The Vision Think, and Its Limits
by Robert B. Denhardt
Director of Leadership Programs, Price School of Public Policy
University of Southern California
University of Southern California
“Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.” – John Lennon
Many years ago, President George H. W. Bush made a now-famous remark about “the vision thing.” Since that time, though probably not because of that comment, the vision thing has become an essential part of the lexicon of leadership. When people are asked what constitutes leadership, they will almost always say something about vision – that the leader is the one with the vision and the one with the power to move the organization toward that vision.
For most organizations today, the process of setting a vision is usually done through some sort of strategic planning process, sometimes a formal process involving many different stakeholders, but often an informal process in which the organization’s founders or those at the top simply create and send out their vision for the organization. In either case, the vision is a long term statement of a desired future, and is typically elaborated by a statement of mission, which explains the rationale of the organization and the means of achieving the vision. Based on the mission statement, more specific objectives are then developed.
I’ve recently become skeptical of the vision thing, especially as a definition of leadership. At a practical level, many groups and organizations create (or unveil) a new statement of vision, mission, and objectives, experience about three weeks of buzz, then ignore the stated vision, etc. and go on their merry way. There are several reasons for this. Some plans are simply not implementable – they bear little relevance to the actual work “on the ground.” Others are almost immediately outdated, simply because things change so quickly. You can’t plan for every eventuality. To quote Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos - “Any plan won't survive its first encounter with reality. The reality will always be different. It will never be the plan." And when this happens the plan becomes irrelevant and simply takes up shelf-space.
Second, and even worse, is the opposite effect - groups and organizations become so tied to their vision that it acts as a straightjacket, preventing members of the group from recognizing emerging trends and responding to those new circumstances. Many start-ups fail precisely because their founders are so tied to the their vision, so psychologically committed, that they fail to see that what they hope to accomplish is unachievable or has already been done by someone else, preempting the market. And often just a slight deviation from the vision would have saved the company.
Certainly groups and organizations need a direction or a path to start out on, but they also must recognize when they need to move in a new direction or take a new path. More than tunnel vision, they need peripheral vision, the ability to see the big picture, including emerging threats and opportunities. And they need agility, the capacity to learn and to change directions in both a nimble and sophisticated way. Indeed, I would say that the capacity for agility and adaptability trumps vision and plan every time.
Third, in my view, the vision thing is simply not essential to leadership. Leadership is about energizing a group, an organization, or a society. Certainly a group may be energized by the beauty and elegance of a vision – think, “I have a dream” – but there are many others ways that groups can be energized as well. A group may be energized in reaction to a disaster; a group may be energized by an attack from outside; a group may be energized by someone modeling excellence in performance.
The role of the leader is not to create the vision, but to develop and articulate a direction and purpose for the group or organization. The opposite - having a vision or mission imposed by the leader - may generate early excitement, but over the long term will likely suck energy away from the group or organization. And, as we noted before, visions and plans quickly encounter “contrary realities” and lose their relevance to a rapidly changing “real world.” Frequently, those “on the ground” will recognize those contrary realities more quickly than those at the top and active resistance may occur.
A vision, in such cases, quickly turns into fantasy. Just as many other “positives” carry with them the seeds of their “negatives,” so it is with vision. Merriam-Webster cites the following synonyms for “vision”: chimera, conceit, daydream, delusion, fancy, figment, hallucination, illusion, phantasm, pipe dream, unreality, fantasy. How many visions have you seen that ultimately turn into delusion, etc.?
Finally, since leadership must appeal to both the head and especially the heart. In contrast to real acts of leadership, most strategic planning processes implicitly seek to rationalize the organization’s vision through statements of mission and objectives that drain the vision of whatever emotive power it may have held at the outset. In implementation, vision dissolves into technique.
What are the alternatives to “the vision thing,” as it is currently constructed. I would suggest three correctives. First, the idea of a vision as an “end state” should be replaced by the idea of vision as a “direction” and a set of accompanying “principles” guiding movement in that direction. Most vision statements today tell employees little about what they should do today or tomorrow. It’s only when the vision is rationalized that specific steps emerge, and, as we saw earlier, that process drains the vision of its energy and turns it into uninspiring technique. But statements of direction and principles speak more directly to the present and the question of how we start.
General David Patraeus, recently speaking to a class in the USC Executive Master of Leadership program, said that the role of the strategic leader is not to set a vision. Indeed, he said, “Forget your vision – tear it up.” Instead, the leader should set a tone for the organization, providing example, direction and insight. In contrast to a vision, Patraeus told the class that the leader should first come up with “Big Ideas,” that will guide the organization. For example, going into Iraq, Patreaus promoted the big idea of capturing “human terrain” rather than geographical terrain. The notion was to secure the people, then move to reconciliation.
One of Fast Company’s “Generation Flux” exemplars, Angela Blanchard, CEO of the Houston Neighborhood Centers, told me that direction and purpose are more compelling than vision. “Values and purpose sustain as we navigate chaotic climates. What keeps me clear is a set of beliefs about people and the world we live in. The “how” changes constantly as learning occurs, as new information comes to us, as experimentation pays off. What doesn’t change is the “why” of our work.”
Second, a sense of direction and purpose can retain the inspirational or emotive power leadership requires, but also bring clarity concerning key issues facing the organization. An alternative to encasing the vision thing in a rational planning process is what my friend Ralph Kerle calls “envisioning.” He writes: “Skillful envisioning uses imagination instead of problem solving to direct the creative flow in an organization articulating purpose in a manner that has the power to bring employees, stakeholders, and customers together to create meaningful futures.” In contrast to a strictly rational planning process, Kerle is describing an aesthetic process for setting the group’s direction and purpose, something far more likely to retain the energizing power of leadership.
The process must also emphasize clarity and meaning. One of the very most important capabilities of a leader is the capacity to take complex material and boil it down to the essence – to be able to state what is really important in a short but meaningful and memorable fashion. One corporate CEO told me, “Managers make things complex, leaders make things simple.” To state one’s direction and purpose in terms that are clear and meaningful is an essential aspect of leadership.
Again, Angela Blanchard suggested that you should be able to articulate your direction in ten words or less beginning with the phrase, “We exist to . . . .” Robert Safian of Fast Company replied, slightly exceeding the ten word limit, that “At Fast Company, we believe that business is the primary vehicle for progress in our world. We exist to encourage business to live up to that responsibility, to be the best version of itself.” Blanchard herself, on behalf of Neighborhood Centers, offered, “We exist to... keep our region a place of opportunity for everyone.”
A third element that comes into play in setting direction and purpose is flexibility and reflexivity. Once more from Angela Blanchard: “You must move through this chaotic, fast-changing world with an eye for an opportunity – focusing on what works and what is strong, using what’s available to build something better, faster, more effective. It is not about choosing to be either flexible or consistent; it’s about being flexible and consistent at the same time.”
Danah Boyd, Chief Researcher at Microsoft, agrees: “I don't think it makes sense to use a North Star metaphor to think about vision. Yes, a long-term vision has inspirational value, but it should not be static. What is static in my mind are core values. I view my values as my North Star and am acutely aware of how my practices and vision changes over time, even when my core values do not.” The key to aligning ones actions with one’s values is reflexivity, the capacity for self-reflection and self-critique. Reflexivity, at both the personal and organizational level, is what makes real, meaningful, and enduring change possible.
And General Patraeus points out that “Big Ideas” are not born fully grown. Developing Big Ideas is a process that takes time and discussion, and one that often needs to involve many different people, both inside the organization and outside. “Big ideas don’t hit you at once; you get a little kernel at a time.” Big Ideas evolve over time – as they should.
Ultimately, what the leader needs to do is to clarify the ideas and principles that will guide the work of the organization, while at the same time building a capacity for reflexive learning and energizing the group or organization. That work, incompletely captured by the simplistic idea of the “vision thing,” is really the essence of leadership.
Robert Denhardt is the Director of Leadership Programs in the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California (USC) and Director of the Executive Master of Leadership program at USC. He is the author of a dozen books on leadership and management, including, The Dance ofLeadership (with Janet Denhardt), Book: Just Plain Good Management, and Book: The Pursuit of Significance.