The Indispensable Quality Of Leadership: Vision

Robert K. Greenleaf, in his book The Servant as Leader, says, “Foresight is the ‘lead’ that the leader has. Once he loses this lead and events start to force his hand, he is leader in name only. He is not leading; he is reacting to immediate events and he probably will not long be a leader. There are abundant current examples of loss of leadership which stem from a failure to foresee what reasonably could have been foreseen, and from failure to act on that knowledge while the leader has freedom to act.”
My observation over the last twenty years has been that all effective leaders have a vision of what they must accomplish. That vision becomes the energy behind every effort and the force that pushes through all the problems. With vision, the leader is on a mission and a contagious spirit is felt among the crowd until others begin to rise alongside the leader. Unity is essential for the dream to be realized. Long hours of labor are given gladly to accomplish the goal. Individual rights are set aside because the whole is much is more important than the part. Time flies, morale soars upward, heroic stories are told, and commitment is the watchword. Why because the leader has a vision!

All that is necessary to remove the excitement from the preceding paragraph is one word—vision.  Without it, energy ebbs low, deadlines are missed, personal agendas begin to surface, production falls, and people scatter.

Helen Keller was asked, “What would be worse than being born blind?” She replied, “To have sight without vision.” Sadly, too many people are placed into leadership positions without a vision for the organization that they will lead. All great leaders possess two things: They know where they are going, and they are able to persuade others to follow. They are like the sign in an optometrist’s office: “If you don’t see what you want, you’ve come to the right place.” This chapter will deal with the leader’s foresight and the ability to gather people around it.

The word vision has perhaps been overused in the last few years. The first goal of many a management workshop is to develop a statement of purpose for the organization. Others will look at you oddly if you cannot recite your organization’s purpose by memory and produce a card with the statement of purpose printed on it.

Why all the pressure to develop a purpose for your organization? There are two reasons. First, vision becomes the distinctive, rallying cry of the organization. It is a clear statement in a competitive market that you have an important niche among all the voices clamoring for customers. It is your real reason for existence. Second, vision becomes the new control tool, replacing the 1,000 page manual that is boxy and constrains initiative. In an age when decentralization all the way to the front line is required to survive, the vision is the key that keeps everyone focused.


Vision Statements

What you see is what you can be. This deals with your potential. I have often asked myself: Does the vision make the leader? Or, does the leader make the vision?

I believe the vision comes first. I have known many leaders who lost the vision and, therefore, lost their power to lead. People do what people see. That is the greatest motivational principle in the world. Stanford Research says that 89 percent of what we learn is visual, 10 percent of what we learn is auditory, and 1 percent of what we learn is through other senses.

In other words, people depend on visual stimulation for growth. Couple a vision with a leader willing to implement that dream and a movement begins. People do not follow a dream in itself. They follow the leader who has that dream and the ability to communicate it effectively. Therefore, vision in the beginning will make a leader, but for that vision to grow and demand a following, the leader must take responsibility for it.


Four Vision-Levels of People

  1. Some people never see it. (They are wanderers.)
  2. Some people see it but never pursue it on their own. (They are followers.)
  3. Some people see it and pursue it. (They are achievers.)
  4. Some people see it and pursue it and help others see it. (They are leaders.)

Hubert H. Humphrey is an example of “what you see is what you can be.” During a trip to Washington, D.C., in 1935, he wrote this in a letter to his wife: “Honey, I can see how someday you and I just apply ourselves and make up our minds to work for bigger and better n someday live here in Washington and probably be in government, politics, or service. … Oh, gosh, I hope my dream comes true—I’m going to try anyhow.


You see what you are prepared to see.

This deals with perception. Konrad Adenauer was correct when he said, “We all live under the same sky, but we don’t all have the same horizon.”

Automobile genius Henry Ford came up with a revolutionary plan for a new kind of engine. We know it today as the V- 8. Ford was eager to get his great new idea into production. He had some men draw up the plans and presented them to the engineers.

As the engineers studied the drawings, one by one they came to the same conclusion. Their visionary boss just didn’t know much about the fundamental principles of engineering. He’d have to be told gently—his dream was impossible.

Ford said, “Produce it anyway.”

They replied, “But it’s impossible.”

“Go ahead,” Ford commanded, “and stay on the job until you succeed, no matter how much time is required.” For six months they struggled with drawing after drawing, design after design. Nothing. Another six months. Nothing. At the end of the year Ford checked with his engineers, and once again they told him that what he wanted was impossible. Ford told them to keep going. They did. And they discovered how to build a V-8 engine.


Henry Ford and his engineers both lived under the same sky, but they didn’t all have the same horizon.

In A Saviour for All Seasons, William Barker relates the story of a bishop from the East Coast who many years ago paid a visit to a small, Midwestern religious college. He stayed at the home of the college president, who also served as professor of physics and chemistry. After dinner the bishop declared that the millennium couldn’t be far off, because just about everything about nature had been discovered all inventions conceived.

The young college president politely disagreed and said he felt there would be many more discoveries. When the angered bishop challenged the president to name just one such invention, the president replied he was certain that within fifty years men would be able to fly.

“Nonsense!” sputtered the outraged bishop. “Only angels are intended to fly.”

The bishop’s name was Wright, and he had two boys at home who would prove to have greater vision than their father.  Their names were Orville and Wilbur. The father and his sons both lived under the same sky, but they didn’t all have the same horizon.  How can this be? Why is it that two people can be in the same place at the same time and both see entirely different things? It’s simple. We see what we are prepared to see, not what is. Every successful leader understands this about people and asks three questions: What do others see; why do they see it that way; and how can I change their perception?


What you see is what you get.

God’s gift to me is my

potential.  My gift back to

God is what I do with that


The following illustration originated in Luis Palau’s book “Dream Great Dreams”(1984, Multnomah Press).

Think about how nice and refreshing it is to taste a cold Coke. Hundreds of millions of people around the world have enjoyed this experience, thanks to the vision of Robert Woodruff  During his tenure as president of Coca-Cola (1923-1955), Woodruff boldly declared, “We will see that every man in uniform gets a bottle of Coca-Cola for five cents wherever he is and whatever the costs.” When World War II had ended, Woodruff stated that before he died he wanted every person in the world to have tasted Coca Cola. Robert Woodruff was a man of vision!

With careful planning and a lot of persistence, Woodruff and his colleagues reached their generation around the globe for Coke.

When Disney World first opened, Mrs. Walt Disney was asked to speak at the Grand Opening, since Walt had died. She was introduced by a man who said, “Mrs. Disney, I just wish Walt could have seen this.” She stood up and said, “He did,” and sat down. Walt Disney knew it; he saw it. What you see is what you get.

At this point, I feel compelled to ask a question before we go on to the subject of personal ownership of a vision: “Is my dream going to make a difference in the world in which I live?”

Bobb Bichl, in his book “Increasing Your Leadership, says, “Keep in mind the difference between a winner’s and a loser’s mentality. Winners focus on winning big– not just how to win, but how to win big.  Losers, however, don’t focus on losing; they just focus on getting by!’’

Keep asking yourself, “Survival, success or significance?” Are you striving to simply survive, are you dreaming about success, or are you really out to make a truly significant difference?

Moishe Rosen teaches a one-sentence mental exercise that’s an effective tool in dreaming. It is simply this:


If l had ___________________________________________

I would___________________________________________


If you had anything you wanted—unlimited time, unlimited money, unlimited information, unlimited staff all the resources you could ask for, what would you do? Your answer to that question is your dream. Make it worthwhile.

One day Lucy and Linus had a chicken wishbone and were going to pull it to make a wish. Lucy explained to Linus that if he got the bigger half of the wishbone his wish would come true. Linus said, “Do I have to say the wish out loud?” Lucy said, “Of course. If you don’t say it out loud it won’t come true.” So Lucy went ahead and made her wish first. She said, “I wish for four new sweaters, a new bike, a new pair of skates, a new dress, and one hundred dollars.” Then it was time for Linus to make his wish. He said, “I wish for a long life for all of my friends, I wish for world peace, I wish for great advancements in medical research.” About that time, Lucy took the wishbone and threw it away. She said, “Linus, that’s the trouble with you. You’re always spoiling everything.”


Personal Ownership Of A Vision

Rick Warren, a well known writer says, “If you want to know the temperature of your organization, put a thermometer in the leader’s mouth.” Leaders can never take their people farther than they have traveled. Therefore, the focus of vision must be on the leader—like leader, like people. Followers find the leader and then the vision. Leaders find the vision and then the people.

I am asked many questions when I speak at leadership conferences throughout the country. One of the most common questions asked by those in leadership positions is: “How do I get a vision for my organization?’’ This question is crucial. Until it is answered, a person will be a leader in name only. Although I cannot give you a vision, I can share the process of receiving one for you and those around you.


Look Within You: What Do You Feel?

Theodore Hesburgh said, “The very essence of leadership is that you have a vision. It’s got to be a vision you can articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.” An “uncertain trumpet” is usually the result of an individual who either lacks a vision or is trying to lead with someone else’s dream. Certain trumpet sounds come forth from a leader who has birthed a vision from within. There is a vast difference between a person with a vision and a visionary person.\

  • A person with a vision talks little but does much.
  • A visionary person does little but talks much.
  • A person with a vision finds strength from inner convictions.
  • A visionary person finds strength from outward conditions.
  • A person with vision continues when problems arise
  • A visionary person quits when the road becomes difficult.

Many great people began life in the poorest and most humble of homes, with little education and no advantages. Thomas Edison was a newsboy on trains. Andrew Carnegie started work at $4 a month, John D. Rockefeller at $6 a week. The remarkable thing about Abraham Lincoln was not that he was born in a log cabin, but that he got out of the log cabin.

Demosthenes, the greatest orator of the ancient world, stuttered! The first time he tried to make a public speech, he was laughed out of the rostrum. Julius Caesar was an epileptic.  Napoleon was of humble parentage and far from being a born genius ( he stood forty-sixth in his class at the Military Academy in a class of sixty-five). Beethoven was deaf, as was Thomas Edison.  Charles Dickens was lame; so was Handel. Homer was blind; Plato was a hunchback; Sir Walter Scott was paralyzed.

What gave these great individuals the stamina to overcome severe setbacks and become successful? Each person had an inner dream that lit a fire which could not be extinguished. Great visions begin as an “inside job.” Napoleon Hill said, “Cherish your visions and your dreams as they are the children of your soul; the blueprints of your ultimate achievements.”


Look Behind You:

What Have You Learned?

A person without experience sees a vision idealistically. To that individual the vision alone is enough. Naively this person casts the vision to others, expecting the dream to do the work and failing to realize that a vision needs support. A person with experience learns that people buy into the leader before they buy into the vision. Experienced leaders realize that people are fickle and dreams are fragile. Experience has taught me these principles about vision.

  • The credibility of a vision is determined by the leader.
  • The acceptance of a vision is determined by the timing of its presentation.
  • The value of a vision is determined by the energy and direction it gives.
  • The evaluation of a vision is determined by the commitment level of people.
  • The success of a vision is determined by its ownership by both the leader and the people.

Leonard Lauder, president of Estee Lauder, said, “When a person with experience meets a person with money, the person with experience will get the money. And the person with the money will get the experience.”


Look Around You:

What Is Happening To Others?

A little boy attended his first symphonic concert. He was excited by the splendid hall, the beautiful people in their formal finery, and the sound of the large, enthusiastic orchestra. Of all the instruments in the orchestra, however, his favorite was the cymbals. The first loud, dramatic crash of those brass disks won him over without reservation. He noticed, though, that most of the evening the cymbal player stood motionless while the other musicians played. Only occasionally was the cymbal player called upon to make his contribution, and even then his time of glory was quite brief.

After the concert, the little boy’s parents took him backstage to meet some of the musicians. The little fellow immediately sought out the cymbalist. “Say, mister,” he said sincerely, “how much do you need to know to play the cymbals?” The musician laughed and answered, “You don’t have to know much at all. You only have to know when.”

A good idea becomes great when the people are ready. The individual who is impatient with people will be defective in leadership. The evidence of strength lies not in streaking ahead, but in adapting your stride to the slower pace of others while not forfeiting your lead. If we run too far ahead, we lose our power to influence.


Look Ahead Of You:

What Is Big Picture?

This question often separates leaders from managers. Leaders are concerned with the organization’s basic purpose–why it exists and what it should achieve. They are not preoccupied with the“how to” or nuts and bolts aspect of the operation.


Look Above You:

What Does God Expect Of You?

Richard E. Day said, “Every golden era in human history proceeds from the devotion and righteous passion of some single individual. There are no bona fide mass movements; it just looks that way. There is always one man who knows his God and knows where he is going.”

God’s gift to me is my potential. My gift back to God is what I do with that potential. I believe great leaders sense a “higher calling”—one that lifts them above themselves. What a terrible waste of life to be climbing the ladder of success only to find when you reach the top that you were leaning against the wrong building. Great visions are bigger than the person. My definition of success is:

Knowing God and his desires for me;

Growing to my maximum potential; and

Sowing seeds that benefit others.


Look Beside You:

What Resources Are Available To You?

A vision should be greater than the person who has it. Its accomplishment must be the result of many people bringing many resources to the job. Many times I have read the speech of President John F. Kennedy that cast the vision of America landing on the moon during the decade of the ‘60s. That dream captured the people and resources of our country and became a reality.

The experienced leader is always looking for others to make the dream come true. John Maxwell remembers what the top priority was when his vision was for the twenty-five million dollar relocation of the company he led; to develop and find winners to help make the vision a reality. He continually evaluated the progress of this relocation project by the commitment of the people.

Too often leaders hesitate to test the commitment levels of those around them. What is the result? They are never sure where the project stands, or where their people stand. John remembers well the conclusions he felt when they finished their first four million dollar fund-raising effort. They had all worked hard, and he knew where the people stood.

The leader continually passes on the vision to those who come around, knowing that dreams, if presented right, are contagious.

In the movie Tucker: The Man and His Dream, Abe, the bottom-line businessman and beleaguered bookkeeper for Preston Tucker, who conceived a radical new automobile—a low cost car with fuel injector, rear-mounted engine, disc brakes, pop-out windows, seat belts, and aerodynamic design—caught Tucker’s dream.

Despite a misremembered warning from his mother, he bought a share of Tucker’s idealism.

Abe thought his mother said, “Don’t get too close to people, you’ll catch their dreams.”

Years later he realized she had said, germs, not dreams.


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