One of the first important things I had learned in leadership was a teaching from the Bible:
Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.
- Proverbs 29:18 King James Version (KJV)
My mentors and teachers might have taken the Bible verse out of context but their insistence on a vision for people to follow their leaders was irrefutable. I was told categorically that people will only follow me if they knew where they were headed. What they needed from me as their leader was a clear and precise mental portrait of the preferred future. Otherwise, I would have no followers. And as they say, if I turn around and see no one following, I am merely taking a walk in the park; I am not leading.
The most inspiring visions remain mere wishful thinking if they were not shared with and committed to by the rest of the organization. Therefore no one should be fooled into putting their bets on a brilliant vision to bring their organization forward. It is imperative to realize that a vision must be a shared phenomenon before anything good will happen.
I learnt from the most experienced leaders that contrary to some popular teachings, authentic vision does not come by way of some mystical crystal-balling. Rather, it begins with a humble recognition of what our pioneers and past leaders had done. Looking back is the secret to looking forward meaningfully. I know some who are so future-minded that they have little regard for the past. That is a fatal error. To lead with a sense of history, they maintain, is not being a slave to the past but to recognize that there are invaluable lessons to be learned by asking “How did we get to the point we are today?” Michael Watkins, vice president of the California Institute of Technology, and noted scholar on accelerating transitions, says that without this perspective, “you risk tearing down fences without knowing why they were put up. Armed with insight into the history, you may indeed find the fence is not needed and must go. Or you may find there is a good reason to leave it where it is.”
Once we have a clear understanding of our organization's history, we attend to the present by lavish listening and discerning both threats and opportunities. Ask curious open-ended questions of all the stakeholders. Include every member who cares about the cause. What is critically needed from leaders is the willingness and intentionality to study the operating environment and observe the landscape where we conduct our business. In Leading the Revolution, Gary Hamel, one of the world's most influential business thinkers, observed that many people don't appreciate and comprehend what's changing around them “because they're down at ground level, lost in the thicket of confusing, conflicting data.” He says, “You have to make time to step back and ask yourself, ‘What's the big story that cuts across all these little facts?”
I don't know enough about visioning for the organization where I serve but this much I am convicted - it is a intentional and collective effort of putting one stitch at a time to the tapestry. It may not be easy and it may even appear messy. However when all the right things are said and done, what emerges is a beautiful preferred picture of our future.
People want to know that what lies ahead is worth their sacrifice. And when they have a shared compelling vision of their preferred future, there is no earthly force capable of stopping this brigade of human beings from doing good. Without a vision, the people perish; with a vision, the people flourish.