Vision and Leadership


VisionIt is widely assumed that a vision is essential to lead others. The truth is that leaders provide direction but that can range from a good idea for a minor change to a grand vision like JFK's vision of putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960's. 

In other words, visions are grand, long-range plans, but leadership can be shown on an everyday, small-scale basis without a vision, with a more down-to-earth idea for a better way of doing things.

What is Vision?

Vision can motivate without providing direction. The emotionally expressed intention to be the best XYZ is inspiring. It gives us something to believe in, work towards, and identify with. But a vision doesn't always provide direction, what to do differently.

There is managerial vision and leadership vision. The former motivates performance improvement; this isn't leadership. Visionary leadership paints an inspiring picture of what an organization can become. It points towards a new future, a change in direction, and hence provides leadership.

A vision dramatizes new directions that others might not buy into otherwise. Vision is hence a useful influence tactic for prospective followers who are resistant to change and who find vivid pictures or images inspiring. Vision, however, is not essential to leadership simply because there are other influence tactics available and because people differ in terms of their receptivity to change.

  • setting an example is a form of leadership without vision.
  • simply pointing to a new direction is enough to influence opportunists.

To inspire change, a vision needs to be concrete, not just motherhood statements. It should point to what needs to be done by when and should differentiate you from competitors - otherwise you have provided a statement of values, not a vision. Wanting to provide the best customer service in the business is a value statement.

Attaining a measurable lead on this value in your market in 3 years is a vision. However, if you are just trying to be a bit better on several dimensions at what you are already doing, then this borders on being a managerial vision. A true leadership vision advocates a more substantive change in direction.

It depends on your starting point - minor changes suggest a managerial challenge. If you are currently in the dark ages on customer service, then it's a leadership task. 

Is Vision Essential to be a Leader?

  • Some think so. They say that even small ideas like suggesting a modification on a product is based on an implicit vision if not an explicit one.
  • But this is stretching the concept of vision to meaninglessness.
  • Surely, leading by example is not based on a vision.
  • Nor is leading in a crisis.
  • The truth is that a vision is required in certain situations, but not others. It is helpful where a large-scale challenge needs to be surmounted in a tight time-frame, like J.F. Kennedy's vision of putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960's.
  • But an everyday drive to improve profitability by X% is hardly visionary.

Why is vision thought to be necessary for leadership?

We tend to idealize leaders. That's why we always think of the greatest leaders we can imagine when we're asked to define leadership. We don't think of front-line supervisors as prime examples of what it means to lead. Why do we place so much emphasis on larger-than-life heroic types, like Winston Churchill, Jack Welch or George Washington? Because our concept of leadership is driven by OUR NEEDS for leaders, not by what leadership really means.

Where do you want to go from here?

If leadership isn't just an influence process, then it's a role in a hierarchy, but this is biologically primitive. See Primitive Leadership for more on this topic. For more discussion of how leadership can work as influence, see Thought LeadershipBottom-up Leadership and Organic Leadership.

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