Visionary leadership

Inspiring leaders excel at creating vision and providing clear direction to the people about them. In the spirit of this attribute, we will...

Inspiring leaders excel at creating vision and providing clear direction to the people about them. In the spirit of this attribute, we will paint the total picture of this leadership development goals behavior at the very beginning, then treat each of the parts in greater detail.

The Process of Creating Visionary Leadership

Here’s how candidates with good leadership skills goes about creating greater clarity of vision and direction:
  1. The leader orchestrates a process that creates a concise, compelling, and clear vision for the organization. This is not a “solo” activity for the leader. Leaders ought not to think that it is incumbent upon them to have the answer. Nor does this need to be for an entire corporation. Middle managers in any functional area can do this for the group they lead. For the rookies who are seeking to find how to be a good leader this is one of the best example
  2. This vision combines a strong statement of the guiding principles that shape the organization with a vivid picture of what it aspires to be in the next few years. Don’t confuse having a vision and providing clarity of direction with having a mission statement. The vision is not a “forever” picture, as a mission statement tends to be.
  3. With this vision clearly stated, a clear line of sight can now be established between each individual’s work and where the organization wants to go. This enables all individuals to be engaged in day-to-day activities with a clear sense of direction and purpose and a knowledge of how what they do fits into the larger picture. Work now takes on greater meaning.
  4. This clarity of direction also resolves questions about what is trivial and what is titanic. A clear vision and direction for the organization also defines on a daily basis what should be ignored or put on the back burner. Individuals can then stay focused on the most important activities and issues.
  5. All systems and new initiatives can now be brought into alignment around the vision.
  6. Effective strategies and optimum tactics flow more easily from this clearer vision for the organization.
visionary leadership


At the most fundamental level, providing clear vision and direction is a tangible expression of the leadership characteristics who is treating other people in the organization with dignity and respect.

If a group of adults decided to go on a hike together, chances are that the person who was nominally in charge would ask the people in the group to look at a map and would indicate the planned destination and the route by which the group would collectively get there. Imagine how frustrating it would be if the group were asked to simply follow the leadership communication. In essence, the leader would be saying, “I know where we’re going; I’ll lead you there. You don’t need to know anything more than that.” Worse yet, after stopping for lunch, imagine the frustration that the group would feel if the leader meandered off in different directions, apparently looking for the most appealing path, but consulted with no one in that process.

Such a scenario would trigger images of the worst scenes from a Dilbert cartoon. The consequences of this behavior would be the disdain and apathy that are not so subtly displayed by the characters in that comic strip. We’ll refer to the situation just described as Scenario A.

Now imagine Scenario B. This individual with leadership qualities asks the group to convene and describes a potential destination. But now the leader asks if everyone thinks that this is a good destination and, only after getting agreement on its being a good target, asks for any thoughts about the best way of getting there. One person in the group has made this hike before and offers some useful suggestions about one area to avoid because the trail is muddy at this time of year. Another person notices a lake and offers to bring a fishing pole to provide fresh fish for the group lunch. Before the group leaves, everyone is clear about the destination. A time to stop for lunch has been agreed on by the group, and then they embark on the hike. As they begin to hike, one part of the group challenges the rest of the group to a race, which results in some people reaching the goal much sooner than the others. But rather than complaining about having to wait for the others or about their strained muscles, the group is energized, happy, and ready for another adventure.

It is completely obvious which scenario would create a higher level of motivation for the hikers. The first group would experience considerable mumbling and grousing, while the second group would travel in relative harmony.


Orchestrate a Process by Which a Plan Is Defined

The first thing to emphasize is that the leadership goals does not go off and come back with a vision that he created all alone. Visions that inspire need not be solo endeavors. Yes, the entrepreneur of a startup organization may have strong ideas about what she would like to accomplish, but for most organizations, this ideally is a collaborative process.

Note also that this is not always done first by the most senior executive in the organization. While most people would agree that this is the ideal place to begin, the reality is that visions are created for divisions, departments, and functions in the organization. Their influence usually radiates in all directions and encourages others to do the same.

Make Sure the Vision Captures the Important Guiding Principles

This includes the values that drive the organization. The vision should add a vivid picture of what the organization aspires to be. The important qualities are that it is
  • Clear
  • Compelling
  • Concrete
  • Succinct
  • Engaging
  • Visceral
Consider two examples from different realms. Many people attend car shows in which manufacturers of automobiles display their latest models. They also display concept cars that herald what is to come. Features from these concept cars, depending on public reaction and the feasibility of manufacturing them, can end up on production cars in just a few years.

A second example is the unveiling of a model by the architects who are aspiring to win the bid for a major new building. At the appropriate moment, the model of the building is uncovered. With painstaking detail, the building has been created in miniature and placed in its context, often surrounded by miniature trees and cars. Suddenly the concept of the building takes on life.

In each case, there could have been an oral description of the car or the building. Or, going to the next step, there could have been dimensional drawings showing front views, side views, and topdown perspectives.

The creation of models comes at considerable expense for the auto manufacturer. And while the model of the building is less costly, the creation of the miniature building is not a trivial undertaking. But in each case the model takes something that could be abstract and makes it clear, compelling, and concrete. People develop some visceral reaction as they are either drawn to or repelled by what they see.

In describing the vision for a corporation or some portion of it, there is an obvious challenge. Corporations are by definition a creation of someone’s imagination. They are a concept, a legal entity, and very hard for the average person to define accurately. That’s all the more reason for the vision to be made as concrete, clear, compelling, and visceral as possible. If the vision can be visually depicted, all the better. Stories and examples help bring abstract concepts alive.

Consider a vision statement that reads: “Ajax aspires to be the preeminent manufacturer of O-rings in the world, to provide superior customer service, and to be a preferred place of employment for its employees.” While each word may have been carefully pondered by the executive group, the fact of the matter is that the name “Ajax” and the product “O-rings” could be replaced by hundreds of others and no one would notice.

Link the Vision to Each Team and Individual

With a clear vision statement in place, leaders can now discuss with each associate in the organization how her work connects with that vision. If that linkage is not readily apparent, this is a strong signal that either what the person is doing needs to be substantially redefined or that the individual with leadership traits needs to clarify how the individual’s work is tied to the overall goals. You’d hope that this connection would be extremely obvious. If it isn’t, then quick action should be taken.

Clarify What Path Not to Take

It has been noted that one of the most valuable outcomes of achieving greater strategic clarity is that it tells people what not to do as much as it tells them what to do. In many organizations, there is a belief that the more things we do, the better. While this is never stated overtly, the underlying mentality is:

We will take on any and all customers that we can. We’ll embark on any new project that someone is enthused about. We’ll develop any new project or service in which a customer shows interest.

Clarity of vision helps all members of the group to be vigilant about not attempting to serve everyone who wants to be a customer, or to embark on any project about which someone becomes enthused, or to create a new product because one prospect or client expresses interest in it. These are hard decisions to make, especially for newly created organizations that are scratching out their existence. But given their limited resources, it is especially crucial for those companies to stay focused.

Ideally, as part of the vision, stating what is not included, what won’t be undertaken, and what will be postponed until a future date is a valuable addition.

Align Systems with the Vision

Visions of the preferred future can easily be created, but they are then injected into an existing organization with its current systems, policies, procedures, and behavioral norms. It is very unreasonable to believe that the new vision will survive in an environment that was not created to sustain it.

Our own organization is a good case in point. The decision was made to move from being primarily a consulting organization to an organization that was more focused on defined products and solutions. While there was agreement among all the executives that this was the correct “goforward” strategy, the implications of this simple decision were enormous. This decision required new systems and procedures for product development and product management, new compensation systems, new customer support staff, new organizational functions and structure—indeed, the list seemed endless. But to have announced a new vision and not to have made those changes would have caused many people inside the organization to initially be puzzled and ultimately become disillusioned, because of the contradiction between what we were actually doing and what we said we wanted to do.

Consistently and Continually Communicate the Vision and Direction

Indeed, one of the interesting issues in creating a vision involves the need for its constant repetition by the leaders. Why? Don’t people have memories that retain such ideas? They seem to remember thousands of other things that were said that have much less importance. Why do colleagues seem to forget the vision and strategy? The answer may be that they don’t forget. They don’t have amnesia. We suspect that the answer lies somewhere else.

The metaphor that comes to mind involves something that happens in many marriages or domestic partnerships. They begin with expressions of love between partners. Then, as daily events occur, things happen that erode the strength of that relationship, or at least raise questions about it. One party says or does things that seem contrary to that original expression of love as the other party sees it. Martin Seligman, in his book Authentic Happiness, points out that the most happily united couples spend a few minutes at the beginning of each day getting caught up, talking about their expectations for the day, reassuring each other of their love, giving a kiss good-bye, and parting in a pleasant manner. The same thing happens each evening. It is clear that the most happily joined partners provide each other with a continuous stream of reassurance of their commitment and fidelity to the partnership. We believe there’s an important principle embedded here.

Why is it that leaders must constantly reaffirm the goals and direction? Because in the whirlwind of daily activities, things are said and done that appear at worst to contradict or at best to be disconnected from the avowed strategy.

One of the authors worked for a multinational pharmaceutical company. The firm brought all division and country managers together twice a year to discuss overall corporate strategy and direction. At the conclusion of these meetings, everyone seemed completely clear about and at peace with the strategy and his role in making it happen. Then, after a month or so, the author would visit many of these other locations, and he observed a very consistent phenomenon. Invariably there would be questions of: “Where is this organization headed?” “Our division can’t formulate our strategy until we get clear about where the corporation is going.”

Again, we don’t believe that these leaders, who were so competent and senior, suddenly experienced amnesia or minor memory lapses. Something else was going on, and we can only surmise that in the ongoing stream of communication that came from headquarters, those in the remote locations heard messages that contradicted or eroded what they had earlier been told.

Whatever the cause, the need for leaders to repeat the direction and vision for the organization frequently is extremely important. It simply cannot be done too frequently.

Devise Tactics with a Greater Assurance That They Will Mesh with the Vision and Strategy
Without a clear vision, there is a high likelihood that tactics won’t be perfectly aligned. With a clear vision and a strategy that is frequently reiterated, there is a much higher likelihood that the operational tactics selected by everyone in the organization will be in harmony with the vision. Leaders need to pay special attention to the priorities that are established in the organization; this should be inbred within the leadership development programs. Often, after a vision has been established in the organization, competing priorities start to become established that create confusion about the strategy. Team members struggle to know when they should do anything they can to please a customer and when they should tell a customer that the customer’s request is outside the mission of the organization.

Implement the Bold Changes Required to Make the Vision Real

Many visions are never realized because, while leaders want to achieve a vision, they lack the ability or commitment to make difficult changes. Any new vision will require change, and change rarely occurs automatically because there is a new vision or by declaration. Change requires discipline to continue to make decisions and take actions that are consistent with a desired outcome.

Remember That External Focus Is Critical

Leaders who are attempting to implement a new vision need to stay connected with and informed about what is happening outside the organization. Implementing a new vision can cause leaders to become internally focused. All their energy and attention is focused internally, within the organization. This is a very dangerous position because the world is changing, competition is adapting, and customers are fickle. Leaders need to spend a significant portion of their time focusing outside the organization to make themselves aware of new trends.

Plan for Any Potential Setbacks

Finally, we would strongly urge that leaders anticipate problems. Some become so enamored with their new vision that they assume it will automatically be implemented. This never happens. There are always roadblocks and problems. Leaders need to take the time up front to anticipate these problems. That way, potential solutions are much more likely to be found, and successful implementations for their visions can be created.


Rethinking the Fundamental Product or Service That You Provide

A CEO of a large telecommunication company addresses 50 executives and indicates that while the old legacy company used to sell communication services, the new company has become part of the fabric of society. The live evidence of this in his home is that his children use their cell phones as alarm clocks. Indeed, the evolution of the cell phone’s role in people’s lives is hard to fully comprehend. It has become a primary means of communication, as young people text-message each other when they are less than 100 feet apart. The phone has become the primary camera to capture and send visual images. It is an entertainment device in downtime periods. It is the most often used calculator. It replaces the laptop computer for the business traveler with its ability to retrieve e-mail, spreadsheets, and lengthy documents.

Vision Creates Unifying Targets

A CEO of an energy company that five years before was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy now has a vision of making his company one of the best companies to work for in the world.

Not being satisfied with merely above-average employee satisfaction, the CEO describes his vision for moving the company into the top quartile.

Vision Helps to Implement an Important Strategic Initiative

A human resources executive has a vision of developing leaders that are world class in terms of their skills and competencies. This organization had done little to develop leaders in the past. It has definite financial constraints on what it can spend for this activity. The executive ticks the leadership characteristics list and buys books and distributes them to critical stakeholders in the organization. She has “lunch and learn” discussions to share her vision and build support. She arranges special meetings with a few executives who show some interest and talks them into having a pilot program. She attends every pilot and follows up with each participant. Within a year, 200 leaders have been through a meaningful developmental experience. The organization is making progress in helping people to acquire critical skills that will enable them to take on bigger roles in the company.

These are just a few examples of leaders with a clear vision who inspire their organizations to new levels of performance and improvement.

To Sum it up:

  1. Begin a process that will create a clear vision and direction for the organization. Involve your team. This is not a solo flight.
  2. Combine the organization’s guiding principles with the picture of what the organization wants to be in a few years. The vision should capture the important guiding principles and values. Can you make a graphic representation of the vision?
  3. Establish a clear line of sight between each individual’s work and where the organization wants to go.Discuss with each individual how his work connects with the vision.Redefine to each person what he should be doing or clarify how his work connects to the overall goals.
  4. Identify what is trivial to achieving the vision of the organization and what is titanic. Make sure that people know what not to do. Ask the question, “Are we taking on more than we can handle?”
  5. Align systems and initiatives around the vision. Explore whether the new vision will survive in a system that was not specifically designed to sustain it.
  6. Regularly communicate the vision and direction. Provide a continuous stream of reassurance to others. Devise tactics that mesh with the vision and the strategy



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