Leadership advice about finding your “vision” isn’t too hard to come by. The thing is, most of it is pretty egocentric. Vision is too often understood as belonging to an individual leader, rather than something that can be shared by everyone. And when talk turns to a company‘s vision, it becomes more about mission, purpose, and corporate culture–in other words, organizational goals, not leadership.
Is it even possible to be a “visionary” leader without being (or at least being seen as) a self-absorbed egotist? Of course it is, but many leaders don’t understand how to strike that balance. These three shifts in the way leaders talk about vision–their own, their company’s, and how they align–can help make that meaningful to everyone, and still prevent them from coming off as arrogant jerks.
I recently spoke at a conference for IT professionals who develop logistics systems for preparing and delivering meals at hundreds of hospitals and college campuses. When their president got up to speak, he framed his vision like this: “Every day we make sure that 3 million people get fed, and we need to get it right. There is literally nothing in the world more important than that.” Bill George, author of True North and former CEO of Medtronic, has written that he thought of his company not in terms of the number of medical devices it sold, but in terms of the lives those devices helped save.
That’s easier to do, of course, if your company is feeding or healing people. But every business out there is delivering some product or service that makes its customers’ lives better in one way or another. If you can tap into that human element as a leader, suddenly your vision for the organization becomes less about you and more about the accomplishments your whole company is aiming for on behalf of those customers. And you might accidentally end up looking more human yourself.
It might seem like a silly, semantic sleight-of-hand to change “my vision for this company” to “the vision of the company,” but it isn’t. “My vision” suggests that you’re the most important player and that everyone else is expendable. “The vision,” on the other hand, means that what you’re trying to accomplish is more important than any of you individually–including you as the leader or CEO–which means that everyone is equally necessary.
The less of your ego you pack into your vision, the more robust your team spirit will be. And that’s no small matter. After all, you’ll need everyone’s enthusiasm and investment in order to turn that vision into reality.
There are basically zero popular examples of great leaders achieving success without a laser-like focus on what they’re trying to accomplish. But that’s at least partly a function of the (sometimes limited) narratives we choose to tell ourselves about what leadership looks like–and, more important still, it’s no excuse for refusing to hear others out.
Allowing your team members to share their thoughts on how your vision might be altered will make them feel like they’re being listened to–even if you don’t end up taking any of their suggestions. Plus, there’s a chance that your employees might have some decent ideas of their own (which is why you hired them, right?) that you’ll want to incorporate.
No matter how self-possessed and “visionary” great leaders may appear, the truth remains that nothing truly innovative can be pulled off on a large scale by one person. We can build a more inclusive, collaborative–yet no less visionary–form of leadership around that very premise.