The Strategic Leader’s Work (Vision)

Part 3 in a Series on Strategic Leadership

“Vision describes the specific direction our soul wants to go.”  – Bob Anderson and Bill Adams

In previous posts, I defined strategic leadership and began to identify one way to look at the strategic leader’s work by breaking it down into ten responsibilities to fulfill:

  1. Manage and lead yourself
  2. Create the team, generate their commitment, and get clear on who’s responsible for what.
  3. Set the vision
  4. Intentionally set time aside for thinking
  5. Establish the organizational framework and continuously connect the dots to fulfill the vision
  6. Determine what needs attention in a VUCA environment
  7. Frame the strategic questions we need to answer
  8. From those questions, establish a Leadership Agenda
  9. From the Agenda, determine our current priority
  10. Commission teams to run experiments to begin to answer the question to fulfill the vision

We examined some of what it takes to manage and lead yourself and what it takes to create the team, generate their commitment, and get clear on who’s responsible for what.  In this post, we’ll continue to explore some of what senior leaders must be paying attention to.

Set the vision.


In the early 2000’s I had the opportunity to be trained by the LEGO company in a process called “LEGO Serious Play™,” a research-based set of approaches using LEGO’s to perform such activities as team building, creating a business model, strategic planning, and setting a vision.  The picture above is the vision of a facility of a multi-national corporation that engaged in this process.  It tells the story of what they aspire to be.

Examples of Compelling Vision

Two speeches stand out in my memory that changed the face of our nation during the 1960’s.  The first was President John F. Kennedy’s “Man on the Moon” Speech.

“…We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others too…”

The second was Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech.

“…I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.  I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…”

Both set compelling visions that people could see, touch, and emotionally feel and generated widespread commitment around each leader’s compelling story.  Kennedy’s speech, given in May of 1961, set in motion new industries, new technologies, new jobs that transformed the world that we know.  On July 20, 1969 Neil Armstrong spoke those famous words from the moon, “That’s one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind.”  King’s speech gave purpose and a tangible direction to the Civil Rights movement and set the aspiration for millions of Americans.

What, Exactly, is Vision?

In an earlier post  I wrote about vision as the collective destination we’re headed.   Vision is seeing yourself fulfilling your purpose.  It’s a compelling story about the future that aligns the members of the organization and generates their commitment by connecting with their personal visions.  And it’s the responsibility of the senior leader to set this course.  Why would anyone want to work for a leader or an organization that doesn’t have a compelling reason for existence – the pursuit of a noble cause bigger than what we could accomplish on our own?

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.”  What they’re talking about is setting a vision that people can buy into – creating the big, “why we exist.”  Through their research, they’ve found that “sense of meaning can be the difference between a great performer and a mediocre one.” (p.216)

Researcher Morten Hansen defines purpose as “the sense that you are contributing to others, that your work has broader meaning.” Heath and Heath assert that “Purpose is something people can share.  It can knit groups together… to unite people who might otherwise drift in different directions, chasing different passions.  Purpose can be cultivated in a moment of insight and connection.”  (p.219)

“Vision” means the conception of an image.  A vision statement is a conceptual statement of where the leader pictures the organization’s future.  It includes the hopes, aspirations, values, beliefs and attributes of that preferred future.

A vision statement defines the future direction we want to create for our organization.  It is a “big picture” statement that tells everyone what the organization thinks is important, has set out to accomplish, and intends to become over a long, time horizon.

  • What’s the story we want to be telling about our organization 10-20 years in the future?
  • The story addresses such things as:
    • People issues and what it would be like to work here
    • 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 is
    • Community involvement/investment
    • Results we’re producing

Leaders Distill Vision

 “Leadership is the ongoing discipline of translating purpose into a vision of our desired future, both individually and collectively.” (Anderson and Adams, Mastering Leadership, 2016).  In this groundbreaking work, they describe Five Elements of Vision:

  1. Vision is personal – leadership is the act of articulating and acting in pursuit of a vision that flows from our personal commitment to a higher purpose.
  2. Vision is specific – specific enough that we would recognize it when we realize it. It needs to be specific enough to set direction, focus strategy, drive action, and guide decision making.
  3. Vision is strategic (but is not strategy) – strategy charts the course of how to get from wherever we are to the vision. Vision is the capstone of strategy, a description of the organization, as we most want it to exist at some point in the future.  It sets the organization on course to thrive and contribute.
  4. Vision is lofty – it captures our highest aspirations for our lives and work. It is unashamedly spiritual and fundamentally imaginative.  A lofty vision makes the pursuit of it meaningful and worthwhile, worthy of our deep commitment.
  5. Vision is collective – vision catalyzes alignment. By expressing vision, the leader causes others to reflect on what they stand for.  If we then engage in conversation about our individual aspirations, we find common ground.  We enable the true purpose and vision of the organization to rise to the surface.

Clarifying Vision

Dan Ciampa makes some clear distinctions in an article in the Fall 2017 MIT Sloan Management Review entitled, “What CEOs Get Wrong About Vision.”   I’d highly recommend reading it if you’re confused about the difference between vision and mission, if you have a less than a compelling vision that is widely endorsed by everyone in your organization, or if you don’t really have a vision.

In it, he says, “Many executives don’t understand how to craft a compelling vision for change that will gain widespread commitment within their organizations.  Leaders should start by asking themselves: What will people see, hear, and feel once the changes have been achieved?… A leader’s vision – particularly if that leader needs to bring about significant change in an organization – should start as a vivid, credible image of an ideal future state… New behavior doesn’t come from missions, however aspirational, but from deep, emotional commitment to doing things differently.”

Ciampa recommends five steps for clarifying your vision:

  1. Find your own unique way to express it
  2. Appeal to emotions often and vividly
  3. Describe changes that can be imagined
  4. Describe valued behavior, not values
  5. Be both firm and flexible – firm about the core elements but flexible in others

As a strategic leader, once you’ve established self-care practices that ensure you’re in shape to perform at your highest levels, have created a team of talented, committed, aligned, coordinated leaders, and set the vision, you’ve created the foundation for the organization.

It can take time to create and clarify where you want to go as an individual or an organization, but it’s time well-worth it.  Some leaders with whom I’ve worked have spent months to years creating, revising, and publishing their vision.  But it takes making some time to reflect and dream about where you’d like to be.  And creating a compelling vision is the single, organizing component of any organization.

Next post, we’ll examine one, additional practice that eludes most leaders and can often lead to their downfall – intentionally setting aside time for thinking.

© Geoff Davis, 3/22/19



One thought on “The Strategic Leader’s Work (Vision)

  1. microqemas

    Thanks for today Geoff. This is a great refresher for me as I prepare for my next team meeting.

    Mike Szymanski

    Sent from my iPhone


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