Ted W. Engstrom, president emeritus of World Vision, tells the story of a friend who took his little daughter on a cruise to Catalina Island, off the coast of Southern California. It was a beautiful, clear day, and the air was as transparent as crystal all the way to the horizon. As the little girl looked out over the blue Pacific, she called out, "Daddy! I can look farther than my eyes can see!"
That little girl didn't know it, but she was describing a paradoxical quality every great leader has. Vision is the ability to see farther than the eye can see, the ability to see what isn't there. Only by seeing what is not there can you bring something new, creative, and exciting into existence. One of former senator Bill Bradley's heroes was President Woodrow Wilson. Bradley felt Wilson had this ability to see around the corners, to see the future before it came into being.
George Bush—the first President Bush—learned the importance of vision, and he learned it the hard way. President Bush was very good at his job. He expertly assembled the international coalition to fight the Gulf War. The Allied victory over Iraq earned him a whopping 85 percent approval rating as of March 1991. With the 1992 election only a year and a half away, Bush's re-election seemed a foregone conclusion. But we all know what happened on the second Tuesday in November 1992: America rejected Bush and elected Bill Clinton. Where did George Bush go wrong? Well, the faltering economy was one thing—but it wasn't bad enough by itself to explain Bush's steep fall in the polls.
My own assessment: President George Bush lacked vision.
During the '92 campaign, he admitted that he didn't handle "the vision thing" very well. Yep, that's what he called it: the vision thing. And the problem wasn't just that he was uncomfortable with the word vision. More to the point, voters could tell he really didn't have one. After the victory of the Gulf War, he could have proposed a bold agenda for America and the American people would have embraced it. He could have said something like, "My fellow Americans, we have just won an astounding military victory. We have seen what we are capable of. Now let me suggest to you an exciting new vision for America." Instead, he settled for the role of caretaker rather than visionary. An 85 percent approval rating is an enormous surplus of political capital—and President Bush squandered it for want of a vision. (Mr. Bush forgot the advice of Ronald Reagan: "To grasp and hold a vision is the very essence of leadership.")
Conversely, Walt Disney was a leader who spent his life seeing what was not there—and then turning his vision into reality. The Disney entertainment empire is a tribute to that vision. Soon after his Disneyland theme park opened in 1955, a woman who worked for the Disney Studio was walking through Disneyland and noticed Walt on a bench between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, staring off into the sky. She stopped and asked, "What are you looking at, Walt?"
"My mountain," he said, pointing to an expanse of empty air. A few years later, in June 1959, the Matterhorn Bobsleds attraction opened to the public—a scale model of the famed Alpine peak. Today, Walt's mountain still defines the skyline of Disneyland.
Disneyland itself began as a vision that only Walt Disney himself could see. When the project was still in the planning stages, Walt took his friend, TV host Art Linkletter, for a ride out to Orange County. Linkletter recalls:
We went and went and went and went and went, down through the orange groves. And finally we came to the place where it was going to be, and I couldn't believe my eyes— because it was so far from downtown Los Angeles. And it was so small—the communities in those days were so straggly. And I thought, "My gosh, to put up a bunch of merry-go-rounds out in the middle of a cow pasture is ridiculous!"
As they walked around the property, Walt described in glowing detail the various lands of his park: Fantasyland, Adventureland, Tomorrowland, and more. Then Disney advised Linkletter to buy property around the park and sell it to developers. "You'll make a fortune," said Disney.
But Art Linkletter failed to grasp Walt Disney's vision. He said thanks but no thanks. Looking back on that decision, Linkletter calculates that each step he took on that property was worth about $3 million—money that could have gone into his pocket but didn't.
A few years later, Walt Disney envisioned another and even larger Disney theme park. He laid the groundwork, but died in 1966, almost five years before the opening of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. On the day the new park opened, a visitor commented to Mike Vance, Creative Director of Walt Disney Studios, "Isn't it too bad Walt Disney didn't live to see this?"
"Oh, but he did see it," Vance replied. "That's why it's here."
True visionaries are paradoxical people. You might even call them oddballs. The imaginary world of their vision is more real to them than the solid reality all around them. People talk to them, but they don't hear a word. They walk into walls or stumble over chairs because they don't see the walls or the chairs. Their minds are not in the here and now but in the there and then. Their vision is their reality; it's where they live and what they see, hear, touch, taste, and smell.
Most people are focused on the everyday, practical, mundane reality —and that's fine. We need people like that. Most managers are good, practical, salt-of-the-earth people—the kind of people who would say, "I believe in what I can see." But we also need that rare oddball visionary who says, "I see what I believe in." Visionaries are people of paradox who see what is not there. They are the ones who truly deserve to be called leaders because they are the ones who truly change the world. The greatest leaders live in the present but focus intently on the future.
Can you look beyond the present and see things that do not exist? If so, then you have the wonderful, paradoxical gift of vision. Without vision, the future would look just like the past. Without vision, there would be no innovation, no transformation, no progress. Vision is a magical ability—the next best thing to time travel. With vision, you can actually look into the future. Then, with that vision as your blueprint, you can build a brighter tomorrow out of the raw materials of today.
Jesus was a master visionary. He started with nothing. He chose twelve men from varied backgrounds, mostly "working class stiffs." A few were social outcasts. Four-Peter, Andrew, James, and John—were fishermen, and there were probably other trades represented as well. Most of the twelve were illiterate; they are called "unschooled, ordinary men" in Acts 4:13. At least one of them, Simon the Zealot, was an agitator in an extremist organization. Jesus only chose two men with any real financial experience—Matthew, who was a despised tax collector and a collaborator with the Roman occupation; and Judas Iscariot, who was the treasurer among the twelve, and later found to be an embezzler and a traitor. There wasn't one impressive résumé in the lot.
Would you have chosen these twelve as your means of changing the world? A bunch of uneducated fishermen? A tax collector? A crook? An extremist? Probably not.
But Jesus was a visionary. He saw what was not there—and he built it. He looked into the souls of these twelve underachievers, and he envisioned a group of overachievers who one day would turn the world upside down.
The best example of how Jesus envisioned the future through these men is found in the life of Peter. When Jesus first met him, his name was Simon. In John 1, Simon's brother, Andrew, brought him to Jesus and introduced them. Jesus looked at Simon and said, "You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas" (John 1:42). Cephas is an Aramaic name that in Greek is Peter—or in English, rock. At the time Jesus met this man, Simon Peter was anything but rocklike! He was unstable, impetuous, and unreliable. On several occasions, Jesus reprimanded Peter for his impulsiveness. Ultimately, though, Peter lived up to the paradoxical name Jesus gave him and became a stable and dependable man and one of the foundational leaders of the church.
But first, Jesus had to see something in Peter that wasn't there. Jesus had to look at Peter and see "The Rock" when all there was in Peter's personality was shifting sand. Jesus projected that vision onto Peter in a powerful way by changing his name from Simon to Cephas. In so doing, Jesus imparted to him a vision of his future life, his transformed life.
Jesus didn't settle for what people were. He focused on what they could become. He looked into human souls, saw what wasn't there, and invested himself in people so that his vision for their lives ultimately became the reality of their lives.
Jesus communicated a vision of spiritual liberation and reconciliation between God and humanity. His vision came to be called the gospel, from the Old English godspel (god = good; spel = news).
A true vision is always good news; it is always optimistic. Can you name one great leader who was a pessimist? There has never been one. A visionary leader can be honest about obstacles and problems, but he or she places them in a hopeful and positive framework. That is the way Jesus taught. He predicted problems and persecution for his followers, and he even predicted his own death. But he always framed obstacles and problems as challenges and opportunities for blessing.
At the beginning of his public ministry, he made this visionary announcement of hope:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. (Luke 4:17-18)
It is a message other great leaders, following in his footsteps, have adopted as their own.
Martin Luther King Jr. had a vision of a society that did not yet exist. He described it in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal." I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood... I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Like the vision Jesus proclaimed, Dr. King's vision was an optimistic image of a better tomorrow. He did not ignore the reality of obstacles, frustration, pain, and sacrifice. But he placed the presentday problems within a hopeful context, framing them as challenges and opportunities for blessing.
Dr. Billy Graham is another visionary leader who follows the paradoxical pattern of Jesus of Nazareth. In the days immediately following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, the entire nation was reeling in shock and grief. At a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance service three days later at the National Cathedral in Washington, D. C., Dr. Graham shared his vision of hope:
I have hope, not just for this life, but for heaven and the life to come. And many of those people who died this past week are in heaven right now, and they wouldn't want to come back. It's so glorious and so wonderful. And that's the hope for all of us who put our faith in God. I pray that you will have this hope in your heart.
Dr. Graham's words are the epitome of hope. A visionary leader calls people to expect more of their world, to take bold steps of faith, to venture out with risk-taking courage, to dare to hope for something beyond themselves. In the Bible, we find a classic illustration of a visionary leader who called his people to hope. It is the story of Jesus and Peter on the lake (Matthew 14). The disciples took their boat out onto the Sea of Galilee, where they encountered a terrible storm. In the middle of the storm, they saw Jesus coming out to them, walking on the water. Peter, ever the impulsive disciple, said, "Lord, if it's you, tell me to come to you on the water."
Peter wanted to follow in Jesus' footsteps—even if those footsteps led across the surface of a lake. That kind of eager followership warms the heart of anyone in leadership. So Jesus said, "Come." Peter climbed out of the boat and started walking to Jesus across the water—and, amazingly, he didn't sink! Jesus, the parodoxical, visionary leader, had called forth the impossible from one of his followers.
But after a few steps, Peter became aware of the insanity of what he was attempting. He saw the wind and waves and thought, What am I doing out here on the water? He took his eyes off of Jesus and focused on his circumstances—and he started to sink. On the way down he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Jesus caught him and helped him back into the boat. "You of little faith," said Jesus, "why did you doubt?"
I think Jesus' chiding of Peter was gentle, not harsh—and I'm sure Jesus was pleased by the fact that Peter even dared the impossible for a few steps out on the lake. After all, Peter was the only one of the twelve who even risked getting out of the boat!
The point is that Jesus expressed a vision of hope in his words and he exemplified a vision of hope in his actions. His vision of hope inspired Peter to step out in the belief he could transcend everyday existence and achieve the impossible. That is a powerful object lesson for every leader of vision.
When a leader can see the invisible, his followers can do the impossible. A leader with a powerful, optimistic vision can get his people to walk on water. Ask Fred Smith, the founder and CEO of Federal Express.
In 1965, while a student at Yale, Smith came up with his innovative airfreight concept and wrote it up as a term paper in his economics class. His professor read the paper, then took his red pen and wrote a big C at the top, adding this note: "The concept is interesting and wellformed, but in order to earn better than a C, the idea must be feasible." Fred Smith had envisioned what was not there—and his Yale economics professor couldn't see it. But Smith didn't care. What mattered was that Smith could see it—and he refused to lose sight of it.
After graduation, he joined the Marines and went to Vietnam, first as a platoon leader on the ground (wounded several times) and later as a pilot of over two hundred ground-support missions (winning the Bronze and Silver Stars).
After the war, Smith inherited $4 million when his father died. He invested it in Federal Express and raised $72 million in loans and equity investments. The company suffered heavy losses during the first few years (the first profitable year was 1975, when FedEx was a paltry $20,000 in the black).
But Fred Smith's vision of a successful overnight express company seized the imaginations of his employees. In its early days, FedEx and its employees walked on water, performing the miracle of staying afloat. Today, Smith's visionary company operates in 210 countries, employs 140,000 people, delivers 3 million packages per day, and is valued at $7 billion. It happened because a visionary leader saw what wasn't there, went forward with hope and belief, and achieved the impossible.
Some people mistake vision for the ability to see. In reality, vision has nothing to do with eyesight. In fact, some of the most visionary people in the world are those who can see nothing at all. As blind-deaf author Helen Keller once noted, "The most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight but no vision."
In 1998, Dr. David K. Winter, then president of Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, and his wife, Helene, were getting ready to leave on vacation when he noticed some gray spots in his eyesight. Over the next few days, the dots grew into large blind patches. Within weeks, he had lost almost 90 percent of his sight. The diagnosis: nonarthritic ischemic optic neuropathy—an incurable condition. Although he could see shapes in sufficiently bright light, he was essentially blind for life.
Despite his blindness, Dr. Winter continued to serve as president until 2001. Even without his eyesight, Dr. Winter is a visionary leader. He says that blindness has made him a better person. Telling Winter's story, authors Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz made this observation:
We noticed that people are very careful with their use of certain terminology at Westmont College. They make a distinction between words like sight, seeing, vision, and outlook. To us, those words seemed fairly interchangeable. But at Westmont, their meaning is quite different. David Winter sees primarily darkness, but his outlook is bright. While his sight is obscured, he has tremendous vision.
The leadership landscape is littered with those who have 20-20 eyesight but are sadly lacking in vision. Case in point: In 1870, a church denomination held its annual conference on a college campus in Indiana. In the course of the meeting, the president of the college remarked on the times they were living in: "I think we live in an exciting age," he said, "an age of wonders and discoveries."
The presiding bishop gave the college president a dour look. "Whatever do you mean?" he asked. "Well," said the college president, "we are approaching a time of great inventions. For example, I believe the day is not far off when men will fly through the air like birds." "Heresy!" snorted the bishop. "The Bible tells us that the gift of flight is reserved for the angels!"
After the conference, that bishop—his name was Milton Wright— returned to his family home in Ohio. Three decades later, Bishop Wright's two sons, Wilbur and Orville, made the first successful powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. So much for the bishop's vision!
Alexander Graham Bell was another who struggled with those who lacked vision. He invented the telephone in 1876, but it was slow to catch on because people just didn't see it as practical. A member of the British Parliament once said that there was no need for telephones because "we have enough messengers here." And Western Union, the telegraph company, declined to invest in the device. "This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication," said a Western Union internal memo. Imagine if Bell had listened to his pessimistic contemporaries!
The list goes on and on. In 1899, Charles H. Duell, director of the U. S. Patent Office, assured President McKinley, "Everything that can be invented has already been invented." In 1921, a New York Times editorial scoffed at the ideas of rocket pioneer Robert Goddard, who predicted the future of rocket-powered space exploration. In 1977, Digital Equipment Corporation turned its back on the home computing market. Said Digital's founder-president, Ken Olson, "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."
What causes such a failure of vision? In each example you see a common thread: Someone decided that a vision had limits. Someone said, "This will never happen" or "That will never be possible." As soon as some "expert" puts any limit or restriction on the future, a visionary leader is bound to come along and prove the expert wrong.
Naysayers are pessimists; visionaries are optimists. If you want to be a leader, you have to be an optimist. You have to say yes to a future of limitless possibilities. Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., that battle-scarred political veteran from my home state of Delaware, put it this way: "I am an optimist by occupational requirement." And communications executive Sumner Redstone said, "I believe optimism is the only philosophy of life that's compatible with sustained success and sanity." You have to be an optimist to survive as a national leader-or as a leader in any arena, great or small. You have to believe that anything's possible, that the future is wide open and boundless, that tomorrow is a blank check just waiting for your endorsement. There's no future in naysaying. When it comes to vision, the ayes have it.
Jesus lived in Palestine under the harsh, repressive rule of the Roman empire—a cruel, murderous, racist regime. Yet Jesus had a vision that was completely at odds with the world in which he lived. In contrast to the kingdom of Rome, he envisioned a kingdom of God—of love, of compassion. He envisioned a world of equality and justice without racial division and wars. Though the vision of Jesus has yet to be realized in full, the world is a better, more civilized place wherever that vision has been shared and implemented. Christians around the world continue working to bring about his vision of the kingdom of heaven. As I have studied the paradoxical vision of Jesus, I have come to the conclusion that an effective vision is made up of at least ten essential qualities or components. Let's take a look at each one.
1. A vision should be clear and simple.
Habakkuk 2:2 suggests that a vision should be written plainly, in such large letters that even a man running past can easily read it. A vision must be simple enough to be grasped by everyone at every level of the organization. It must be simple enough that it can be passed from one person to the next without distortion or ambiguity. It must be simple enough to be memorable. It must be simple enough to be understood and implemented. "Great leaders," observes Colin Powell, "are almost always great simplifiers."
2. A vision should be visual and imaginable.
Every member of the organization should be able to picture what the vision will look like when it's achieved. Use word pictures, metaphors, and stories to paint the image in the minds of your followers. Images are like mental Velcro; they stick in the mind and won't let go. Make sure your people can see the brighter future you want them to achieve. Your job is, first, to see what is not there, and second, to make sure everybody around you sees it, too. "Vision," says Christian leadership expert Dr. Leighton Ford, "is the very stuff of leadership: the ability to see in a way that compels others to pay attention."
3. A vision should be focused on change.
The purpose of a vision is to take you and your organization from where you are to where you dream of being. This implies positive change, progress, growth, expansion, and improvement. A vision is a picture of a brighter future. It focuses everyone's attention on completing today's tasks in order to achieve tomorrow's promise. White House correspondent Helen Thomas covered nine presidential administrations for United Press International. She was once asked which president she personally liked best. Her answer: John F. Kennedy. Asked why, she replied, "His vision—launching the Peace Corps, and promising to put a man on the moon."
4. A vision should demand sacrifice.
"If your vision doesn't cost you something," says John C. Maxwell, "it's only a daydream." A leader must be willing to pay the price to achieve his or her vision—and willing to ask the members of the organization to pay the price as well. When the people see their leader is committed, body and soul, to a vision, they are inspired to commit themselves as well.
5. A vision should be communicated with contagious optimism.
A vision is a picture of a coming celebration. People should associate your vision with confetti, the popping of champagne corks—whatever you choose as symbols of celebration. The image should be fun, elevating, exhilarating, and upbeat. "You have to be so excited about your vision that people can't wait to come and try to achieve it with you," says Carol Bartz, CEO of AutoDesk. "You have to have people excited about what you are doing, because going to work is not just about getting paid."
6. A vision should be personal.
Achievement of the vision should make everyone's life better-not just the leader's or the organization's. The shared accomplishment should produce individual benefits for every member of the team. Each person's desire for a better life should be bound up in the organization's dream of a brighter future. The more personal stake each individual has in the vision, the greater the collective desire and effort to achieve that vision—and the greater your chances of success as a leader.
7. A vision should be relentlessly stated and restated.
"A vision of the future is not offered once and for all by the leader, then allowed to fade away," says management expert Warren Bennis. "It must be incorporated in the organization's culture, and reinforced through the strategy and decision-making process." Never tire of restating your vision. Celebrate it, underscore it, put it up in lights for everyone to see. Make sure that everyone in the organization, from the leader in the corner office to the guy in the mailroom, adheres to that vision.
8. A vision should be personified by the leader.
People should not be able to see the leader walking down the hall without being reminded of the vision. And people should not hear of the vision without picturing the leader. The leader is the walking embodiment of the vision. Don Shula, the winningest coach in NFL history, was a walking example of his vision for the Miami Dolphins. "My vision has always been a vision of perfection," he once said. "I wanted to have perfect practices, and I wanted to do the best job in preparation and just make sure that everything was done the right way. I was always demanding—do it the right way!"
9. A vision should be a broad vista, not a detailed plan.
Plans tend to be rigid and confining; a vision is boundless and liberating. A vision is flexible enough to withstand changing conditions within the organization and in the marketplace. Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, put it this way:
Trying to define what will happen three to five years out, in specific, qualitative terms, is a futile exercise. The world is moving too fast for that. What should a company do instead? First of all, define its vision and its destiny in broad but clear terms. Second, maximize its own productivity. Finally, be organizationally and culturally flexible enough to meet massive change.
10. A vision should be difficult—even seemingly impossible— to achieve.
A vision that is easily within an organization's grasp is not a vision. It's just a goal. A true vision should be daunting in its scope—and breathtaking in its audacity. I'm not saying a vision should be unrealistic—but it should be so big, so grand that it is only possible if everyone pulls together. To truly be a vision, your image of success should lift people's eyes from the ground at their feet, and even above the horizon, to the limitless skies of possibility.
In their book Built to Last, James Collins and Jerry Porras coined the term BHAG (pronounced "bee-hag") to describe a bold, well-nigh-impossible vision. BHAG stands for Big Hairy Audacious Goal. Common sense would tell you that a BHAG would intimidate people and discourage them from trying. But BHAGs are paradoxical. The idea of attempting the impossible is so exciting and energizing that organizations usually experience an upsurge of motivation when a leader presents a BHAG to his people.
A great example of a BHAG is the vision announced by President John F. Kennedy in a speech on May 25, 1961:
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. 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.
Now, that's vision! Many people who heard those words in 1961 thought President Kennedy had lost his mind. But on July 20, 1969, at 10:56 P.M. EDT, astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped out of the lunar module of Apollo 11 and made the first human footprints on the moon. His words—"That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind"—fulfilled the vision of President Kennedy. Even though the leader who proposed that vision didn't live to see it fulfilled, the vision itself became a historic reality.
What kind of history do you dream of making? What is the audacious vision that burns a hole in your soul right now, yearning to get out and become a grand reality? Whatever it is, define it, refine it, personify it. Make it simple and memorable. Make it a vision worth sacrificing for. Make it a vision full of optimism and excitement.
Then watch in amazement as your people boldly, enthusiastically hammer it into reality.
An effective vision produces a number of powerful, transforming results in the life of an organization.
A vision provides a sense of direction and an impetus for growth.
A vision is like a treasure map with "X marks the spot" clearly identified. Vision marks the path to victory, so that everyone can move in the same direction together. "The world makes way for the man who knows where he is going," said Ralph Waldo Emerson. Football great Joe Namath put it in different words: "Nobody wants to follow somebody who doesn't know where he's going."
There's a saying that those who rest on their laurels are wearing them on the wrong end. Our natural human tendency is to dwell on past glories rather than focus on future possibilities. Nostalgia comes more easily to us than foresight. But organizations must grow, change, expand, and conquer new challenges—or they will die. A sense of vision gives an organization a forward lean that keeps the organization alive and thriving.
A vision gives everyone in the organization a sense of involvement, purpose, and significance.
John C. Maxwell tells the story of how Winston Churchill inspired the English people with a vision during the darkest days of World War II. England was having a hard time keeping workers in the coal mines because so many miners were volunteering for military service. Serving on the front lines was dangerous but glorious duty, compared with the mundane job of digging coal out of the ground. Yet the war effort needed coal.
So Churchill, Britain's prime minister, went to the mines and gave a speech. In it he gave his countrymen a vision of the future. He pictured for them what would take place when the Nazis were beaten and the war was over. Churchill said there would be a great parade honoring all who sacrificed for victory. First, there would be the Royal Navy sailors who had battled Hitler on the sea. Then would come the Royal Air Force pilots who had fought the Luftwaffe in the skies. Then would come the Army soldiers who had fought at Dunkirk. Last of all would come the working men in miner's hard hats, covered with coal dust. And when people would ask, "Where were these men during the dark days of the war?" ten thousand voices would answer, "We were deep in the earth, with our faces to the coal."
As Churchill shared his vision with the miners, tears streaked their blackened faces. They returned to the mines with a renewed sense of purpose, knowing that every ton of coal they took from the earth served the goal of defending their beloved England.
Churchill knew it well: Leaders must make everyone on the team feel like an integral, indispensable part of the total effort. Those who aren't rowing are dragging their oars in the water—and a dragging oar pulls the entire boat off course. Everybody's oar must be in the water, everybody must be rowing in sync, and no one should ever feel excluded or unimportant. Those who don't feel they matter tend to be unmotivated and frustrated. Those negative emotions eventually poison the entire organization. So a leader must create a sense of total involvement and shared significance from top to bottom.
A vision clarifies decision making.
A clear vision of the future is a benchmark. Every decision we make should be measured against our vision. If that decision takes us closer to achieving the vision, it's a good decision. If it doesn't, it isn't. In this way, a clear vision defines what we should and shouldn't be doing as a leader, and as an organization. It keeps us focused. A vision should be flexible enough to allow for creativity, inspiration, and response to new circumstances. But it should be clear enough and strong enough to keep us from squandering energy in wasted motion and fruitless directions.
I see this principle at work in our own Orlando Magic organization —and every NBA team I've been associated with. On every NBA ballclub there is a healthy, creative tension between the coach and the general manager. They can be great friends and they can work well together, but a certain tension is always present. The tension is this:
The coach is always looking at the present situation and asking, "How can I win tonight?" I've heard hundreds of coaches say, "I'm not looking at winning the championship or winning any game down the road. I'm focused on winning this game, period. Nothing else matters. You have to take your season one game at a time."
Now, that's the coach's job, and there's nothing wrong with it. But the general manager has a different focus. He's not just looking at one game or even one season. He is looking three, four, five years down the road. He's not just building a team, he's building a franchise—a dynasty. Sure, he wants to win tonight—but he's also focused on the horizon.
So there is an ongoing tension, and that tension affects decisions that are made on a daily basis. The coach will go to the general manager and say, "We need this or that in order to win tonight." The general manager will counter with, "We need that or this in order to build a long-term winning franchise." For the general manager, it's all about "the vision thing."
The coach may say to the general manager, "Okay, we've got this twenty-two-year-old phenom, but he's not ready yet, and I can't win with this guy. I need you to deal him to some other team and bring in this other thirty-five-year-old veteran with the skills and experience to help us win right now!"
The general manager may counter, "Okay, your thirty-five-year-old veteran can help you win tonight, but his knees and ankles are aging, and he's going to be out of the game in a year. I've got to think about the future, about our vision for this team. So the twenty-two-year-old stays here, and we can't bring in the veteran. Sorry, Coach, but you're going to have to find some other way to win tonight."
Your vision is your lens on the future. It brings clarity and focus to every decision you make as you build toward the future you have envisioned for your organization.
A vision keeps the focus on what's important.
It's easy to lose your concentration, to major on the minors. You can't afford to waste resources or effort-especially in turbulent economic times. Everything must be focused on making your vision a reality. Your vision of the future clarifies what is important and what is not. Some years ago, ten whales beached themselves on the Baja Peninsula and died. Marine biologists were alarmed. They rushed to study the whales and discover the reason for this massive loss of life. A few weeks later, a newspaper reported their conclusions with this headline: "Giants perish while chasing minnows." The whales had lost their focus and beached themselves while chasing tiny little fish into the shallows.
A clear vision can keep the same fate from befalling you. That's what Andy Stanley meant when he said, "To focus on what's around you diminishes your ability to focus on what's before you."
A vision motivates people over the long haul.
A vision calls us toward a brighter future, even through tough times and obstacles. It provides momentum and velocity. It gives us the courage to take risks. It gives us energy to maintain our momentum. A clear and optimistic vision enables an organization to persevere and remain focused through both good times and bad.
In 1855 engineer John Roebling proposed that a suspension bridge be built over the East River. Roebling envisioned a bridge suspended by a web of steel wires from four massive steel cables, supported by a pair of giant granite towers.
His project was fraught with hardships. Roebling himself died just days after the Army Corps of Engineers approved his plans. His son, Washington, took over the project. While overseeing work in one of the huge metal cylinders that had been sunk into the riverbed, Washington Roebling was paralyzed by decompression sickness ("the bends"). The bends, as well as fires and explosions, killed a number of workers. But everyone involved with the project refused to give up. And on May 23, 1883, President Chester Arthur and Governor Grover Cleveland dedicated the bridge. This bridge-the Brooklyn Bridge-stands today as proof of one man's motivating vision.
A vision empowers people.
The most effective organizations push decision making down from the top of the organizational pyramid and out to the people on the front lines. Leaders cannot lead effectively by micromanaging their people. Decision making must be decentralized so the organization can respond quickly to changes and needs. You want people in the trenches—those out on the floor and those meeting the public—to have the information and authority to make good decisions on their own. If your organization has a clear, strong vision, and that vision is communicated to every member of the organization, you can afford to invest more authority and autonomy in your rank-and-file. You can be assured that they will make good decisions, because every decision they make will be measured against the organizational vision.
A vision calls people to attempt the impossible.
Our natural tendency is to settle into a comfort zone. But a grand vision calls forth a grand effort that reaches beyond "good enough" and sometimes carries us all the way to "the impossible." We are capable of far more than we think. Jesus knew that and he continually called his followers to attempt the impossible. Sometimes they failed. When they did, he encouraged them to go out and try again. Eventually, the impossible became a reality in the lives of his disciples. The impossible can become a reality in your life and the life of your organization as well.
A vision evokes emotion and spreads enthusiasm.
Emotion and enthusiasm are infectious. If you, as a leader, project a vision that generates excitement, your organization will be energized and motivated to go out and make that vision a reality. People will get caught up in the spirit of a great movement-and you will see miracles happen.
"Vision evokes emotion," says Andy Stanley, founding pastor of Atlanta's North Point Community Church:
There is no such thing as an emotionless vision. Think about your daydreams. The thing that makes daydreaming so enjoyable is the emotion that piggybacks on those mind's-eye images. When we allow our thoughts to wander outside the walls of reality, our feelings are quick to follow... Through the avenue of vision, the feelings reserved for tomorrow are channeled back into our present reality. Vision is always accompanied by strong emotion, and the clearer the vision, the stronger the emotion.
A vision keeps the leader fueled, fired up, and focused.
My wife, Ruth, teaches for the FranklinCovey Company and is qualified to teach Stephen Covey's three-day "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" course, based on the book of the same name. I must confess that I don't fully grasp all seven Habits, but I have Habit Two nailed: "Begin with the end in mind." Once it is clear in the leader's mind what the end is going to be, getting there is simple. It's just a matter of working backwards and putting all the pieces in place. John Maxwell put it this way: "Show me a leader without vision, and I'll show you someone who isn't going anywhere. At best, he is traveling in circles." Professor George F. Custem said of Hollywood agent Lew Wasserman, "He was the kind of visionary who always saw a few squares ahead on the board. That was his greatest gift."
So define your vision, set it in front of you like a beacon, and let it draw you in a straight, unswerving path toward that brighter tomorrow that burns in your soul.
My hometown of Orlando, Florida, is the Home of the Attractions. And every one of those attractions, from Walt Disney World to the Orlando Magic organization (of which I am a part), had its genesis in a vision. I vividly recall a drive I took to the Orlando airport in September 1985. I was in my twelfth year as general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers and had come to Orlando to give a talk at the First Presbyterian Church. About to return home to Philly, I was being driven to the airport by Pastor John Tolson and one of Orlando's leading businessmen, Jimmy Hewitt.
"You know," I said offhandedly, "the NBA is thinking of expanding, and Florida could get one of the teams. If you guys were in charge, where would you put the team—Miami or Tampa?"
"Neither one!" said John Tolson. "Just look around you, Bubba," said Jimmy Hewitt (to whom everyone is Bubba). "Ever see a cleaner, more exciting city than Orlando?"
"Sure," said John. "And with Walt Disney World, Orlando's already the entertainment capital of the world. NBA basketball would fit this city like a glove!"
I thought about that conversation all the way home. The more I thought about it, the more excited I became about this vision of a shining new sports arena rising in central Florida. In the days that followed, I put Jimmy Hewitt in touch with NBA commissioner David Stern, and things began to gather momentum. Long story short, Jimmy put an ownership group together, then called me in Philadelphia and said, "Hey, Bubba, we're putting an NBA franchise together! This thing is rolling down the tracks and picking up speed. You'd better hop on quick." I agreed to come aboard as general manager.
In June 1986 I left the 76ers and moved to Orlando. From the moment I arrived, every day was a high-intensity adventure. Even though the NBA had not yet committed to awarding Orlando a franchise, I was running all around central Florida, telling people, "When Larry Bird and Magic Johnson come to town, folks, you've got to have your tickets!" People thought I was nuts! But I had a clear picture in my mind: I could see the arena, I could see the players on the floor, I could see the uniform colors, I could see Bird and Magic on our floor. None of it existed, but I saw it all. Then I simply worked backwards from that vision to make it all happen.
Finally, in April 1987, the NBA board of governors added four new teams, including the Orlando Magic. We played our first game in the fall of 1989. Jimmy Hewitt, John Tolson, Pat Williams, and a lot of other people had caught sight of something that didn't exist, and together we made the dream a reality. A leader is a person who sees the invisible before anyone else sees the reality. A leader hears the inaudible, thinks the unthinkable, believes the unbelievable, attempts the impossible, and achieves the supernatural.
That's the paradoxical power of this magical thing called vision.
Copyright © 2002 by Pat Williams.