Leading with Vision: A Few Things You May Not Know But Can Use
That vision is critical to leadership should not surprise anyone. It is one of the more frequently discussed concepts in both the leadership literature and in popular books about leaders and leadership. It is very easy to find corroborations to the importance of vision from both accomplished leaders and those who write about leadership in the popular press.
Billionaire hedge fund manager and liberal activist Tom Steyer said, “Clarity of vision is the key to achieving your objectives.” Best-selling author Peter Senge wrote: "Visions are exhilarating. They create the spark, the excitement that lifts an organization out of the mundane." The late Notre Dame president Fr. Ted Hesburgh wrote, “The very essence of leadership is that you have to have vision. You can't blow an uncertain trumpet.”
While quotes from leaders and popular books generally have little basis in science, this is one case where research backs them. Probably the single most-supported theory of leadership – transformational leadership theory – places inspirational motivation emanating from visionary leadership front and center.
Similarly, research has shown that the single most effective – and also least widely used – influence tactic in everyday managerial behavior is inspirational appeals, which involve stating the core guidelines behind a request. No leadership scholar would argue that vision is all there is to leadership, but I know of no one who disputes that it matters.
Thus, one takeaway from the literature is that as leaders, we can be more effective if create in our teams and organizations a compelling view of where we’re headed and why.
Even when making more mundane requests, we more often need to articulate the underlying reasons behind our requests and what broader goals or values the request helps achieve. When I teach this to managers, some protest: “People already know this.” My response: Is it really a problem to repeat your core values or strategic goals? And isn’t it often the case that we assume people know things they don’t?
It’s important to remember that the research supporting the importance of inspirational appeals – and their underuse – was done with actual requests made by practicing managers. I’ve even collected data from my own executive MBA students that similarly supports the use of inspirational appeals.
While articulating a vision is important, how it is communicated matters a lot too. One of the central ways in which the potential power of our vision message is weakened is through what researcher Andrew Carton calls the ‘blurry vision bias’. As noted by Carton et al. (2014):
Most leaders exhibit a "blurry vision bias" in which they (1) provide conceptual (rather than concrete) visions and then (2) communicate a number of values that further obscures the vision. Together, both actions provide a vague sense of purpose rather than a concrete and clear one.
So the message is clear: To articulate a vision so that it has the influence we would want, we have to do two things:
- Use concrete imagery over abstract concepts. In one of Carton’s studies, they contrasted the strong and weak way to communicate such imagery:
Weak imagery condition: "Our vision is that our toys—all of them made to perfection by our employees—will be enjoyed by all of our customers."
Strong imagery condition: "Our vision is that our toys—all of them crafted flawlessly by our workers—will make wide-eyed kids laugh and proud parents smile."
The lesson is to use imagery over language – describe what the vision looks like and how it manifests itself. We are, in short, painting the picture.
- Leaders must articulate only a few values. The research shows that, perhaps in a tendency to be thorough and inclusive, many companies articulate too many values. It’s easy to do. AT&T, for example, identifies eight core values. IBM identifies only three, but then when defining what those mean, has 12 behavioral elements underneath those. JP Morgan Chase does basically the same thing. If you look at the values statements of most organizations, there is, quite simply, too much information there for anyone to keep uppermost in their mind. Steve Jobs, by contrast, had a different perspective. He said, “It’s a complicated and noisy world, and we’re not going to get a chance to get people to remember much about us. No company is. So we have to be really clear about what we want them to know about us.”
Values articulate what is very important to vision development and communication. Values, after all, will tell people what the vision is all about. But we need to remember that in this area, less is most definitely more.
If an organization feels it must identify more than one or two cherished values, I think it needs to pull out one or two of those as cardinal. Moreover, it also matters practically how you describe them.
If you think you have to make a list that involves a lot of text, forget it. People simply aren’t going to remember that much information.
I know many people will say that’s too reduced, and of course in some ways it is. It’s not as if any company can afford to care about only one or two things. If you get much beyond this, your company is going to fall into the blurry vision bias.
Recognize that this is a reductive process – the more values (and elaboration) you add, the more you subtract from what is already in there. It’s also true that more values you identify, the more you sound like everybody else.
To conclude, the message of today is the following:
- Communicating a vision of the future is one of the most important things a leader can do.
- The key to communicating a vision effectively is to use imagery and emphasizing one to two cardinal values supporting that vision.
- Do these things as often as possible. Like a pilot going through a pre-flight check before every flight, it’s OK to repeat yourself with something so vital!
Carton, A. M. (2018). "I'm Not Mopping the Floors, I'm Putting a Man on the Moon'': How NASA Leaders Enhanced the Meaningfulness of Work by Changing the Meaning of Work. ADMINISTRATIVE SCIENCE QUARTERLY, 63(2), 323-369.
Carton, A. M., & Lucas, B. J. (2018). HOW CAN LEADERS OVERCOME THE BLURRY VISION BIAS? IDENTIFYING AN ANTIDOTE TO THE PARADOX OF VISION COMMUNICATION. ACADEMY OF MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, 61(6), 2106-2129.
Carton, A. M., Murphy, C., & Clark, J. R. (2014). A (BLURRY) VISION OF THE FUTURE: HOW LEADER RHETORIC ABOUT ULTIMATE GOALS INFLUENCES PERFORMANCE. ACADEMY OF MANAGEMENT JOURNAL, 57(6), 1544-1570.
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