Company visions are commonplace. But what’s just as critical — and a lot more rare — is developing a powerful personal vision that can inspire, ignite and empower your team, whether you are leading three people or 30,000. While most of us look to charismatic leaders such as John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King to do the vision thing, it also works for regular folks.
In the following excerpt from Anticipate: The Art of Leading by Looking Ahead, business consultant Rob-Jan de Jong writes that you have to look beyond the obvious to what stretches the imagination without being absurd. A potent personal vision is imaginative, directed and often breaks paradigms. And it has the power to mobilize the people around you.
In two decades of work with arrived and aspiring leaders, from executive boardrooms to business school classrooms, I’ve noticed that the word “vision” instantly stirs up passionate debate. Debate about our company vision, debate about whether or not our leaders have one, debate on the current humdrum or unrealistic version that’s on the company website, and debate about whether it is of any real value at all to have a vision. I’ve heard everything from “Finally, we’re talking about what’s really important,” to “Oh please! Not another hazy discussion on that abstract notion that won’t help me deliver results.”
What I’ve learned from these debates is that the “Vision Thing” intrigues and frustrates at the same time. We look up to people and companies that seemed to have mastered it, but feel thwarted in achieving similar results. Most people agree that, when understood and practiced well, vision can be an extraordinarily powerful concept; a tool, in fact, that significantly bolsters your ability to influence. Highly respected scholars in the field of leadership even put vision at the center of it. Harvard Business School professor Abraham Zaleznik declared vision the hallmark of leadership, and when Warren Bennis studied leaders he noticed that “of all the characteristics that distinguished the individuals, the most pivotal was a concern with a guiding purpose, an overarching vision.”
But when the idea of a vision isn’t framed properly, it quickly becomes muddy and fuzzy, incomplete and unproductive, and loses the interest of those you wish to engage. A proper understanding and agreement of terms around the concept of vision is therefore essential, so I’ll first clarify what I do and don’t mean when using the term before we start improving your ability to make it work for you.
“The [vision] I talk about in Anticipate is your personal vision, the compelling future orientation you want to develop to ignite your followers.”
Above all, I want to make a clear distinction between the company vision and your personal vision. In contrast to most strategy textbooks that usually allude to company vision, we will focus on your personal vision throughout this work. My aim is to increase your personal visionary capacity and bring out what a powerful vision can do for your personal leadership—whether or not you are hierarchically in a senior position.
After all, vision is not an exclusive for those in top-ranked positions. I have seen many people lower down the ranks galvanize their teams with a highly motivating and inspiring future-oriented perspective. Those team members took energy from the personal vision of the one leader that was most relevant for them: their immediate boss. That energy did not depend on the company vision; it was the boss’s personalized version that made it work. It was the boss’s attitude to look ahead and go beyond the immediate reality of today that provided meaning and direction.
Admittedly, in a corporate context, it often does imply that your personal vision as a leader needs to reasonably align and live within the constraints of the company vision. But to me that’s in a way just an aside, just as your personal vision needs to live within ethical and legal boundaries. That’s not what this is about. Your compelling story has everything to do with igniting excitement in those people who look to you for leadership. Your personal imagination and inspiration is what counts for them. It’s your dedication and your authenticity that they are looking for; it’s about the story that you bring to them, and much less about what is stated on the corporate website.
I’m not implying that a company vision statement is not useful or desirable. Crisp, empowering company statements can be extraordinary useful. Microsoft’s original idea of “having a computer in every home running Microsoft software” is often rightfully cited as a showcase of excellent company vision statements. Less glamorous firms like Progressive Insurance have managed to arrive at a rich company vision statement. Progressive’s vision is “to reduce the human trauma associated with automobile accidents,” which has opened up new areas of servicing clients and outperforming peers by operating differently and offering “unusual” products and services. Or think of Ben and Jerry’s mission: “Making the best possible ice cream, in the nicest possible way.”
These are examples of very powerful company vision statements. Unfortunately, these great examples often seem to be the exception to the rule. With the rule being that in most companies the company vision is good stuff for the marketing department that—after lengthy debate—ends up pulling together a series of trendy buzzwords to dazzle the public. The statement usually lacks all the ingredients of a powerful vision—including something that inspires, such as unconventionality, meaning, and authenticity. But all that is company vision terrain. The one I talk about in Anticipate is your personal vision, the compelling future orientation you want to develop to ignite your followers. It is a leadership marker, something that reflects who you are as a leader and inspires others to enlist for action—regardless of whether that is three or 30,000 people.
A vision is future-oriented. That probably sounds quite self-evident. Yet there is quite a bit more to this obvious observation. Since it is about the future, which is intrinsically uncertain, it is predominantly a product of imagination. You might have some beliefs, hunches, and past patterns to support your ideas, but it remains an opinion that cannot be backed up with factual experiences, research, and other quantifiable data. That simple reality already explains why people find it so difficult to imaginatively look ahead, since we have mostly evolved in a business reality where facts and figures are deemed very important. So unlocking your imagination is an important aspect of developing your ability to anticipate.
A vision is therefore a particular form of opinion. It’s one that—when done right—evokes energy and inspiration. A well-developed vision stimulates our thinking and opens us up to new possibilities. This creativity aspect unleashes playfulness and curiosity, which produces positive energy. This makes it very different from opinions based purely on logic and reasoning, which quickly bog us down and impede our imagination. Powerful visions have at least four fundamental purposes.
“The state of Dubai … grew in just a few decades from a desert village into a glittering global financial hub and tourist destination. This development stemmed from the vision of one man.”
A Vision Shows the Path Forward
A vision provides guidance and direction about where an organization (or a country, a team, or any other group) is headed. In the traditional notion of strategy, the vision is the starting point. It helps everyone involved decide what to focus on, what horizon we aim for, what boundaries and constraints to be wary of, and subsequently how to set priorities, resolve conflicts, and overcome the inevitable challenges that arise as strategy rolls out.
Take, for example, the state of Dubai, which grew in just a few decades from a desert village into a glittering global financial hub and tourist destination. This development stemmed from the vision of one man, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. Realizing that the region’s oil supply would one day run out, he transformed Dubai into a modern city that would be able to thrive in an oil-free future. The Sheikh’s book, aptly titled My Vision, provided explicit directions, which have been followed diligently since the early 1990s, for achieving a high growth rate. Focusing on excellence in service and industry, he oversaw the development of Dubai with a vision that was clear, direction setting, and left little room for misinterpretation.
Without doubt the Sheikh’s deep pockets of oil wealth have been instrumental in realizing this imagined future — it wasn’t his innovative capacity that got him to accumulate this wealth. And from our contemporary view on management, we can have reservations about aspects of the aristocratic leadership style of the region. But those objections aside, it is evident that his ability to look well into the future and develop a clear and unconventional direction for Dubai stands out in the region. Neighboring countries such as Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar, which similarly accumulated tremendous wealth from their oil reserves, now look up to Dubai as they start to wake up to a reality in which their oil exports and income will begin to diminish in the foreseeable future. But they are 20 years behind Dubai, where the Sheikh saw this inevitable change much earlier and developed the emirate’s post-oil-era direction.
“Unlocking your imagination, freeing yourself from the constraints of existing assumptions, beliefs, and dogmas, is vital to nurturing your visionary capacity.”
Therefore, a vision is the essential starting point from which to develop a strategic agenda that ensures you get where you want to be and helps you tackle any barriers that might come up in the process. “Strategic planning is worthless unless there is first a strategic vision,” the prominent futurist John Naisbitt once said.
A Vision Stretches the Imagination
A potent vision takes us beyond the obvious into the unknown and stretches the boundaries of what we conventionally think up to that point in time. President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 speech to a joint session of Congress, announcing the goal of “put[ting] a man on the moon by the end of the decade,” stretched the imagination of a nation. It became not only a source of patriotic pride, but also a driving force behind a tremendous amount of technological and educational innovation.
Admittedly, it was also fueled by Cold War tensions: The speech was delivered a month after the embarrassment of the Bay of Pigs invasion as well as the Soviet Union’s achievement of manned space flight. After careful examination of their options, President Kennedy and a small group of high-ranking officials concluded that putting a man on the moon was the best way to beat the Soviets. But the challenge was a colossal one. Kennedy stressed, “No single space project . . . 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’s not only these larger-than-life, charismatic leaders who benefit from a vision’s energizing power. It also works for … fairly ‘ordinary’ people.”
It was a powerful long-term perspective that surpassed the obvious, stretching the imagination into unconventional territory without becoming absurd — otherwise it would have quickly lost its power.
A Vision Challenges the Status Quo and Breaks Through Existing Paradigms
In addition to stretching the imagination, a well-developed vision can provide new and previously “unseen” opportunities. Challenging our current way of thinking can help us break through existing paradigms to find fresh ways of working, thinking, and behaving. This is why unlocking your imagination, freeing yourself from the constraints of existing assumptions, beliefs, and dogmas, is vital to nurturing your visionary capacity. We’ll explore this subject more extensively in the next chapter, but let’s briefly look at the story of IKEA to illustrate the point.
Ingvar Kamprad, IKEA’s Swedish founder, became one of the wealthiest people of our time by building an empire on his vision that “design furniture should not only be accessible to the happy few.” He wanted to offer attractive, functional products in a low price range. But this is where the vision ran into difficulties. It either had to overcome barriers—namely, the existing furniture industry model—or remain a dream. Kamprad needed to find a way to get to prices well below standard levels, breaking through the paradigms of traditional thinking (or, in this case, traditional ways of production, distribution, and sales). He challenged the entire model of the furniture industry by handing over the parts and assembly instructions to the end user. Kamprad created a highly efficient model that significantly cut back on production and distribution costs.
IKEA’s philosophy, “You do a little, we do a little, together we save a lot,” succinctly captures the company’s focus on customer involvement and cost savings. Experimentation, challenging conventions, and willingness to embrace failure — all are required to successfully toy with reality, as Kamprad did. Also, at IKEA the path from concept to industry leader wasn’t as smooth as it seems when the story gets retold decades later. The real story was one of trial and error, with some smart ideas and some crazy ones (“Manland,” an area of the store dubbed “daycare for dudes,” may be one of them). But fundamental to the journey was a recognition that the current belief system needed to be challenged in order to reach the “better future.” That’s what a powerful vision can provide.
A Vision Energizes and Mobilizes
Finally, a powerful vision provides something very few other leadership tools can: It has the potential to galvanize those you lead. A vision inspires people to put their best effort into the cause. It unites them around a shared purpose, gives meaning to the day job, and mobilizes them into action. Think of what Martin Luther King, Steve Jobs, and Richard Branson accomplished with their visions.
And it’s not only these larger-than-life, charismatic leaders who benefit from a vision’s energizing power. It also works for people with names such as Peter Kapitein, Scott Brusaw, Chanda Kochhar, Jørn Utzon, Taïg Khris, and Malcolm McLean.…. They are fairly “ordinary” people — probably much more like you and me — who also made a vision work for them by mobilizing people behind their endeavors and dreams, inspiring them with a direction-setting, imaginative, and often paradigm-breaking idea, and following through on them with passion and dedication.
Reprinted from Anticipate: The Art of Leading by Looking Ahead, by Rob-Jan de Jong, published 2015. Reproduced with permission.