Where Are The Great Visions

by Steve Coats

One of the most disappointing things about many people in senior leadership positions is their unwillingness to formulate and articulate a vision of their organization’s future. Perhaps they don’t feel it is really that necessary. Or maybe they realize just how hard that work truly is, and keep putting it off, silently hoping that someone else will take it on.

Just about everyone who writes, researches or lectures about leadership proclaims the extreme importance of a compelling vision of the future. And it also seems like most managers and executives tend to agree with this, at least intellectually. So then, why is it so infrequently done?

Although there are many ways to answer this, I have come across three sizable obstacles than tend to frequently hamper the visioning efforts of many leaders.

Obstacle One: Accountability

When leaders put forth a vision of the future, they now put themselves into a position of being held accountable for its success. After all, we expect leaders to deliver on their promises. And, we have found that many leaders are not necessarily seeking more accountability in their already overwhelmed lives, especially about things too far down the road. They already feel accountable enough, just related to today’s results.

But the taking on of more accountability, by itself, is seldom the complete issue. Rather, it is the kind or accountability that vision represents. Visions are about the future, about things that have not happened and are not sure bets to happen. Often they are based on technology or relationships that do not even exist at the time the vision is conceived. Being held accountable for something like selling existing products and services to identified customers and targeted prospects is one thing. Being held accountable for delivering something that today is considered infeasible if not impossible, is another matter entirely.

With all the emphasis placed on accountability, it is not surprising that some leaders choose not to put forth much of a clear picture about the future. As much as people work to shape the future, there are always outside forces that are beyond their control. Bottom line: it is very risky to start promoting an ambitious vision that will be considered a rock-solid promise, in an environment that can change in the blink of an eye.

Obstacle Two: Time

Time here is not what you think. It has nothing to do with the apparent lack of time leaders have to think about and then consistently communicate their desired destinations in the future. Time here is related directly to accountability. It means that not only do people hold leaders accountable for delivering on their visions, but they also hold leaders accountable for delivering on them – right now.

Think about this on the world stage. It seems like countries in the Middle East have been going at each other for centuries. Whether the causes are historical, religious, cultural, geographic or economic, they run deep and do not have easy solutions. Although most American Presidents have taken steps to further the peace process, not very many would run an election campaign on a foreign policy vision of peace in that part of the world. Based on experience, peace will not happen overnight, no matter how much we might like it to.

Consider the similar impact of time on big issues closer to home such as health care, social security, homeland security, or energy. Our instant gratification society wants solutions developed and implemented right now. So candidates running for office might make a lot of noise about them while campaigning, but they seldom put a definitive stake in the ground around them. They know challenges like these, even if great progress is made, will not be making much of an impact on voters by the next election. And winning re-election certainly seems to be the most important goal of any newly elected President or congressperson.

It is similar in business. Positive results from grand visions of change are frequently expected to occur almost immediately. If you are a little too slow in reaping profits from new markets overseas or a new industry segment domestically, what might skeptical employees, a cynical media, and an impatient Wall Street likely say about your vision built on international growth or strategic diversification?

It makes one wonder if today a John Kennedy could get away with taking ten years to put a man on the moon, or a Ronald Reagan needing eight years to bring down the Berlin Wall.

Obstacle Three: Getting It Right

The remaining barrier that inhibits leaders from creating and articulating an ambitious vision is the expectation that they have to get it right. People are not always very forgiving when something big does not turn out as expected.

Remember the continuous onslaught of criticism US President George Bush took about his controversial vision of establishing a democratic foothold for the Middle East in Iraq. There was a daily tally of lost lives, tireless rants about the costs, and a great deal of noise questioning Bush’s ability as President. Those comments waned, even from opponents, when the surge proved successful and democratic elections were being held there.

Former P&G CEO A.G. Lafley tells the story of how rival Clorox gave his company a spanking when they tried to introduce a new product into a market clearly dominated by Clorox. P&G leaders took their lumps. Yet, realizing that no one gets it perfect every time, they continued forward in their quest for new growth, pursuing other huge possibilities, which did pay off in some very lucrative ways. There are those in similar circumstances who would pass on the risks (and potential rewards) of any future bold visions, trading them for today’s comfort, predictability and incremental growth at best.

That is the trouble with dealing in the future. One does not know precisely what it takes to get it right. Mistakes are bound to be made, especially on bigger, more breathtaking visions. And sometimes the decision to pursue a vision is correct at the time it is made, but intervening factors over time make the original decision appear to have been misguided. Think about the vision just a few years ago of a strong Japan, fueled by clean nuclear energy. Then consider how that vision may be perceived today in light of the recent disasters there.

I remember hearing Steve Forbes talk a few years ago about their decision to expand operations into Asia. Everything looked promising as they got started, but something unexpected occurred – the SARS outbreak. Although the vision was clear and the business case was solid, I do remember Forbes saying that the timing could not have been worse. No doubt about that! And they took it on the chin for a while. Predictably, there were some who would say in hindsight, that Forbes should have known, or at least figured that something like SARS would happen.

You cannot “Monday morning quarterback” the future. You can do all kinds of “what if” analyses followed by in-depth scenario planning and still end up making mistakes. The fact is, only on rare occasions will leaders get everything right. But do they ever hear about it when things don’t go exactly as planned!

Final Thoughts

So how many of you look forward to being held accountable for delivering something big that has never been done before, in a way that is pretty much mistake-free, and in an expected time frame that is virtually unreasonable to boot? Like it or not, that is the world in which leaders live. But the fact that they must contend with a seemingly unfriendly environment does not relieve them from their duty to provide vision. It just makes it harder.

On the brighter side, we have actually found that most of the top leaders with whom we have worked do have a vision of the future. And many of those visions are quite impressive. So the issue is not so much whether the leader has vision, but to what extent she or he is gutsy enough to communicate it, promote it, live it, and stick with it.

A vision cannot be just the private domain of the leader; it must be shared by all. Getting others to see a different future and believe in it is tough work. However, when this happens, leaders become more confident in and committed to their dreams and much more public about them. They then become even more willing to consistently demonstrate very visible support to the direction they desire to go, in spite of the obstacles that will inevitably get in their way.

A leader’s work is change – to shape and achieve a desired future. The real leaders know there are risks associated with taking a stand for bold visions, and they take them anyway. They accept accountability, the fact that some things just take time, and the truth that they will be wrong at times and may even look foolish. What they don’t tolerate is the status quo, allowing their organizations to drift, by avoiding commitment to a course of action, or caving in every time a critic fires a dissenting comment or opinion.

If you are going to be successful as a leader, you have to be willing to let others know what new, exciting future you are convinced should be created. And you must realize that this future cannot be achieved simply by safely inching along or attempting to slowly tack against the wind. It takes putting forth lofty goals and making bold decisions, regardless of how unpopular or politically risky those might be.