The Vision Thing

Vision is a word that abused a lot in leadership. Creating a shared vision is very different to imposing a vision. Most importantly of all the vision in a group needs to be practical, backed by execution and kept alive as circumstances change. Visions aren’t films that play and are done. They evolve over years.

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The Fleeting Feeble Vision

Vision without execution is hallucination

Leadership proverb

Leadership books and leadership thought leaders rave about vision. Leaders must have vision, preferably big vision. It is what they bring to the team. The vision a leader brings is what unites a team in common purpose to achieve extraordinary performance. All of which is nonsense.

Most visions handed down on high are fleeting and feeble. They don’t make sense because the team that receives them after the executive offsite lacks the context to make sense of the vision. Follow through and execution on such pronouncements are weak. Many are little more than the collective sticky note hallucinations of executives overfed, over caffeinated, and fired up on Mentos.

A vision is not inspiring words, or a pretty picture of the future, or even some fancy graphic recording of a road off to a summit capped with a flag. A vision is a meaningful end point that each individual in a team can embrace and use to guide their work towards a shared goal. A vision needs to endure longer than the post offsite debrief or this next 90 day plan. There’s no excellence in performance when the team is confused by an ever shifting set of goals and big words handed down and never implemented.

A Shared Vision of the Possible

If I have seen further, it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants

Isaac Newton

So who are the giants? In Newton’s case, it was those he learned from, his predecessors, teachers and peers. The giants in any organisational vision are not the visionaries in the executive leadership offsite. The giants whose shoulders are so essential to any truly great achievement are the team doing the work. A meaningful vision is one that a team creates and sustains for themselves of where they want to go together. Members of the team can help facilitate that process but they cannot just hand it over.

A vision like this won’t necessarily be as elegant or high flying as the one from a fancy consultant but it will be grounded in the practical experinece of the team, their understanding of what is possible and be built with an eye to implementation and the issues for stakeholders. Powerpoint slides are great for presentations but they are terrible roadmaps for a business to execute on. Teams who share a vision don’t talk in Powerpoint. They understand the stories of what the future looks like and the milestones that come on the road there.

Most importantly this practical vision of a shared future is one that recognises that visions aren’t announceable. Having visions is easy. Organisations are full of empty and abandoned visions. Just open any filing cabinet. Bringing them to life is a whole other thing. They aren’t done when the strategy session ends.

Truly great and empowering visions take time and effort and grit and setbacks. Truly great visions are an endlessly iterative experience across the team as people learn and evolve and see what is possible next. Most overnight successes are an outcome of a nearly decade of work to construct that vision within a team and to fight like hell to bring it to life.

So the next time someone claiming to be a leader offers you a vision offer to work with them to create a shared one with your peers. You will be the one in that process doing the work of leadership

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