Rarely is there a discussion about leadership – successful or failed – that does not include what President George H W Bush once referred to as “the vision thing.” President Bush snapped off this phrase in frustration to criticism of his perceived (which in leadership becomes reality) inability to express a clarity of goals and principles that would allow him to shape public opinion and influence action. In short, Bush was chastised for lacking vision. Fair or not, if a leader is unable to effectively define and communicate a clear and concise vision of where and why they are seeking to lead others, they will ultimately fail. An individual who lacks vision can be a good manager, but they make for lousy leaders.
And that’s the point: If a leader’s success is going to rise or fall on the basis of the “vision thing,” shouldn’t they make sure that it is their vision and not the product of “group-think?” Vision is the responsibility and domain of the leader; it cannot be the product of a committee.
Despite this, there are still many in the business world who believe that a vision – cloaked under what is called a “mission statement” – should emerge from the ideas of a group. Business consultants are famous for setting up a series of “planning sessions” that discuss, dissect and debate what the “vision” should be. I was serving on the board of directors for a company when the chairman of the board decided that it was the purview and responsibility of the board to develop a “corporate vision” for the CEO. The results of these efforts always end up with a long complicated, convoluted and superficial “vision” for the company. One that is rarely understood and soon forgotten.
The Work of an Artist
Ask yourself this: How many great works of art are the product of a committee? What many fail to understand is that in essence the successful leader is an artist. They paint the picture – a vision – of what the future will be under their leadership and then they hang that picture in front of their followers so they can see, understand and be constantly reminded of what their efforts are building toward.
The truth is that the vision of a leader comes more from their heart and soul, than from the brain. A vision is something they are passionate about; something they believe in down to their core. True leaders don’t lead because they want something, but because they want to do something. It is this passion that inspires the individuality of their vision. A leader’s vision can be created for a group, but it can’t be created by a group.
The leader’s image of what they want to do is so vivid and so alive for them, they can communicate it in such a way that followers can not only understand it, but can believe in it. That’s why a vision that expresses a clarity of the goals and principles of the leader is so critical to effective leadership. Once the leader has captured the hearts and minds of the followers with their vision, the brain takes over to determine and implement the ideas and actions that will make the vision become a reality. If you understand this, you can understand why the vision must be the domain of the leader, not a committee.
Visions of the Past
In 1962 President Kennedy famously outlined his vision for the American space program as “landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade and returning him back to earth safely.” This vision was clear, concise and easy to understand. Once the vision was laid out, the challenge was to figure out how to make it happen, but there was no confusion as to the intended goal. Can you imagine when, if ever, we would have landed a man on the moon if Kennedy had turned to Congress or some highfalutin special panel to create a vision for the space program?
When I led the founding of LifeUSA – a startup life insurance company in an industry dominated by giants – my vision message was simple: “Within five years LifeUSA would be competing successfully, on a national basis, against the very largest companies; and all those who contributed to achieving that goal would share in the success.” Everyone who joined with LifeUSA clearly understood what we were about and the benefits of achieving that vision. With the vision in place any and all ideas and actions could be measured against the vision to be achieved.
Maybe the most famous business vision of a leader might be the one Bill Gates had for Microsoft when in 1980 he said his goal was to “have a computer on every desk and in every home.” At the time computers were housed in warehouses and only an inspired individual could dare to have such a vision of universal expansion. We know the rest of the story.
What this boils down to is that those with a true, deep-seated, achievable vision lead, while the best the rest can do is manage the achievement of the vision. It is the passion of an individual’s vision that creates leadership and ultimately drives success. Doing what needs to be done is often done best as a team effort, but visualizing what has not been done, but could be done, can never be done by a committee.