Leaders must have a compelling vision

Lots of business people talk about a compelling vision.  Leaders are supposed to have one and their followers need to believe in it. So I thought it would be helpful for the developing leaders reading if I shared some of the ideas that ring most true for me.

Let’s begin with why a leader having a vision matters.  The Harvard Business Review did some research which asked two key questions:

  • “What do you look for and admire in a leader – someone you’d follow?” and
  • “What do you look for and admire in a colleague – someone you’d want on your team?”

Interestingly the key differentiation between expectations of colleagues and those of leader was that a leader is expected to be forward-looking.  Just 27% of respondents selected it as something they want in a colleague, whereas 72% wanted it in a leader. No other quality showed such a dramatic difference between leader and colleague.

KEY POINT: Having a vision of the future is a critical element of being a great leader

But it’s not enough to simply have a vision.  The vision must also be one that inspires others to follow.  And Simon Sinek in his book Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone To Take Action suggests that visions that inspire are those that are built upon explaining why – why the vision matters to the individual followers. It’s not enough to have a vision that matters to the leader.  It has to matter to the followers to.

He suggests that most people, when asked, can answer what they do, and many can answer how they do it.  However he suggests that people are most committed to a vision when they can explain Why the vision matters.

To quote: “Whether they’re individuals or organizations, we follow those who lead, not because we have to, but because we want to. We follow those who lead, not for them, but for ourselves. And it’s those who start with “why” that have the ability to inspire those around them or find others who inspire them.

KEY POINT: People are inspired to follow when they know why the vision is important to them and their world

And finally, Seth Godin, in his seminal book Tribes turns it around the other way.  He suggests “The secret of leadership is simple: Do what you believe in. Paint a picture of the future. Go there. People will follow.”

But he goes further and also suggests that “Part of leadership (a big part of it, actually) is the ability to stick with the dream for a long time. Long enough that the critics realize that you’re going to get there one way or another…so they follow.”

Key point:

Worthwhile visions are difficult to achieve and great leaders stick with it in achieving them.

The most impressive vision ever achieved (in my humble opinion)

It’s always best to reinforce a message with a memorable story, and in this case, I can’t think of a better story to remind you about the power of vision than that of John F Kennedy:

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.

A vision that we all know was achieved.  But notice a couple of less reported elements of that speech.

JFK was also clear to set out the Why – Why achieving this vision was important as follows:

If we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere.

And he was explicit, presumably deliberately so, in recognising that the vision was challenging and required high commitment from those involved and the support of the entire nation:

No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

It will not be one man going to the moon-if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there.

New objectives and new money cannot solve these problems. They could in fact, aggravate them further-unless every scientist, every engineer, every serviceman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant gives his personal pledge that this nation will move forward, with the full speed of freedom, in the exciting adventure of space.

And what about you?

  • What is your vision for your business?
  • Why is it important for everyone?
  • What are the beneficial outcomes for your staff and the wider world?
  • Do your staff know and understand?
  • Are they committed to following you in achieving it?