Originally published in the ALA Learning Exchange, December 2021, Volume 38, Number 2
“Where there is no vision, the people perish” Proverbs 29:18
Throughout history, humans have sought meaning both in the moment and in the larger scope of events. When times are tough and the world is confusing, people look to their leaders for clarity about the future. This makes casting a vision perhaps the most important skill a leader can master and also the most challenging.
At its basic level casting a vision is the ability to paint a future from the many factors that make up today. In ancient times, it was commonplace for people to seek out oracles, shamans, and mystics to appeal for divine direction. In our complicated world, this need for guidance has not disappeared. If anything our leaders must be more dynamic with their visions to cut through the clutter of information noise.
One way is through a vision statement. Companies around the world have them; but only a few reach a clear level that inspires action. Here are a few examples of ones that are spot on:
- Alzheimer’s Association: “Our Vision is a world without Alzheimer’s disease.”
- Avon: “To be the company that best understands and satisfies the product, service and self-fulfillment needs of women – globally.”
- Norfolk Southern: “Be the safest, most customer-focused and successful transportation company in the world.”
- Microsoft: “Empower people through great software anytime, anyplace, and on any device.”
- Amazon Kindle: “Every book, ever printed, in any language, all available in less than 60 seconds.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of the most famous visions of modern times on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. The “I Have a Dream” speech resonated because he described in simple yet powerful detail what a racially integrated world would be like. The goals are straightforward to understand, such as:
“We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.
“I have a dream that one day down in Alabama with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
What constitutes a successful vision? First of all, the vision must inspire. A vision by its nature exists first only in the mind of its crafter. To give it life, the leader must explain the vision in enough detail to allow others to see it. For example, if a leader is reshaping an organization, they must articulate the intended results of the changes and how it will make everyone’s life better.
Once a group is inspired, the vision must provide direction. A dream remains unfulfilled until real actions are taken in the physical world. The leader helps their team understand the path forward, knowing that there will be challenges that threaten to destroy the delicate vision. However, if the group is inspired, they will continue to strive for the goals, even in tough times. As Dr. King said in the speech:
“So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”
When done right, a powerful vision creates a natural feedback loop. A leader can inspire and point the way forward, but without constant adjustment the group could spin into circles. An aware leader is constantly refining the vision based on real world results. Feedback both from the team and those outside of it shape the path in the direction of success. Quite often our early visions are like impressionist paintings, filled with broad emotional brushstrokes while fuzzy on details. The closer to the destination, the more refined the vision becomes until it is a pixel perfect photograph.
Ultimately, the leader must be the custodian of the vision. Without constant nurturing the vision can die. The leader who stands true to the vision is someone that others will gladly follow. In the end it is the vision that provides meaning to our daily work and its guiding principles. Therefore, seek out leaders who inspire you. Write out their visions. See how they are designed. Once you understand the principles, you will be ready to craft your own vision.