Vision, as I see it, is a clear, inspiring, practical, and attractive picture of your organization’s future. It doesn’t have to be 10 or 20 years down the road, though that might be helpful. I’m talking about an imagined future—usually just three to five years out—superior to the present, which motivates you, which guides day-to-day strategy and decision-making, and around which your team can rally.
Without this, you’re effectively voting for the status quo. Your organization doesn’t need a leader unless they want to change. It doesn’t take a leader to maintain the status quo. A competent manager will do just fine. If, however, you find the status quo unacceptable and want to focus your efforts, energize your team, and scale your business, you must be a vision-driven leader.
By formulating a compelling vision of the future, leaders can achieve what was previously considered impossible. They can develop meaningful strategies, attract A-plus talent, and take their organizations to new and exciting places. But for many leaders, it’s not as easy or straightforward as it sounds. You might be one of them, and I really can’t blame you.
In his book What You Don’t Know About Leadership but Probably Should, Baylor professor Jeffrey Kottler defines vision as the “initial task” of leaders. It’s the first thing, the top priority.
But in my experience as the chairman and chief executive officer of Thomas Nelson Publishers, one of the world’s largest English-language publishers before its 2011 acquisition by HarperCollins, and now as the CEO of my own leadership-coaching company, I find more leaders lack vision than those that have it.
Through no fault of their own, they’re often dismissive of, confused about, and ill-equipped to create compelling visions for their organizations. Why? Here are three problems leaders typically face in regards to vision.
1. Leaders downplay the need.
I’ve seen a tendency to be impatient with developing vision among some of the business owners and executives I’ve coached over the years. I even worked for a CEO like that. He wouldn’t make time for vision. He didn’t think it was his strength or even his responsibility.
Instead, he appointed a committee, put me in charge of it, and said, “You guys do the vision thing. Come up with a vision for where we’re going, and then let me know what you’ve decided.” Instead of sending us off on our own, he could have—should have—joined us at the table. If he had, his executives could have asked him the kind of probing questions necessary to arrive at a vision he could endorse.
My old boss is not alone. Contemporary leadership suffers from a vision deficit. According to one study of 466 companies, respondents identified the following as one of the top-felt corporate deficiencies: “Leaders who can create a compelling vision and engage others around it.” What’s more, that “need was both a top priority and also perceived as the most lacking competency in next-generation leaders.”
One of the things we have to do as leaders is to create or point to a larger purpose and story. Our teams want something that requires their best effort, that requires innovation in their thinking, that inspires their imagination. And it’s up to us to ask ourselves, Does what we’re trying to do as an organization create that kind of inspiration? Is it something that’s challenging, or just business as usual?
2. Leaders are confused about vision.
One reason there’s such an absence of vision-driven leadership these days stems from a misunderstanding about vision. Vision is not the same as mission. Nor is it the same as strategy.
Vision is an act of seeing what the future could be, and then articulating that potential in an inspiring, clear, practical, and attractive way—what I call a Vision Script—which the leader’s teams can then follow into the future. That’s what vision-driven leaders like George Eastman did with photography, Henry Ford did with the automobile, and Steve Jobs did with personal computing. They instinctively knew that people are looking for something to believe in, an outcome to embrace, a winning aspiration.
Leaders also make the mistake of thinking of vision as a static quality or a quirk of personality; either you have a powerful vision or you don’t. But a compelling vision of the future is really something anyone can develop if they know how. And it’s something vital to develop, because our ultimate success and failure is on the line.
When we have a compelling, unifying view of the future, and when we communicate it to the team with passion and purpose, it can motivate people to accomplish astonishing things. Those who lack vision—or, more to the point, won’t give it the proper attention—are unready for the challenge of leadership.
I’ve witnessed this transformative power of vision while coaching thousands of business leaders to win at work and succeed at life. But a vision will work only if you’re willing to do the necessary work to craft one.
3. Leaders don’t feel equipped.
One of the reasons leaders downplay vision or don’t see the need for it is self-protection. They feel ill-equipped to create and cast a compelling picture of the future. Like my old boss, the prospect leaves them feeling uncomfortable or worse.
No one enjoys doing something that feels foreign to their skill set, but this challenge is especially tough for leaders. Why? Because we assume they’re supposed to have all the answers. They’re supposed to be the most competent, the most in command. When leaders come up short on vision, it’s like admitting a weakness or a shortcoming. It seems easier to downplay “the vision thing” and jump to tasks at which they excel: strategy, execution, team building, whatever.
I often hear from men and women who started a business or found themselves promoted into positions of responsibility and now feel the pressure to level up. They know that involves vision, but they feel unprepared. Some feel as if they’re imposters—as if it’s only a matter of time before they’re found out and lose it all. But if you’re not trained in crafting a vision, how can you be expected to manufacture a compelling one out of thin air?
I’ve been there. I get it. I started at square one to learn the art of crafting a compelling vision, and now I’m so passionate about it that I’ve created a myriad of resources to help others do the same. But as you begin to do the hard but necessary work of crafting a compelling vision, be encouraged—a compelling vision is the essential ingredient for successful leadership. That single building block can and will guide your company forward with intention and energy. You can be a vision driven leader.
Read next: How to Lead in a Crisis
Photo by BBONUSP/Twenty20.com