What Leading With Vision Really Means

The essence of farsightedness in business is not simply envisioning a possible successful future—it's being able to articulate it in a way that’s both compelling and inclusive.

We are drawn to leaders who articulate a possible future in a way that speaks to us and includes us. Farsighted leaders use their clarity of vision and their articulation of a successful future to pull people out of fear or shortsightedness and into hopefulness and a sense of purpose.

People want leaders who look beyond today. They want to have the sense there is a master plan to carry them through whatever short-term trials and tribulations arise. (The recession! The crazy media landscape! Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!) They look to the leader to articulate, in a compelling way, a clear and positive future state toward which they can direct their efforts. When leaders focus only on the current crisis or this quarter’s numbers, it seems to us that they’re more interested in maintain the status quo or protecting themselves than in creating a successful future. They are not seen as leaders.

People also want to see that the leader’s farsightedness is based on a deep sense of what’s necessary, right, and good for the business and the team rather than what’s simply expeditious, popular, or self-serving. We want to feel that our leaders’ "far-sight" is focused on the greater good, that their vision promotes the group and not just their own selfish interests. A truly farsighted leader envisions a possible future that responds to and resonates with people’s aspirations for their individual and collective success. When employees or potential employees hear about the good leader’s vision, their visceral response is, "Yes, I want to go there too."

This is not to imply that the visionary leader simply goes for the easy win, then thing to which people will most easily commit. True visionaries often see possibilities where other see difficulty and dead-ends. Most people in the first decade of the twentieth century saw motorcars as a fad for the rich, a frivolous and uncertain fancy that would never replace the dependability of the horse. Henry Ford’s vision of a nation where every family would have an automobile seemed laughable, impossible, and even dangerous. Only the clarity of his vision and his consistency in moving toward it brought the support from others that he needed to make his vision a reality.

This brings up a critical point about farsightedness: the leader must not only articulate her vision; she must live it. It can’t be something she dusts off for quarterly staff meetings. People must witness the vision serving as the leader’s compass. She must use it as a screen for strategy and action. True farsightedness in a leader is both practical and aspirational.

A clear and compelling vision can drive extraordinary business results. It provides a focus for people’s decisions and actions, and it creates that feeling of "tribe" that most people find necessary and motivating.

This quality of leadership is especially important when the enterprise is a new one and the future is uncharted. One stunning example of this kind of farsightedness is how Steve Jobs operated at the start of Apple. When Jobs and Wozniak founded Apple Computers in 1976, the personal computer was still new and untested. Moreover, the idea that almost everyone would one day have a computer and that computers would be as accessible and easy-to-use as televisions or telephones seemed like craziness.

But then along came these two young men with exactly these ideas. And Jobs, especially, continued to articulate this possible future in a way that brought together capital, a workforce, and a marketing plan that ultimately led to the achievement of the future he envisioned thirty-five years ago.

The essence of farsightedness is not only envisioning a possible successful future but also articulate it in a way that’s both compelling and inclusive. Compelling means that it’s meaningful to those who hear it, that it’s attractive to them. Inclusive means they want to help make it happen and feel they can have an important part to play in moving toward it.

Clearly Steve Jobs was able (I encourage you to watch any of his company presentations on YouTube or at the apple.com Web site) to express his vision for the future in this way. In January 1984, when Jobs introduced the first Macintosh computer at Apple’s annual shareholders’ meeting, an attendee described the level of enthusiasm as "pandemonium." As the first commercially successful small computer with a graphical user interface, the Macintosh represented, and still represents, the realization of a vision that was both compelling and inclusive.

How to be farsighted

You may be thinking, Okay, but how do I become more farsighted if that’s not one of my strengths? Fortunately, my colleagues and I have gotten clearer over the years on the specific behaviors that make up each of these leadership attributes.

We start with farsighted. When you deconstruct this element, these are the key behaviors of which it consists:

Leaders who are farsighted:
1.See possible futures that are good for the enterprise
2.Articulate their vision in a compelling and inclusive way
3.Model their vision
4.See past obstacles
5.Invite others to participate in the vision

Related: Don't Be A Power Hog: How Sharing Information, Time, And Authority Makes You A Better Leader and Once Upon A Company: What Fairy Tales Can Teach You About Leadership.

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Excerpted from Leading So People Will Follow (Jossey-Bass; October 2012) by Erika Andersen. All rights reserved.

Erika Andersen is a nationally known leadership coach and the founder of Proteus International, a consulting, coaching and training firm focused uniquely on leader readiness. She is the author of Leading So People Will Follow (Jossey-Bass; October 2012).

[Image: Flickr user Poolski]

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  • Patricia Lotich

    I agree, great leaders pursue a vision that takes the organization somewhere and leads with passion and by example.  Employees will follow this type of leader and engage with the organization to help it fulfill its purpose!  Too many organizations lack this type of leadership and get stuck in the mundane of day-to-day activities.  A true vision, articulated by an impassioned leader, is the best way to get unstuck and moving in a shared direction.

    Great article!

  • Samiei Leila

    We need leaders with vision, mentoring is the basis to make it happen, but to be able to be a great mentor, we need to be above all courageous and inspiring people. People who believe in others and who are willing to take it to the next level without being afraid of their position.
    A trough leader his a great mentor and although people might be insecure or doubt their own abilities a mentor knows how to make them look within their lives and believe in them self’s and truly reveal their potential.
    A leader doesn’t carry anyone, he orientates and he challenges people weaknesses so that people became aware of their own potential and work towards their goals with great determination, teaching others in doing the same.  
    His a on-going process and starts with each of us takes time but it’s worth it.

  • Borg2U

    Best response ever Samiei. The best leaders I have known were tough and driven to succeed. They empowered others to be their best and expected nothing less. Set high standards and people will tend to live up to them. 
    Vision statements and goals conjured up by committee are lost in translation and lose their focus. I have read many and found most inarticulate and unfocussed. The examples given, leaders of industry all, had a self developed vision and single minded focus that drove them and all others that followed. No committees, no group hugs, no feel good platitudes. Often politically insensitive and intolerant, few would survive in todays organizations. Unfortunately.

  • Wz Adm Gr2

    Jak zwykle teoria, która nie bardzo ma odzwierciedlenie w praktyce. Nie sądzę, aby dotyczyło to zjawisko przede wszystkim małych przedsiębiorstw oraz firemek. Górnolotność - nie jest on tożasama z tym artkułem.

  • Tom Tuohy

    Thanks you Erica. To move others and indeed to move the world beyond the comfort zone is critical now more than ever. We are at an inflection point in human history and it will be those who lead with courage and vision who will make all the difference in the world.

  • Chris

    Bennis & Nanus said the same thing 15 years ago:

    “If there is a spark of genius in
    the leadership function at all, it must lie in this ability to assemble – out
    of all the variety of images, signals, forecasts and alternatives – a clearly
    articulated vision of the future that is at once simple, easily understood,
    clearly desirable, and energizing.”

  • affinitymc

    Interesting article, makes me want to buy the book! In my own experience and research, leaders nowadays are torn between boldly stating their vision or waiting for one to percolate to the top in a collaborative milieu of dialogue and debate. Not an easy thing to achieve.

    When one looks at history, certain facets of visionary leadership emerge. While we might want to brand it "hero" leadership, the fact is this style of leadership still exists and above all it works. Think Jobs, Branston, Welch et al. And yes, some of them are collaborative in their style, but not when it comes to their vision (the WHAT and WHY), only when it pertains to the means to achieve the vision (WHO, HOW and WHEN).

  • Born not Made

    Superb, Erika.  It is not often that a 'Commentator' on Leadership has the courage to say exactly what Leadership is; and to put it simply  - if your not inspiring people, your not leading them. 
    Naturaly,this makes for uncomfortable reading for those who do not possess the inate character traits that inspire others.  Most 'Commentators' describe Leaders as having the character traits they have; i.e. grey men, afraid of responsibility and seeking popularity and the avoidance of blame through 'inclusiveness' or 'empowerment' (i.e managers) 
    The essential ingredient is courage.  We're not inspired by men who 'continually question their own motives' etc etc.  If you want to find out what it takes to lead - go and lead; and believe me - once you've 'empowered soietal-members that can participate in the management processes' you soon find yourself being sidelined, then you'll lose oversight and influence, then you'll be ridiculed.  Ask any modern polititian. 

  • Rod Brazier

    Thank you Erika. I wholeheartedly agree that visions must be compelling and inclusive, and that the leader must be seen to embody the vision in all she does. My only reservation is that the article seems to perpetuate the notion of the "hero" leader; one person who is solely responsible for creating and dispensing the vision throughout the enterprise. I believe there is certainly a place for this approach; however, I also believe inclusiveness can be extended to the shaping of a compelling and inclusive vision that is "necessary, right, and good for the business and the team." It is also true that people are more likely to support that which they help create.

  • Jackson

    We all need a vision.  The challenge is some want a vision out of scarcity instead of human innovation and abundance.    

  • Rodders

    Whilst I agree about the principles identified, one should be aware that they applied equally to both Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler and Pol Pot amongst other people that the world would be a better place without!  Beware an over-simplified view of what is good for the followers.  The most important trait of good leaders is to continually question their own motives.

  • Egalitarian

    We need societal-visionaries to help humanity focus on long-term solutions for eliminating want and shortages in areas such as energy and resources constraints. The basis of all wealth is labor (intellectual, spiritual and physical). We need a vision of eliminating business cycles and replacing our outdated incentives and punishment mechanisms.We need a visionary that can revalue our currencies, replace our out modded political systems with empowered societal-members that can participate in the management processes....

  • Pat M.

    Inclusive and compelling are the key words here. Communication on all levels is most important... but some can't do it in a fathomable way for everyone involved. The best leaders are those who can...

  • Rafik Labib

    Truely a compelling article introduced me to think about how to vision and articulate such a vision in a way to make sense for thers to follow, but I think first of self conviction of my vision, that has to come from the inside out, and not only act based on external education where we learn what to do and not how to do. Thanks for an excellent topic.