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Vision and Leadership

The myth that vision is required to lead people distorts the meaning of leadership and reveals our obsession with top level leadership. Consequently, we relegate small scale, occasional acts of leadership to the status of pseudo-leadership. Citing CEOs or presidents like John F. Kennedy we feel that, if they were visionary,  then all leadership must be so.

No doubt leadership must provide direction. But vision is not the only way to do so. When you lead by example, you provide direction without articulating a vision or even having one.  Vision is only one way to show leadership.

We need to understand why vision is felt to be an integral part of leadership. Then we can explore how leadership is possible without vision. This issue matters because business needs leadership from all employees even though it is rarely visionary.

Vision's Link to Leadership

Leadership must provide direction. We can't follow leaders who are going nowhere. "Following" implies that someone is going somewhere that others also want to go.

A vision is a plan to turn a dream into reality. Finding a cure for cancer is a dream. Curing a specific kind of cancer in 10 years, or all cancers in 30 years, is a vision. Eradicating poverty some day, wherever it is found, is a dream. Raising the economic wellbeing of one country in Africa to western levels in 20 years is a vision. John F. Kennedy's vision of putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960's is often cited as exemplary because it has all the hallmarks of a great vision:

  • Challenging - at the time, putting a man on the moon was no easy task.
  • Inspiring - everyone could get excited about flying to the moon.
  • Actionable - stakeholders must know how to achieve the vision.
  • Measurable - a timeframe provides focus and a sense of urgency.

A vision invites people to help tackle a significant challenge. Merely having a vision is not enough. The leader must use it to solicit help in realizing the vision. If the risk of failure is high and sacrifices are expected,  the vision must be expressed with passion to win people over.

Leaders, as conventionally conceived, are like ship captains with a valuable cargo to move through treacherous waters. They can't lead by example because they can't operate the ship alone. They need to convince a crew that the effort will be for a good cause.

So, leadership and vision are linked where a challenging journey is involved and a leader needs collaborators to help realize the vision. To determine the necessity of vision for leadership we need to remember that it involves a challenge, a journey and an explicit invitation.

Journeys That Are Not a Challenge

Those who believe that vision is required for leadership stretch the concept to cover any good idea for a better way, no matter how small. But ideas fall along a continuum from those that are visionary to those that are neither challenging nor inspiring. A product developer working for a mobile phone manufacturer who suggests a minor tweak to the firm's latest handset shows small scale leadership with an idea that is hardly visionary.

Just as ideas range from visionary to mundane, problems also fall along a continuum. At the simple end of the scale are problems such as what to have for lunch today. At the other extreme are complex, high risk decisions. Problems at the tough end of the scale we call challenges. Now, if we called all problems challenges, the term "challenge" would become redundant. This word has meaning only because it separates easy problems from difficult ones.

Analogously, if we decided to call every mammal an elephant, then the term "elephant" would lose its meaning. As it is, "elephant" designates one type of mammal. It is a useful label only because it differentiates one mammal from all the rest.

Similarly, if we called every small-scale idea a vision, the term "vision" would become devoid of meaning. A vision is an invitation to address a challenge like putting the first man on the moon or eradicating malaria.

Leadership That is Not Visionary

To see how leadership can occur without a vision we need only think of cases where direction is provided without one.

A newly hired customer service associate brings a higher standard of service from a previous employer and carries on as usual without intending to lead anyone. But, if colleagues follow the newcomer's example, then leadership is shown without a vision or invitation to undertake a journey. There is no journey here. The leadership impact is immediate.

Leadership is not always intentional, let alone an invitation. Consider the truism: "Actions speak louder than words." A CEO might have a vision of converting a company's use of energy to green sources in 3 years (words), while personally using whatever energy he likes (actions). Employees might follow his example, not his vision.

Suppose you are a product developer in the computer game industry tinkering with a new game. You aren't sure if it is a winner so you invite colleagues to take a look at it. Now, if your colleagues are real opportunists constantly looking out for ideas for new games, they might jump on your idea even though you only wanted their feedback. If your game is developed and successful, you will have had a leadership impact without articulating a vision.

Imagine a discussion of whether to stop doing something. If the group agrees, then no further action is taken. There is no journey, no challenge to be met and no vision. But the person advocating stopping something has still shown leadership.

A General Theory of Leadership

When we think of leaders, we visualize admired heads of states or CEOs. But a different concept of leadership emerges when we define leadership as an influence process, one of showing others a better way either by explicit advocacy or by example.

Crucially, this definition is not restricted to heads of groups. It can be shown by one group to another. Thus Apple shows leadership to Microsoft when the latter copies Apple product ideas. This means that leadership within groups is only a special case of a broader concept. Now, when Microsoft copies an Apple product, Apple is not inviting Microsoft to work with them to overcome a challenge. So, even if Apple does have a vision, leadership is not shown to Microsoft by promoting a vision. They lead by example.

Recall that a vision invites followers to undertake a journey. But companies discourage competitors from following them. Wherever competing businesses do not work together to overcome a challenge, then having a vision is irrelevant because that is not how leadership is shown between competing groups. If intra-group leadership is only a special case of a broader concept, then so is the use of vision in leadership because it is only a way of influencing prospective followers within groups.

Why it Matters

To achieve faster innovation, businesses need all employees to become what Gary Hamel calls activists in his book Leading the Revolution. All employees need to promote their ideas for change, whether in a product, service or process. Such ideas can have an immediate, leadership impact without entailing a vision, a lengthy journey or a great challenge.

When we require leadership to be visionary, we are really thinking of CEOs and heads of states. We focus on the glamorous end of the spectrum, not because that is only where leadership occurs, but because we romanticize large-scale leadership. This says more about us than it does about leadership. So obsessed are we with this paradigm, we try to extrapolate it to more everyday kinds of leadership. The result is that we dilute real visionary leadership and distort its more mundane variety. We fail to capitalize on all that leadership can offer by taking high level, role-based leadership as the model of all leadership.

The truth is that leadership is very situational. In some contexts vision is necessary, in others not. The only general truth is that leadership provides direction. The means can vary widely.

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