Lead With Vision
Leaders create a vision and engage a community to achieve it.
What does it mean to lead with vision?
It’s a question that authors Bonnie Hagemann, Simon Vetter, and John Maketa researched extensively, surveying over 400 companies in search of the answer.
I recently spoke with the authors about their new book, LEADING WITH VISION: The Leader’s Blueprint for Creating a Compelling Vision and Engaging the Workforce.
Would you share the story about “going up the stairs two steps at a time” and how it impacted your view of leadership and culture?
Yes, of course. Back in 2006 I had a meeting with Jim Bolt, the founder of Executive Development Associates (EDA), to discuss how I would run the company. Jim had been developing senior leaders since the early 1980s and was a renowned expert in the field. I knew I had much to learn from Jim and hoped we could work together. I didn’t know at the time that the very first piece of advice he would give me would shape and inform every leadership decision I have made since. Before I left that meeting, Jim handed me a book from his shelf called Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard, founder and CEO of Patagonia, a sports clothing company.
The book is the story of Patagonia with an emphasis, almost a plea, for sustainability. Jim wanted me to start thinking about how we could help with this effort, I read the book but it was something else within that captured my attention. The CEO of Patagonia wanted to build an organization where employees were compelled to come to work. Yvon Chouinard wanted a company where employees were a part of their environmental mission. He wanted employees to be wholly engaged and committed. He said, “Work had to be enjoyable on a daily basis. We all had to come to work on the balls of our feet and go up the stairs two steps at a time” (Chouinard 2005, 45).
That statement struck me as extremely important. Imagine the creativity and courage and productivity that would come from a workforce like that. The power of it is immeasurable. That is what visionary leadership can do. It can unleash the power of the workforce.
The 4 C’s of a Visionary Leader
What’s your definition of a visionary leader?
A visionary leader is a person who steps out and creates a clear picture of a positive future state. It takes a lot of courage because creating a vision for the future is basically imagining what could be and what should be. That feels very risky for leaders. It is stepping out of the norm. There are certain things they will need to do. In the book we explain further by putting it into 4 Cs. They must:
- Embody courage,
- Forge clarity,
- Build connectedness, and
- Shape the culture.
What advice do you have for a leader struggling with creating a compelling vision?
Most leaders struggle to create a compelling vision. They must first push past their limbic brain system which will naturally do its job of keeping the leader “safe” by trying to keep them from stepping out in this leadership capacity. This is a significant struggle for many, so we spend some time in the book helping leaders overcome this.
Then they must bring others along. There are specific actions to each step, but here are the high points:
- Imagine the invisible — paint the picture of a positive future state
- Vet the vision — ensure it is the right vision for the organization
- Create options — ensure that you will not be made or broken by having only one option on how to get there
- Decide for change — a compelling vision will require changes, so determine what they are and think through the best method to get there
- Communicate thoroughly — make the messaging around the vision as clear as a well-played music note
- Foster understanding — ensure that every person understands his or her role in making the vision a reality
Visionary leaders imagine the invisible, set the vision, and foster understanding.
Overcome the Common Obstacles
What are some of the most common obstacles to leading with vision? Would you share one and what to do about it?
Every leader will experience his/her own unique obstacles, but we did find some that were common. They include
- A lack of unity in the workforce,
- Preconceived notions about how things should be
- A lack of buy-in throughout the organization
- A lack of urgency, and
- A lack of personal development by the leader
Creating a compelling vision means that it is compelling for the employees. This is a core message in the book. The leaders must capture the hearts of the employees. Every company is a story, and every employee wants to feel like an important part of that story. Visionary leadership means that everyone knows their part in the story, and they feel like their part is important to achieving the vision.
What’s a Makahiki and how can leaders everywhere benefit from it?
That word comes from a story we share in the book about OluKai, a Hawaiian-inspired premium footwear company. They believe that connectedness extends to everything, particularly the brand’s relationship with its employees. Everyone who works at or with
OluKai comes together as a true family. When they have sales meetings, they don’t call them sales meetings. Instead, they call them Makahiki, which is a Hawaiian word for reunion or gathering. It’s a way that they create connectedness for the employees, and connectedness is one of the key ingredients for visionary leadership.
Skip, there’s another important word in the Olukai story.
They take their vision beyond the employees all the way to those who wear their shoes with the spirit of Aloha. Most of us have heard this word but had little understanding of its depth. It is a Hawaiian word and means a lot of things. It means life, love, hello, and it also means goodbye. It’s a very complex word. The literal meaning of Aloha is ‘the breath of life.’ It comes from Alo, meaning presence, and ha, meaning breath. Aloha is a way of living and treating each other with love and respect.
“At OluKai, our vision is grounded in our belief that everybody, no matter where you are, you can live Aloha, a life full of love and happiness.”
They use their brand as a way to unlock that spirit in all of us.
“We want people who wear a pair of OluKai sandals to connect emotionally to a place and a lifestyle to which they aspire. Maybe they may have never been to a beautiful beach in Hawaii, but they know they want to go. Our footwear brings people one step closer. It’s a highly aspirational message that we are delivering.”
We judge ourselves by our intentions. We judge others by our behaviors.
Become a Better Storyteller
Toward the end of the book, you talk about the power of storytelling. How do you coach leaders on becoming better storytellers? What’s the role of positivity?
I think our biggest challenge with leaders is to help them understand the power of storytelling. Think about it, visionary leaders move us. Some of the greatest, most energizing, and best visionary messages of all time are from United States presidents. We remember some of these messages more than others, just as we remember some presidents more than others because some of them—including Lincoln, Kennedy, and Reagan—touched us all. They were masters at painting a picture of where we needed to go and inspiring others to come along.
Storytelling makes the message stick. That is why we used this method ourselves in the book by including very interesting stories that are tied to our key points.
We coach leaders to do the same. We tell them to:
- Put things in motion. They stir things up, agitate the status quo, and create a sense not only of “can do” but also of “want to.”
- Excite others through their lively thoughts and behavior. Their energy motivates and inspires people to excel, and
- Pull others together and propel them in the same direction.
This is not a sidebar for leaders. Visionary leadership is part of their job. It takes time, careful thought, creativity, energy, and passion, but when it’s done well, it has incredible returns.
“Humans are not ideally set up to understand logic; they are ideally set up to understand stories.” -Roger Schank
When you work with an executive team, and you sense immediately that they are firing on all cylinders and doing most everything right, what do you notice about them? What qualities of leadership are driving the team?
We love to see executive teams getting it right. One of the first indicators that a team is on the right track is passion. If the leaders are passionate about where the company is going, the rest of the workforce is likely to follow. They know the vision and are crystal clear about who they are as a company. They have a strategy to achieve the vision, and they put their decisions through a filter of whether or not it will advance their strategy. They value each other as team members and value the employees who bring their talents to the company. They care about each other and have respect for each other. This gives them the safety to have healthy debates and vet decisions thoroughly with diverse viewpoints. They succeed and fail together. They take calculated risks. They keep the organization and the employees moving forward.
“Learning means making mistakes, and if we stop learning we’re in trouble.” -Rick Anderson
For more information, see LEADING WITH VISION: The Leader’s Blueprint for Creating a Compelling Vision and Engaging the Workforce.