corporate” vision statement that is so lifeless that no one in their right mind would be motivated to sacrifice a part of their lives to achieve it. In fact, often when I first meet a leadership team, I’ll ask them to tell me what their vision statement is and they’ll say something like, “It’s on the wall” or “It’s in our strategic plan.” They don’t know what the collective direction is, so like Lewis Carroll said, “any road will get you there.”
In their book, “The Power of Moments,” Chip and Dan Heath talk about “bringing people together for a synchronizing moment where we invite them to share in a purposeful struggle… connecting them to a larger sense of meaning.” One way this happens is by setting a vision that people can buy into – creating the big, “why we exist” or the “for the sake of what.” Through their research, they’ve found that “sense of meaning can be the difference between a great performer and a mediocre one” (p.216). People want to know why they’re doing what they’re doing and where they’re going in order to make the decision to commit.
Vision is the way you see yourself fulfilling your purpose. But if you’re a leader who’s one of the 70% stuck in the “Reactive” stage of development (see my post on “Where Are You?”), you’ll find it’s impossible to define purpose and create a compelling vision because your behavior is still largely influenced by what you think others think you should be and do. If you’re having trouble creating a vision, start with defining your purpose in life. We’ll explore that in a future post.
If leaders haven’t taken the time to articulate a compelling story of the future and why it’s essential that we achieve it, how can we expect people to get excited about what they’re doing? When we see “mediocre” performers, are we really seeing something we – as leaders – have not articulated well enough? Should we look in the mirror to discover what we’re doing or not doing that’s contributing to the problem?
Anderson and Adams say that, “Leadership is the ongoing discipline of translating purpose into a vision of our desired future, both individually and collectively.” Because I believe that vision comes to a leader (not to a committee), I agree with what they describe as five elements of vision: it’s personal (comes from a higher purpose), specific (we’ll recognize it when we realize it), strategic (a description of the organization as we most want it to exist at some point in the future), lofty (captures our highest aspiration for our lives and work), and collective (it catalyzes alignment). A compelling vision includes the hopes, aspirations, values, beliefs and attributes of the story we’d be writing about the future we want to create.
When I work with leaders, I always encourage them to begin writing the story of their organization’s future. That’s important because everyone can get on board with a story that piques their imaginations and resonates with their deepest aspirations.
The story addresses such things as:
- People issues and what it would be like to work in our organization
- The culture we would have created/sustained
- Customers and the “customer experience”
- The “Jobs to be Done”/the work we’re doing
- The kinds of leaders we’d see and what our theory of leadership would be
- Community involvement/investment
- Results we’re producing
Vision can become a litmus test of who should and shouldn’t be leading and working in your organization, the culture and values you emphasize, what goals you’re pursuing, what expenditures you’re budgeting, what strategies you’re pursuing and even what your organization’s structure should look like. Vision is the linchpin and keystone of the organization. Everything hinges on it and everything that’s done or not done should be in pursuit of achieving that vision.
If there’s no common vision, there are as many visions as there are people in your organization, often working at cross-purposes. One leader once told me that the only reason his organization made any headway at all was by its sheer size. He said, “We have over 500 rudders, independently steering the ship. The only reason we make any headway is because of our mass.”
With her retirement in 2015, I planned to give Sally the “trip of a lifetime” as part of her celebration of spending a career, dedicated to teaching young people how to read. We honed our vision and gained more clarity of the story we wanted it to be. In 2016, we fulfilled our vision, spending three weeks in London, Edinburgh, the Scottish Highlands, Wales, central England, and France. We could never had accomplished that trip without first establishing our vision. What’s the vision for your life? Your organization?
Clockwise: Buckingham Palace; Conwy Castle, Wales; Dunstaffnage Castle, Scotland (built by the MacDougalls)
“Live the life you’ve imagined… If you have built castles in the air, that is where they should be; now put the foundations under them.” – Henry David Thoreau
© Geoff Davis 10/26/18