Communicating the Vision
A leader without vision is like fish without water. Similarly, a leader incapable of sharing their vision is like an armless person trying to share a warm hug. Statements such as these are visually descriptive and help others visualize the message we are trying to convey. This is a critical leadership skill.
Kouzes and Posner provided a model demonstrating the importance of inspiring a shared vision (Kouzes & Posner, 2012). They state that effective leaders create compelling visions to guide people’s behavior. It is generally accepted that people are more apt to act accordingly when they, too, can visualize what that outcome is likely to be. Hence, a primary function of leadership is to help paint that picture for our people, but leaders must dedicate considerable time to crafting that vision before we share it.
John Maxell once said, “We cannot lead anyone farther than we have been ourselves” (Maxwell, 2001). While I fundamentally disagree with this statement and believe it violates several leadership theorems, I agree that it would be difficult to lead someone to a destination that a leader has not yet clearly visualized. A leader must have a vision, which should be built around the ideas of where, when, what it looks like, and what the outcome will likely be.
The truth is that we can lead others much farther than we have been ourselves, but doing so requires a transformational approach where leaders foresee a robust picture of the future they seek and then communicate that vision effectively to their people. Dr. John Kotter states, “Vision refers to a picture of the future with some implicit or explicit commentary on why people should strive to create that future” (Kotter, 2012). However, we should note that this can take many forms, and the key is to help others vividly see that future in their own minds. No doubt that this can be a difficult task for some. And while Kotter tends to focus on the “appealing picture of the future,” we must also note that a negative picture of the future is quite effective. This is especially true when avoidance is the goal.
For example, imagine being in a rush to get to work. If you decided to go eighty miles an hour down a narrow residential street that has a posted speed limit of thirty miles per hour, your chances of losing control of your vehicle, side-swiping a parked car, hitting or even killing a pedestrian, flipping your vehicle several times after hitting the curb, violently getting ejected from the car through the window, and ultimately parking your vehicle in the front room of a house is rather high. If you live through it, the damage created will be costly, and you will likely spend a considerable amount of time in jail once you have recovered from your numerous injuries. Note that while this is descriptive, specific details were left out so you could imagine the event through the memories and visuals you have already established. One can literally feel the difference between the preceding verses: “Don’t speed down residential neighborhoods because it’s dangerous.”
Kotter suggests a compelling vision is imaginable, desirable, feasible, focused, flexible, and communicable (Kotter, 2012). That is a tall order. However, leaders must also keep in mind that desirable only alludes to the long-term interests of the person receiving the information. This is to say that desirable may not necessarily equate to a positive message. In my previous example, the information was not positive at all. However, avoiding death, destruction, and compulsory recompense by avoiding such reckless behaviors was the desired outcome. Remember that there is often a difference between good and positive information.
As Northouse points out, the vision gives the leader and the organization a conceptual map for where the organization is heading (Northouse, 2016). Sometimes, a leader must demonstrate the vision of heading in the wrong direction while also painting a picture of a better alternative. Regardless of positive or negative, such communication requires leaders to be students of creative and descriptive language to paint and detail the outcomes imagined more effectively. In addition to any map provided, leaders should consistently affix a mental postcard of what the destination looks like to help followers get a sense of what they are striving for or seeking to avoid.
In other words, developing a vision centers around what it is supposed to look like. However, leaders must understand that great descriptive communication includes many vivid sensory details but remains vague enough that it is not overly detailed. Kotter suggests that the keys to communicating a vision effectively include simplicity of the vision, using metaphors when possible, using multiple forums, repetition of that vision, leading by example, explaining the inconsistencies, and understanding that there will be some give-and-take regarding the outcome (Kotter, 2012).
Mostly, leaders craft their words to paint a picture that helps stimulate the mind’s eye, tap into the emotions of those receiving the message, and help followers better bridge with that picture. From there, a leader must repeat that vision often (in various ways) to ensure that their people are incredibly familiar with it. Figurative language, such as analogies and metaphors, are helpful in this task. Still, the details must be organized in a way that helps others understand and see that vision based on what limited information (or imagination) they might have.
Be sure to check out my article titled “The Difficulty of Change and How to Overcome It.”
- Kotter, J. P. (2012). Leading change. Boston (Massachusetts): Harvard Business Review Press.
- Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2012). The leadership challenge. San Francisco, Calif: Jossey-Bass.
- Maxwell, J. C. (2001). Developing the leader within you workbook. Nashville, Tenn: T. Nelson.
- Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice. Los Angeles: Sage.