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A Vision at the Heart of Leadership - Setting the Direction

A Vision at the Heart of Leadership - Setting the Direction
13th Feb 2008 12:53 pm

Without vision, we are blind – and without a vision, an organisation is liable to be stumbling around, lost in the blizzard. As champions of vision, leaders use this powerful tool to lead their communities through the challenges of the environment, and create the space for empowered action by the organisational community.

This second article in our series asks – what is the leader’s role in vision? And as we empower our organizations, how does our thinking about vision need to change?

A Miroslav Holub story tells of a military reconnaissance unit in the mountains, hopelessly lost in a terrible snowstorm. Short of supplies, with no means of finding their way to safety, it seemed hope was lost. Then, one of them found a map somewhere in his pocket. They were saved! Sure enough, using the map they navigated their way through danger, to reunite with their unit in safety.

Only later was it discovered that the map that saved the day was of the Pyrenees. They were in the Alps.

This tale highlights the power of a vision (or a map) to unite and re-energise a group of people around a common purpose –so significant that perhaps, the content is less important than the effect it has on the community being led. In this second in our series of articles on the subject of leadership, we explore the conversations we are having with leaders in our Nine Conversations in Leadership program around vision, one of the most commonly cited roles of a leader.

The power of organisational vision

Championing a clear, shared vision of where we as a group or organisation are going has always been seen as a key part of the leader’s role. In fact, the vision might be seen as the leader’s statement of their leadership goals – where is it that I am leading us to? This visionary role is never more important than in the increasingly complex and chaotic business environment we live in today.
Organisationally, research indicates that a clear vision that aligns strategic direction does indeed improve a number of performance measures, with those companies that are powered by vision outperforming the market by up to 15 times. We have all seen teams and individuals languish without a clear sense of purpose and direction, and thrive with clarity and shared purpose.

As Joel Barker suggested in his work on The Power of Vision, “Vision without action is a dream. Action without vision is simply passing the time. Action with Vision is making a positive difference.”

This is, of course, never more true than when that sense of shared purpose resonates strongly with the individual’s own personal purpose and value system. Your vision serves as a statement to all employees, both current and potential, of where the organisation is going, and allows them to choose whether they wish to undertake that journey or not.

A good vision will inspire and guide people, facilitating co-ordinated action while allowing room for interpretation and empowerment. With modern organisations moving away from highly detailed, centralised planning that is cascaded down to individual units, to a more empowered workplace where workers are expected to create their own solutions and act in alignment with the strategy, the ‘vision thing’ becomes even more important.

We see this trend in organisations across industries, from the knowledge worker organisation that empowers and frees their people in pursuit of innovation, to the manufacturing organisations where assembly line workers take ownership of streamlining and improving their processes. As this shift occurs, the power of simply, clearly understood strategic guiding principles become even more critical to truly empower the organisation and its people.

Championing shared vision

Vision links the organisation’s purpose, values and image of the future, defining the results that the organisation desires and the principles that guide their achievement. In this way, it incorporates not only the picture of the future we want to achieve, but in community conscious organisations, also the values that will guide us on that journey, and the purpose for our existence, even.

The leadership role, in championing a vision and values for the led community, creates a paradox. On the one hand, the values component of the vision mix typically involves a process of discovery, drawing on intuition and careful listening to check against the true values that drive your community of employees. However, the envisioned future – that vivid description of the future we are creating - will involve a process of creativity, as you and your organisation imagine an inspiring future.

For a truly shared vision, we may need to reject the traditional idea that visions are announced from “up on high”. A vision that does not resonate with the reality of the organisation’s experiences is unlikely to create energy, more likely to create cynicism. The leader’s role is therefore more a champion of vision than a creator. At the very least, we can share our own personal vision and then ask “Will you follow me?” or “Is this something worth striving for?”. This paradox – between boldly forging the path and consultation – is a delicate balance that leaders must walk in many areas, but will result in a vision and values that are authentic and yet challenging.

Elevator speeches or manifestoes?

The conventional thinking around vision is that a vision statement should be succinct, evocative, and easily communicated in under a minute. These short, powerful statements do indeed serve as rallying cries – but some organisations are now questioning the richness of such an ‘elevator speech’ vision. Particularly if we as leaders intend to use the vision as a way of building a clear shared understanding such that our people can go ahead and act in pursuit of our strategy, perhaps something more detailed is required.

One of our clients is experimenting with a longer vision statement – a two-page document that clearly articulates the vision, the business idea and the high level strategic principles of the company. This document is beginning to seem like something that truly could be given to a new recruit, and give them a clear sense of the journey that organisation is on. The snappy, sexy ‘image of the future’ still remains as a shorter version, easier to post on a wall or use as an energising reminder… but with the additional meaning behind it also clearly shared and articulated.

The evolving idea of leadership and vision

The leader’s role in championing a vision is an enduring idea that defines the earliest understandings of leadership, but which is being challenged and enriched in changing organisational times, as our ideas around leadership shift. If you as a leader are looking to empower your organisation and increase collaboration, your role as a visionary does not fall away, but rather becomes even more critical. By championing a powerful vision in a way that is authentic to his or her leadership and inspires the community, leaders tap into a powerful leadership tool.

This is the second of 9 articles published in Management Today in August 2007.

Donna Kipps is Consulting Director at WorldsView, a consulting and program development house based in South Africa. Her career has seen her taking a change agent role in various corporate and consulting roles, with a passion for transforming organizations and their leadership for sustainable success.

WorldsView is a consulting and product development house based in South Africa, with a global perspective and client base. Our focus is on transforming organisations, developing adaptive leaders and growing high-performing teams, to create sustainable business solutions.

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