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Vision: How Leaders See the Invisible

Layne McDonald. Ph.D.

“If you are insecure, guess what? The rest of the world is, too. Do not overestimate the competition and underestimate yourself. You are better than you think.” - Tim Ferriss, Entrepreneur, and Author of “The Four-Hour Workweek” and “Tools of Titans.”

The one thing that distinguishes great leaders from also-rans is the power, depth, and breadth of their vision.

Vision is a strange concept. It is much more than just a goal or purpose. Plans state what we aim to achieve. Visions paint a fuller picture describing our most cherished dreams, hopes, and possibilities.

1. Seeing Possibilities. 

One of the hallmarks of great leaders is the ability to see possibilities that others do not see. Where most of us see just a consignment of goods, leaders see an exciting product that can change someone’s life. Where most of us see an office with space for desks and filing cabinets, leaders see a place where teams can do groundbreaking work. Leaders see budding organizational champions, whereas most see people with names and titles. As George Bernard Shaw said, some people see things as they are and ask, why? I see things that are not and ask, why not?

2. Clear and Compelling. 

Management writer Warren Bennis was fascinated by the ability of leaders to see what the rest of us cannot see. A few years ago, he studied ninety top leaders in the United States. They included the first man to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong. Bennis discovered that, despite their diverse backgrounds, disciplines, and circumstances, these people all had one thing in common: a clear and compelling vision of what they wanted to realize. To them, the idea was not at some point in the future. It was right in front of their eyes.

3. A Vision Without Limits.

Genuinely great leaders do not put limits on their vision. They go for the biggest dream they can imagine, even if it is only realized at some time in the future when they are no longer around. There is a story about the filmmaker Walt Disney who died six years before the opening of the first Disney World. At the opening ceremony, two Disney executives were sitting together. One said that Walt could not have been here to see this. The other replied you are wrong. Walt did see it. That is why it is here. While most of us see no more than three months ahead, outstanding leaders can see several years earlier. Elliott Jaquez of Brunel University believed that one person in a million could see 20 years. The Japanese industrialist Kensuke Matsushita even has a 250-year plan for his business.

4. Drawing Others In. 

Leaders do more than have a vision of what is possible; they articulate it and draw others in. They do this through metaphor, images, and by triggering the innate desire of all people to be part of something big. Compare the visions of the two leading soft drink companies in America in the 1920s. One was a Boston-based company called Moxies. Their stated aim was to sell herb-based drinks. Nothing to get excited about there. The other company’s vision was to quench the thirst of a nation. That company was Coca-Cola. Today, nobody remembers Moxies.

5. Action. 

Without action, visions are just dreams. They are creations of our imagination, no more. But with activity and the ability to see the steps from where we are now to where we can be, dreams become a reality. In Shell UK, managers are taught to develop a quality known as helicopter vision. This is the ability to see across three time zones of the future, as if in a hovering helicopter. You can see the near plains, the middle-range foothills, and the distant peaks. Being able to see all three zones at once harmonizes your tactical actions, your operational planning, and your overall strategy. There is a clear map to the realization of the vision.

We all dream but few of us remember our dreams, let alone act on them. But leaders are different. They are effective in our daily lives and our collective lives. They do this by capturing our dreams, nurturing them with care, and in the fullness of time, helping us bring them to the glorious light of day.

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