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Effective Leadership - Step 1: Vision

Defining leadership is a tricky proposition. Ultimately, leadership is about performing key activities so well that others follow. Dr. Jack Weber, Professor of Management at the University of Virginia captures it this way:

"The bottom line is that leadership shows up in the inspired action of others. We traditionally have assessed leaders themselves. But maybe we should assess leadership by the degree which people around leaders are inspired."

Believing that simpler is better, I boil this down to three key activities: Vision, strategy, and logistics. They are not separate activities, nor are they solely the purview of senior executives. As we shall see, they are required in different doses at all management levels within an organization.

In this article, we will address the first component, vision. In the next two issues we will cover strategy and logistics.

Regardless of one's level in the managerial hierarchy, there is need for vision. Consider the model espoused by James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras in their Harvard Business Review article entitled "Building Your Company's Vision" (September-October 1996). Reporting on their research, they state that the truly great companies that have endured over time have a vision made up of four parts:

  • Core Purpose
  • Core Values
  • BHAG (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal)
  • Vivid Description
Core purpose is defined as your reason for being, not a goal or business strategy. It will reflect the idealistic motivations the drive people to do the organization's or the department's work.

Core values are the centerpiece of who you are as a department or organization. They exist throughout time and require no external justification because they are of intrinsic value to you and your organization. You know something is a core value if it passes this acid test: Will you continue to hold this value even if penalized for doing so?

Together, the core purpose and core values form an ideology that is generally constant over time. In other words, it endures despite changing circumstances and changing leadership.

Next you need a BHAG, or big, hairy, audacious goal, that is both clear and compelling. It provides a unifying focus for everyone in a manner that is easily grasped. Quick example: "The United States will put a man on the moon by the end of this decade and return him safely to earth." When President John F. Kennedy said this, everyone got it, immediately. It was clear and compelling regardless of your station in life.

Then comes the vivid description. It is what we often equate to vision. It is a vibrant, engaging paragraph describing what it will be like to have achieved the BHAG. The key here is to transform words into images that people can carry around in their heads and recall whenever needed. People need this image or picture to transform the words of the BHAG into something tangible in their minds.

For the executives of any company, this is necessary work. But experience has shown that even at the department level, such comprehensive vision statements serve a vital purpose. Not only do they reinforce the corporate vision statement, but they also serve as a cornerstone for departmental leadership. Can you state your company's vision in these terms? Can your middle managers? Do your middle managers even have a vision statement of their own that motivates them and their people? Vision statements like this are vital because if you don't know where you are going, any path will do.

Copyright 2004 by Richard B. Maxwell III

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