Sunday, August 15, 2010

Great Leaders Develop a Shared Vision

James Lucas states that, “we’ve got vision, but we just can’t see. That seems to be the situation in many companies. We can’t live without vision, although organisations do manage to extend their death throes for several years in a visionless state. And very often, we can’t live with vision either – at least not with the concepts that so often masquerade as a guide to the future. The vision statements of many organisations make their readers feel as if they are drowning in warm maple syrup” (1998, p.23).

The vision statement is often used more as a public relations statement than a ‘guiding light’ for the organisation. There is often a common theme amongst many organisations, large and small, that says our vision is to be the best at everything - we’re the best organisation that looks after our people and the community and our stakeholders; and our customers, and our suppliers, and the environment. There is no uniqueness, there is no ‘vision’ that the organisation can embrace and commit to. These are the statements that Lucas compares to ‘warm maple syrup’.

The leadership develops a vision with the organisation, (not in isolation behind boardroom doors). A company vision that creates a unique future state – a future state that all employees; can understand and relate to; get excited about and commit to; and see progress through their daily activities.

As James Kouzes and Barry Posner mention in their 2009 Harvard Business Review article, “the best way to lead people into the future is to connect with them deeply in the present. The only visions that take hold are shared visions – and you will create them only when you listen very, very carefully to others, appreciate their hopes, and attend to their needs. The best leaders are able to bring their people into the future because they engage in the oldest form of research: They observe the human condition” (p.21).

As Lucas points out “the fact is, every company does need a vision if it wants to go somewhere and be able to know when it has arrived. This need may seem less obvious in an autocratic organisation, where people do as they’re told and have very little idea of where the company is headed. But even the autocrat needs a blue print to follow while dictating the company into the future” (p.24).

Lucas highlights five reasons why organisations need a vision;

1) To guide us. A well constructed vision allows the organisation and its employees to prioritise activities and minimises the chances of conflicting agendas.

2) To remind us. The vision statement is there to remind the organisation where it is heading and why.

3) To inspire us. We are inspired by goals that we can relate to and that give purpose to our work - where we can measure our progress during the ‘journey’.

4) To control us. The vision statement not only gives purpose, but creates parameters to keep us on track (so that we don’t wander off the path).

5) To free us. “It’s hard to have a forward looking, high performance organisation when we don’t know who we are or what we want to become. The events of our past push us along with their inertia, to a chorus of ‘this is the way we’ve always done it’ in the past. A living vision pulls us loose from that mire and opens the door to a fresh future,” (Lucas, 1998, p.24).

The vision statement, if developed and communicated correctly, will create; a unique identity that the whole organisation are excited to be part of; a unique focus, on which the corporate strategy, goals and objectives can be built; and a company culture focused on ownership and not compliance

As Lucas concludes, “a vision statement will be worth more than the paper it’s printed on when it becomes a driving force and compels people to do something, change something, or become something. That means it must pass the ‘baloney test’ and get to the heart of the organisation, answering key questions about its competitive strengths. The statement also needs to be a ‘living’ document that incorporates the best of the organisation’s past into an ideal yet feasible view of the future. Only then will people do more that just buy into the image; they’ll actually own it” (p.25).

Maybe it’s time to get that vision statement down from the walls, blow the dust off and re-look at it again – in the process, turning your vision into your real, unique, statement of the future.


Kouzes, J.M. and Posner, B.Z. (2009). To Lead, Create a Shared Vision. Harvard Business Review, Vol. 87, Issue 1, p. 20-21.

Lucas, J.R. (1998). Anatomy of a vision statement. Management Review, Vol. 87, Issue 2, p. 22-26.

1 comment:

  1. Nigel, what a powerful and insightful piece!

    A leader is one who can develop willing followers. That is done through effective listening and by paying attention to the needs of the followers as well as the needs of the mission.

    Forget that fact and one must control by force. That's the technique of the dictator. All dictators live in the constant presence of revolt.

    Best thoughts!