Not long ago, a former student of mine reached out to discuss a presentation that they attended regarding leadership. There was a concern because one of the elements professed at the presentation seemingly clashed with something I often emphasize. Evidently, a statement was made that leadership is not about vision. Granted, I was not there, so I do not fully understand the context that was presented. However, I can address some of the concerns provided to me by the student.
Indeed, there are some gurus that might belittle the importance of vision when it comes to leadership. However, from a science of leadership perspective, it would be really difficult to have a discussion about leadership without including the importance of vision. For this, let’s explore just two of the more robust, sought-after, studied, and solid leadership theorems available today. Hopefully, the truth will be easy to see.
- Strategic Leadership: when leaders use creative problem-solving skills, development, and strategic vision to help team members and an organization achieve long-term goals.
- Transformational Leadership: a leadership style that empowers people to accomplish positive change through big vision, development, inspiration, and a call to action.
Granted, these are simplified definitions of both, and more robust definitions can definitely be found. However, you will likely notice the theme. Vision is a central component of both scientifically-backed approaches. There is a very good reason for that.
Vision and leadership are connected at the hip. Vision is what drives direction and transformation and creates buy-in with followers. Without vision, leaders and their organizations operate without purpose or a clear understanding of what success looks like. A simple way to describe this might be “lost.” Without a strong purpose, you often get low impact, low morale, organizational toxicity, distractions, and failure. This has been well studied.
Research finds that vision, leadership, and progress break down when middle managers are not aligned with the vision specifically. In fact, it is well known that the more aligned middle managers are with the vision, the greater the commitment, progress, and odds of achieving that vision are. I share this only to demonstrate the importance of discussing vision when discussing leadership.
Of course, it helps to understand what “vision” truly is. Vision is the target. It is the purpose or the destination. It is the reason for coming together in the first place. I have written about this many times before, but it is the idealistic outcome of our efforts. In fact, many leadership experts would argue that without vision, there is no leadership. To emphasize that point, let’s explore some quotes from various leadership experts.
Dr. Warren Bennis, one of the world’s leading experts on leadership, says that it is a leader’s responsibility to develop a vision for the people and institutions they direct. Specifically, he says, “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”
Dr. John Kotter, the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, Emeritus, at the Harvard Business School, places “Vision” as a critical step in his “The 8 Steps for Leading Change” model.
Harvard Business School professor Abraham Zaleznik once argued that the parts that scientific management misses are the parts that include inspiration, vision, and the full spectrum of human drives and desires.
Margaret Andrews, instructor of Strategic Leadership at the Harvard Division of Continuing Education, says that “Leaders who lead strategically have done the inner work necessary to lead with integrity, vision, and purpose.” Granted, while I would argue that vision and purpose are extremely similar, you can note the emphasis on vision in her choice of words.
These examples go on and on. Hopefully, you have picked up on the theme. Heck, even Tony Robbins has said that you should “Create a vision and never let the environment, other people’s beliefs, or the limits of what has been done in the past shape your decisions.” Excellent advice. Again, notice the emphasis on vision. Of course, he also suggests that you should not let other people’s beliefs shape your decisions. Funny enough, this echoes other highly successful people who tell us not to make personal or organizational decisions to please others. Therein lies one of my many issues with Servant Leadership.
According to just about any legitimate leadership text you might ever read on the topic, Servant leadership defines itself as leaders serving others by putting the needs of others first – even ahead of their own and ahead of the organization’s. This is to suggest that either the leader’s or the organizational vision is not first or perhaps takes a back seat at times. Like going down on a plane, it is usually a bad idea to ignore putting on your oxygen mask before helping others. That in and of itself should raise serious questions about the adherence to such a style, and this is especially true when considering organizational longevity. The point is that it came as no shock to me to discover that the one belittling vision in their presentation was a proponent of Servant Leadership.
Regardless, the question that we need to ask is, “why would anyone suggest that leadership is not vision when so many leadership experts suggest otherwise?” Well, I can think of several reasons. It likely boils down to one of three things: ignorance, manipulation, or a lack of ability.
To begin with, when someone has not actually studied the science of leadership, it is easy to allow bias, pep rally leadership principles, misinformation, and contortion to be their drivers. After all, you cannot really follow or teach what you do not truly know. Of course, this is also a warning to all of those who are questioning the importance of education. Remember that the ignorant are easily led and false empowerment is a very real and dangerous thing. Moreover, the presentation in question had something to sell.
Another reason might be deliberate manipulation. While a nefarious idea, we must admit that there are some people who are willing to destroy the lives of others for any number of reasons. Factor in seemingly popular political and economic trends, and one can imagine several reasons someone might profess ideas that are ultimately dangerous to organizational health.
Another potential reason might be a lack of ability. In truth, being vision-oriented is not possible for everyone. Of course, this might be another demonstration of why not everyone is capable of being a leader. Still, roughly 2 to 3% of all people lack the ability to visualize anything at all. It’s called congenital aphantasia or mind blindness. Basically, this describes the inability to have a mental visual experience. Perhaps the person suggesting such things suffers from this condition and doesn’t want to feel alone?
Granted, congenital aphantasia is the extreme case potential. Conversely, some people can visualize better than most. Minus these extremes, the degree to which people can visualize anything varies from person to person. Meaning some are simply better at it than others. Broken into quarters and tempered with Pareto’s Principle, one can imagine that roughly 20 to 25% of people are capable of visualization to a relatively high degree. Therefore, suggesting that visualizations are not necessary for leadership would definitely appeal more to the masses.
Of course, these are just a few ideas that come to mind. I am not sure why anyone would suggest such a thing. Regardless, if accuracy is important, then my advice is to ignore obvious false claims made by gurus. In fact, I would avoid the gurus altogether. They might be seemingly popular, but they are popular because they say the things that make a lot of people feel good, not because what they say is accurate. Evidently, the presentation in question was a part of a group leadership development program anyway, which also doesn’t work.
Understand that the actual discipline of leadership, the experts that comprise the discipline, and the research that comes from it all make it abundantly clear. Vision is a key component of leadership. Granted, vision is not everything, but it would be darn difficult to have true leadership, and it would be exceptionally difficult to even lead yourself without a vision or purpose. In many ways, that would be like playing a football game without an endzone, a quarterback, or a football.