Why Leaders Need a Clear Vision (And How to Get One)
What do you call a leader without vision?
OK, I know, this is a terrible joke. It’s not funny. But it gets at a fundamental truth that isn’t funny either: if a leader doesn’t have vision, they aren’t doing their job properly. I’m writing about leadership vision because, in the past week, three different roads have led back to the same issue.
Firstly, I’m doing some work with and for The Storytellers, a consultancy practice that helps companies to tell their stories to drive business transformation. They’re great at helping companies get clear on what their vision is, and then turning it into a shareable story so that the whole company can get on board with the vision.
Secondly, I’ve been working with a longstanding client in the legal sector, and we’ve been talking about how now, more than ever, their partners and leaders need a clear vision to bring people back to the office and adjust to the new hybrid way of working – both with colleagues and clients.
And finally, I’ve had covid, not badly thank goodness, but it’s given me brain fog, making it hard to write and think with any vision at all. It made me consider how a lack of vision, for leaders, is a little like being shrouded in a fog that prevents them from charting a clear path towards where they ought to be. And this is a real problem for them, their teams and the companies that they’re working for. Which leads me to ask: Why do leaders need a good vision? What makes a vision good? And how can they create one if vision is lacking?
Why do leaders need a good vision?
Without being clear on where you’re headed, you can’t offer any sense of direction to your team, meaning that they won’t be working to the best of their abilities. Kouzes and Posner, in their brilliant model of Transformational Leadership, see sharing an inspiring vision as critical for good leadership. If you want to be seen as a good leader, you need to provide your team with a clear sense of direction. Without such a vision, your team has no direction. And you’re not a leader. So it’s not enough to say that you’ve got the ‘day job’ to get on with - people to manage - clients to keep happy. This is your day job too. No matter how big or small the scale and scope of your position, nor how much autonomy you have, as a leader you will have a domain of control. You need a vision for this domain of control to be a leader.
Vision in different settings can take a range of forms. If you’re a junior leader, working with a customer service team, for example, then your vision will be very constrained by the layers of strategy and objectives from the managers and leaders above you. If you’re a senior leader, heading up a business unit, for example, then you may have a dizzying array of choice over your vision, as long as it fits in with the company’s wider strategy.
As an aside, you may think that it is unlikely that someone who is heading up a business unit would not have a clear vision and strategy for the work that they are doing. You would be wrong. They can appear to be acting strategically from the outside, and be working towards a future plan, but they can be so busy just getting the work done that they can fail to take the time to step back and think about the future. I see this sort of micro-focus regularly with partners in law firms who are heading up multi-million-pound legal streams. They’re doing business-critical work but it’s just the work that comes in. They don’t think about how it fits into a longer-term vision of what the department wants to be. Some ‘ad hocness’ is a good thing as it can help us to innovate and understand the needs of the market – but to have no direction at all can create problems. It’s like being a rudderless ship. It’s necessary to make choices over what to prioritise when too much work is coming in and to consider when a decision is needed over which work to pitch for.
So what are the hallmarks of a good leadership vision?
1. It tells the team what you want it to achieve.
Its purpose should be to ‘enthuse, gain commitment and stretch performance.’ (Whittington et al., 2020: 9). Coke’s vision statement at the time of writing is: “Our vision is to craft the brands and choice of drinks that people love, to refresh them in body & spirit. And done in ways that create a more sustainable business and better-shared future that makes a difference in people’s lives, communities and our planet.” (Coke, 2021)
Yours may not be as wide-ranging, nor as glossy (Coke probably spent big to get an agency to create this for them), but it should serve a similar purpose: get your team to do what you want them to do, based on your future plans for the team.
2. It should be clearly expressed: a good vision is no more than a short paragraph.
It can be very tempting to have a long and convoluted vision because it’s much easier than focusing on one key area. I remember when I first started working for myself, it was painfully difficult to create any sort of vision because it would be to the exclusion of some of the work that I was then doing because none of it had a clear, unifying narrative. But I needed to create the simple vision of ‘helping leaders to develop their competence and confidence as leaders’ to be able to target this market and do the work that I really wanted to do. I needed to be able to communicate to myself, and to others, what my proposition to the market was. All leaders should be able to do the same so that they know what they are doing, and so that they can get their team, customers and other stakeholders on side. In their seminal HBR article, Collis and Rukstad recommend that you should be able to summarise your future direction in 35 words or less.
3. It operates within business constraints.
If you’re a leader in a larger company or organisation, your vision will be constrained by the company’s wider vision and will need to fit in with it. In its simplest terms, this is aligning with the company’s strategy and objectives, rather than ignoring them or battling against them. For example, if you were running the customer services department for an upmarket department store, you would not want your sole focus to be on cost savings, as this would likely reduce customer perceptions of the brand.
4. It helps build towards the wider business objectives.
You should go further than aligning with business strategy – you should use your vision to actively contribute to the achievement of the strategy. For example, if you are running the HR team for your company, you may find that alongside being able to help them to deliver directly on their objective of keeping overheads down by moving to direct online recruitment, you can also help them to meet their objectives of becoming market leading in their use of AI by finding novel ways to recruit the best AI experts in the field. This strategic fit is critical for your department to make a meaningful contribution to the wider business and should feature in your vision.
The trickle-down benefits of a clear vision.
You should now be able to see that you can and should establish a clear vision for your team and that it doesn’t have to be too long a process. An hour should be enough to create the first draft. Then you should road-test it with your team. Ask them whether they think it’s right, does it leave anything out or place too much emphasis on anything? Do they think anything should be different? This co-creation will help to get them on board, and to improve it. And, importantly, to remember it. The more deeply the vision is instilled into your team, the better they will be at acting in line with it. Even when you’re not around, which will be important if you’re sticking with a homeworking or hybrid model.
In summary, a vision helps everyone in the team to know what they are doing, and you as the leader to feel more confident in the direction you’re taking them in. Leaders need vision, and now you know how to create one.