Like many of you reading this, I’ve long held the belief that being visionary is one of the defining characteristics of a good leader. It’s become such conventional wisdom that it’s the rare person who doesn’t begin his/her definition of a leader with vision.
I don’t know if age brings wisdom, but it does bring many opportunities to change one’s mind. At this point in my life, I believe that vision is overrated.
I’m not saying that vision is not important. It certainly can be. I just don’t see it (as some do) as the most important thing a leader does, or really a pre-requisite for leadership at all. In fact, there may be close to a dozen things I would encourage emerging leaders to develop before vision.
Vision is the sexy side of leadership. It’s usually represented as the big, dramatic moment. That’s probably why it gets so much play and too much hype. We can’t often recall history’s doers or implementers, but we certainly remember the visionaries. The problem here is that we begin to treat leaders as the singular heroes who can move mountains with words.
But, you may be wondering, what about Martin Luther King, Jr.? Isn’t he considered one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century, and isn’t that based upon his vision as described in the “I have a dream” speech? There is a reason that the MLK example is used over and over again. It was special. It was rare and one of a kind. Yes, MLK had a vision. But, it wasn’t his vision alone.
By the time he spoke, his vision had been talked about for decades: all people should be treated equal. He just found a different way to say it. So was it his ability to vision or his ability to communicate that really mattered?
Based on this example, I would encourage leaders to develop the ability to write poetically and speak emphatically before focusing on vision.
And – by invoking MLK only when we talk about visionary leadership, we are selling him short. That speech didn’t create the change he wanted. It was each moment when he, and thousands of his supporters, rolled up their sleeves and worked toward the vision that really mattered.
Isn’t visioning fairly easy as well? For something to be considered the most vital of leadership abilities, I think it needs to be more of a challenge than vision appears to be. At its core, it’s imagining an ideal future. We all do that every day. I can do it right now: “I want a world where every child has two parents devoted to his/her well-being.” It took me 5 seconds to come up with that. Does imagining that make me a leader? Of course not.
Any person can stand in a place and see a far distant destination. Isn’t the person that devises a way to get there more important?
Another problem with our love-affair with vision is that it gives our leaders far too easy a pathway to create radical change. As I grow older, I’m starting to observe that there are very few organizations that actually need radical change. What they need is discipline to their mission and their core values. Discipline is a much greater and much more challenging leadership skill than vision. All types of internal and external forces act against an organization, and it’s the disciplined leader that keeps the group focused on what counts.
Vision also tends to be very personal, and leadership is not. Vision is great for that individual who has the luxury to make an organization into whatever he or she wants it to be. What if that’s not your call? What if you lead a fraternity that has been around for over a century and has core values and purpose? Are you serving that organization best by being a visionary leader or by being a disciplined steward?
In addition, you have others working alongside you. You will likely need to build a collective vision with them. And so again, visioning is not the skill needed here - facilitation skills are.
So – for the educators – perhaps we need to stop asking our fraternity or sorority leaders questions like “what is your vision for your chapter” or “how would your chapter be if you could have it any way you wanted it?” Instead, maybe we should ask “how will you help your chapter fulfill its intended purpose?”
If leaders don’t need vision necessarily, what do they need? As opposed to vision, here are the types of things I would encourage the youngest of leaders to try and develop:
Strategic Thinking. This is the ability to take a big idea and consider all the factors acting in favor or in opposition to the idea. Then, it’s devising implementation strategies – steps to take – that will make the idea happen.
Communication Skills. As I mentioned above in reference to MLK, learn how to write both creatively and concisely. Learn also how to speak and listen in engaging ways. While you do not need to be an extrovert to be a good leader, you do need to communicate well.
Relationship- Building. Have you ever experienced a leader who was big on ideas but couldn’t remember your name? Or someone who was better speaking from a podium than in one-on-one conversations? Did you want to follow those people? Learn how to develop authentic relationships with people long before you learn how to vision.
Critical Thinking. As you grow further as a leader and begin to get involved with complex organizations, you’ll find that instead of being called upon to create a vision, you’ll be more likely called upon to sort through an onslaught of visions and prioritize the most important ones.
The list could go on and on. Listening skills, emotional intelligence, planning skills, negotiation, etc. I’m not sure how far it would take me to get to vision, but it would take a while.
What are your thoughts? Do we put too great an emphasis on vision for leaders?