One of the most important skills a leader needs to develop is the ability to articulate a vision that employees can attach to and rally around. (Indeed, the word ‘vision’ is such a common part of leadership education that I wouldn’t be surprised if you occasionally have visions about creating a vision.) Having a strong vision for the future of your team, department, company, industry, political policy, or world-changing non-profit is essential in order to build something that can be sustained. Without a solid vision, there’s nothing to work toward. Literally every company, association, community, and country should have a vision of what it is trying to achieve.
So how can you create a great one?
The answer is very simple, and yet something that far too commonly gets overlooked. At its core, a vision is something you can see.
Here’s an example. I’m a member of a committee whose job is to foster and encourage the arts in our community. We recently sat down to articulate what our goals were, and this is the first vision that was proposed:
“We want Midland to be a community that values and celebrates art in all its forms. We believe that art brings people together and helps create a vibrant community and culture, and we will support local artists in their careers in every way we can.”
This is a fine statement. But it is in no way a vision, because there is nothing to see. There are no concrete goals, no actual ideas about what the future looks like beyond a vague goal for art to be valued. And unfortunately, this type of “vision” is extremely common.
I said as much in our committee meeting – which was not popular, by the way, since everyone was quite happy with the “vision” as originally proposed – but I was tenacious and annoying, and eventually we ended up with this:
“We want Midland to be known as a city with a vibrant and thriving arts scene. We are a small town, but in 10 years we will have an arts scene that rivals Detroit or Grand Rapids. Art will be a part of our everyday life through murals, outdoor sculpture, stores that display and sell art made by local artists, an emphasis on our unique architectural treasures, and an annual art fair that draws artists from all across the country”
I’m sure it could be better. It’s also not going to be easy for our 45,000-person town to create an arts scene that rivals those in cities 25 times larger. But the benefit of this vision is that is provides a clear pathway forward. Whether we get there or not, at least everyone knows what we are working for.
This is the great failing of too many “visions” – they offer theoretical goals to strive for without actually articulating what success looks like. Knowing what you want to accomplish is the easy part – I want to have a successful business, I want to retire at 55, I want to raise my kids well. But what does a successful business actually look like to you? What kind of retirement do you want, and how much will that retirement actually cost? And how exactly do well-adjusted kids really think and act?
I’m certain you have ideas about what you want the future to bring. But if you don’t have a clear picture of what you want that future to look like, then you don’t actually have a vision. Figuring out what that picture looks like is not a difficult thing, and that picture can always change as your goals and ideas evolve; for example, I have a very different vision of what a successful business looks like at 41 than I did at 28. Just make sure your vision is something you can see and imagine, something concrete. That’s what separates a true vision from some nice thoughts.