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The Leadership Notebook: Chapter 2 – Vision

July 2013

Five key components of successful leadership were identified in the introductory article for this series: vision, trust, passion, commitment, and communication.

Vision is one of the most important keys to great leadership because it provides the direction in which to lead and the basis for all decisions required to arrive at your destination. No leader can be successful without an idea of where you want to go – a picture of what it is you wish to accomplish.

People don’t generally follow someone unless their goals and convictions are aligned in some way. A vision provides the leader a direction and followers a doctrine to either accept or reject.

What exactly is vision, and where does it come from? For some, vision is the dream, a lifelong journey, a purpose that transcends daily life. For others, a vision is what allows them to triumph over some enormous challenge, to overcome all odds and prove something or accomplish something heroic. For successful business leaders, vision is simply a very clear idea of what we want to accomplish over some definable period of time.

Your vision is a foundation. It’s the force that drives great leaders and creates commitment. Generally, a vision is the big picture, the overall strategic direction of the firm, division, department or even your small work team. Without a vision, there is no defined goal, no direction, no over-riding purpose or belief to become passionate about and strive toward.
So where does this vision come from? Often it’s personal. If not an actual dream, it’s a picture of what the leader expects or desires the future to look like. Perhaps it’s not in perfect detail, but it provides a framework or snapshot of the basic premise on which a set of goals and objectives (a strategy) can be assembled.

An overall vision comes from the highest level of the organization. Sometimes, however, the most compelling ideas will come from leaders much lower on the organizational chart who clearly see how their specific team can contribute to the overall vision. When properly aligned with the overall vision, each division/department leader will create excitement by communicating a strategy specific to his/her area of responsibility.

Elements of a sound strategic vision

  1. Clarity: The vision must be clearly stated. Ambiguity will erode the vision as it must be understood by all people in the organization. Clarity doesn’t mean that you must dictate every aspect of how to attain the vision, but it does mean that the vision can be clearly understood without room for conflicting interpretations.
  2. Simplicity: A simple vision is very powerful. The simpler it is, the easier it will be for every person in the organization to clearly understand it. Remember that the vision is the basis for all decision making at every level of the organization. A simple vision enables managers and even lower-level employees to make decisions that support it.
  3. Specific: In order to facilitate clarity and simplicity, the vision should be very specific. This means that objectives are clearly stated with time limits and quantified as much as possible. By taking time to develop the specific targets with measurements, the vision becomes a roadmap to navigate toward success. 
  4. Bold: Not all visions need to be bold. Grand initiatives, however, can often create the most excitement, and rally the most support despite the high degree of perceived difficulty because there is also a high sense of accomplishment connected to success. Although there is always a natural resistance to change, people will generally follow a leader who offers something dramatic and exciting, rather than maintaining status quo or pursuing a mediocre objective. Many very attainable, easy-to-reach goals are often not met for this very reason. This is especially true for highly competitive members of the team that want to feel pride of accomplishment when the vision becomes reality.
  5. Attainable: The vision has to be attainable to be believable, but with enough stretch to make it a worthy goal. It’s difficult to become excited and committed to a cause that seems too far out of reach or too easy to attain. In the case of a bold or sweeping vision, it’s best to break it down into manageable goals and objectives so that your followers don’t feel overwhelmed and give up before they can even begin. By breaking it down, everyone can also see how they can contribute individually, and that if they concentrate on their part, the whole organization will be successful.

Creating your vision

To create your vision try this exercise; disengage yourself from your daily routine in a quiet setting, close your eyes, clear your head, relax and think about what you would like your life, company or organization to look like in five years or whatever your time frame might be.

What would your perfect situation be? This is your wide-angle view. Moderate time frames (three to five years) work very well because it allows enough time for significant change to take place, but not so much time that the future becomes completely unpredictable. In our fast-paced, globally connected world, even five years can prove extremely unpredictable. Shorter time frames also create a sense of urgency and a call to immediate action.

Take a snapshot of your wide-angle view by describing it in detail on paper. Include everything you can think of and be as specific as possible. Set it aside for some time to rest before making any judgments or adjustments. Give it a day or so and then review it. Check for consistency and alignment. Are all aspects of your wide-angle view in alignment with each other and your mission statement, or do you see some conflicts? Will you have to decide between one aspect and another, or can you have both? Is the time frame realistic, attainable with stretch?

Now you can begin developing your vision by narrowing your wide-angle view. This is done by looking at each aspect and listing what activities you will need to engage in and what you need to discontinue. What new behavior do you need to develop and what habits will you have to break? What organizational changes will have to occur? Simplify so that everything you do will be in support of that picture you described – your vision.

Your resulting vision presentation will be very detailed and very specific/quantifiable, yet simple to understand. From your vision you should methodically develop a working strategy that will include timelines with milestones and measurements for expected results. It will be actionable. By breaking it down in this way, you have a roadmap to follow that can be easily communicated to your staff with clear goals to attain along the way.

A good vision aligns people in your organization and facilitates decision making because every decision must ultimately support the vision.

Michael Zakrzewski is an experienced Executive Leader and Adjunct Professor of Graduate Studies in the Technology and Society Dept. of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Michael holds an MBA from Kellogg Graduate School at Northwestern University and a BS in Applied Behavioral Sciences – Management & Leadership from Johns Hopkins University. Comments are welcome at leadership.notebook@gmail.com.