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Three of the most important attributes required for great leadership are: vision, creativity and imagination. Many times these are lumped together and the fine nuances between the three are lost. We often hear that someone is creative and imaginative or has vision and creativity. People refer to these traits as though they were synonyms. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are mutually independent characteristics. You can be creative but lack vision. You can have imagination but lack creativity. Today I would like to look at the issue of vision and the place it should have in your organization. However, let us first look at the role that vision has played in the theater of history and destiny.

John Man in his book “The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan” notes that Genghis Khan was a leader of exceptional vision and modernity. Furthermore, Man states that vision, direction and ambition were the key leadership traits that Genghis Khan possessed and used to conquer and administrate his vast empire. Genghis Khan’s vision was the unification of China, that later evolved into global conquest.

Napoleon had a vision of a unified Europe. We may feel that war has no value in such visions, but this assertion allows us the luxury or arrogance of judging history by 21st century standards. One could ask if Europe might not have been better off if Napoleon’s dream had been realized. Would the world have suffered through WW1 and WW2 if there had been a united Europe? What if Alexander’s dream of making Greek democracy the dominant world system had been realized in 320 BCE? Would we be facing a Middle East where terrorism seems rampant and we are bogged down in wars that seem to have no ending?

But what exactly is a vision? It has been said that when you link goals and action items to a vision, it becomes a plan, but where does the vision come from in the first place? Why do so many people and organizations seem to have a plan but no vision? Many organizations every have a mission statement but no clear vision. We have five year and twenty five year plans but seldom do we see five year or even one year visions. You can have a vision and no plan or a plan and no vision but the more common state of affairs is a plan without a vision. Take the following test. Select ten companies that you own stock in, you admire or you think would be great companies to work for. Now go online and see how many of these have a strong and clear vision statement.

For example, let’s take 3M. Go to Google and type in “3M Vision statement.” Here is what you will find:

3M Brand Identity Vision
We earn customer loyalty and respect when we effectively differentiate from our competition, communicate and reinforce the 3M brand strategy. The 3M brand identity standards serve to continually reinforce our frame of reference and the 3M brand promise.

Unnh?? Do you know what this means? Does anyone at 3M know what it means? Do you think the average 3M employee comes to work saying: “Today I am going to work hard to continually reinforce our frame of reference and the 3M brand promise.” By the way, what is the 3M brand promise?

Ok, let’s try another company. How about Microsoft? Go to Google and type in “Microsoft Vision Statement.” Here is what you will find:

Microsoft: A Vision and Strategy for the Future
Diversity and inclusion are integral to Microsoft’s vision, strategy and business success. We recognize that leadership in today’s global marketplace requires that we create a corporate culture and an inclusive business environment where the best and brightest diverse minds—employees with varied perspectives, skills, and experiences–work together to meet global consumer demands. The collaboration of cultures, ideas, and different perspectives is an organizational asset and brings forth greater creativity and innovation.

This is the first of four paragraphs relating to Microsoft’s vision and strategy. It is alternately referred to as a vision statement for global diversity and inclusion. This latter interpretation seems to be closer to what this statement is about than a corporate vision. Are you inspired by Microsoft’s vision? Would you know what it means for you as an employee? What is Microsoft’s ultimate goal?

Let’s review the purpose of a vision: Here are some suggested purposes for a vision or statement of vision:

•Vision statements are the inspiring words chosen by successful leaders to clearly and concisely convey the direction of the organization. By crafting a vision statement, you can powerfully communicate your intentions and motivate your team or organization to realize an attractive and inspiring common vision of the future.

•Vision statements define the desired or intended future state of an organization or enterprise in terms of its fundamental objective and/or strategic direction. Vision is a long term view, sometimes describing how the organization would like the world in which it operates to be.

As a pragmatist, I believe that all employees should share in the vision of the organization. How do we expect anyone to go beyond mere organizational compliance and conformance if they do not buy into and subscribe to a larger vision for their company? However, as a realist, I have to admit that the visions of many great companies are only known to the founder or senior leaders. How many people knew what Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Steven Jobs or Sergei Brin’s visions were? Most visions are not adequately shared or understood by the followers of such visions. Nevertheless, there are still powerful visions at play in the development of any great country or organization. The more powerful the vision, the greater the achievements usually are. Thus, the greatest mistake is not to have a vision without a leader but to have a leader without a vision or with an insignificant vision that is not worth the effort.

Great visions inspire great efforts. It has been that way down through history and it is no different now. The Bible says in Proverbs 29:18 “Without a vision, the people will perish.” Great leaders know that great visions are essential for the development of great strategies. Why then do so many organizations lack inspiring and noteworthy visions? We have many great organizations in the world and we have many great leaders. The answer lies in an observation that I have made over many years of consulting. When the founder leaves the organization, the organization struggles or starts a slow spiral into decline and mediocrity. This suggests to me that no doubt the power of the founder’s vision and ideals was somehow imbued in the very fiber of the organization. Once the leader left, the vision gradually diminishes until any remnants of it are non-existent. Unless, a new leader comes along who can instill some of the old spirit into the organization (or as has recently happened with Apple, Dell, Google and Starbucks, the old leader returns) the organization will decline and die.

The task of the leader is to think long-term. This means insuring that the vision they have for the organization becomes part of the organizations DNA. This is a task that is seldom done. Perhaps too few leaders think ahead to when they will die or leave the organization. The task of creating a vision often gets delegated to a committee or task force of senior executives. The result is a mediocre and lackluster statement that does not seem to be tied to any real values or goals that are exciting and worth following.

Here is a paradox. A vision must be realistic but idealistic. A vision is a dream coupled with the belief that such a change or transition is possible. Consider the “Vision” of Dr. Martin Luther King:

“I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

The power of this dream is unmistakable. MLK paints a picture of something that did not exist but it also does not seem impossible. He paints an alternate picture of reality. There is a saying that if a human can dream it, another human can create it. Great visions are inspired by dreams of what the world can be. Great visions are always positive and forward thinking. To have a great vision, you must have great dreamers who can translate their dreams into a vision of reality that each individual can literally see. If you can’t picture it, it is not a vision.

The leaders role is to create that vision for his/her followers. If you want to call this the role of leadership, that is fine. I believe that a team of leaders could create a great vision although history shows this to seldom be the case. However, if a team of individuals were all moved by the same spirit of creativity, commitment, imagination and value to others, I see no reason why they could not create a great vision statement.

You may ask, who decides whether or not a vision is great. The answer is simple. Have you created an organization where employees come to work because they have something to believe in or do they simply come to work for the paycheck? I think it is fair to say most of us want to work for a purpose or cause or product that we feel contributes value to others. When an employee feels that value in their effort, you do not have to worry about their work ethic or their loyalty to your organization.

Do not be daunted by the task of creating or translating your vision into a reality that everyone can see.  There are many ways this can be done.  What is more important is that employees see the vision being lived in the work, services and products of the organization.  Perhaps once a year, the Vision should be measured in terms of how close you have come to achieving it.  If the vision can be seen as having a substantive reality, it will become a goal or dream that everyone can share.  Visions evolve and as the world changes, your vision may change. If you are lucky or successful, perhaps you will attain your vision in your lifetime.  For most of us, it will remain a rather elusive dream that motivates and inspires our daily work and life.  A life with purpose is truly a life worth living.

The first of the six traits that I believe all great leaders have is Discipline.  Great leaders exhibit extreme self-discipline and develop the same discipline in their followers. The power of discipline accounts for a large amount of their success.  But what is discipline?  A definition from Wikipedia is as follows:

In its most general sense, discipline refers to systematic instruction given to a disciple. To discipline thus means to instruct a person to follow a particular code of conduct “order.” Discipline is the instant willingness and obedience to all orders, respect for authority, self-reliance and teamwork. The ability to do the right thing even when no one is watching or suffer the consequences of guilt which produces pain in our bodies, “through pain comes discipline.” –United States Marine Corps

I think the juxtaposition of pain and discipline is interesting. I firmly believe that the willingness to exhibit discipline is mitigated by the pain and suffering that one is willing to maintain.  Pain and suffering are essential elements in the accomplishment of all great efforts. Whether you want to lose weight, gain six pack abs, become CEO or simply retire with enough money in the bank to overcome worries about finances, pain is a corollary to discipline.  We entail pain when we put off eating more than we need, when we exercise though we would rather watch TV or when we forego some leisure time to paint our house or wash our car.  

Pain may sound like too strong a word to describe the accompanying feelings, but it focuses our attention.  Perhaps too many people today now believe that desire is enough to achieve what they want.  That they can play all day and not have to pay the piper when the storm comes or that somehow they are entitled to success.  Magazines, TV and radio shows all trumpet the achievements of celebrities who were somehow born lucky or became overnight sensations.  Seldom if ever does the public see the private pain, deprivation, hard work and discipline that are behind the lives of these celebrities.  The public is brought up on a carnival and fantasy ride that leads it to think success is simply being in the right place at the right time. 

Hannibal is famous for crossing the Alps with 100 elephants and 50, 000 men. How many people realize that nearly half his men died in the crossing and only 10 elephants survived, most of which died shortly afterwards?  Can you imagine the difficulty of crossing the Alps into Italy only to be met by an army which was three times larger than yours?  Most men would have given up and sought the shortest way to return home. However, Hannibal’s pledge to his father when he was 12 years old to avenge Rome may have been one reason for his discipline.  Hannibal was focused on protecting Carthage and defending it against Roman imperialism.  Hannibal could endure any suffering as long as it brought him closer to his goal. This is a working definition of discipline.

Napoleon could spend the entire day in his saddle during a battle.  He was everywhere on the battlefield to rally his troops and to show his visibility and support for their effort. Even when wounded Napoleon would refuse to leave his troops.  Napoleons mother was a strict disciplinarian and it is said Napoleon often went to bed hungry to teach him self-discipline.  Napoleon wrote “I have never found the limit for my capacity for work.”  Napoleon was not a shirker; he did not try to get out of the hard work.  Napoleon was guided by the vision of a united Europe much as Alexander was guided by the vision of spreading democracy through the world.  Discipline is an unwavering belief in the justice of your goals.  Napoleon believed in the vision that he set for Europe.  Discipline kept him focused on his vision through the hardship and attacks of most of the rest of Europe.  

Discipline is a belief in the value of your products and services.  The core purpose of business is to provide value to the world and specifically to stakeholders.  If we are producing products and services that we believe in, we should be willing to go the extra mile to sell and promote our goods.  How many of us today would suffer pain or deprivation to promote our business?  How much pain or deprivation would you suffer to uphold the good name of your products and services?  The news seems full of entrepreneurs who seem to exist for the sole purpose of making a quick buck.  Suffering and pain would be far from the thought of many of them as they take advantage of others for their own gain and profit.  How many CEOs would willingly suffer for their employees?  When Caesar was warned that he might be assassinated, he went to the senate anyway.  How many business leaders will take responsibility for their failures and fall on their own swords?  Indeed, the norm seems to be to blame others or to find a “bankruptcy” escape route while hiding as many personal assets as one can.  Bonuses seem to abound even in the face of layoffs.  Who in leadership has the discipline to suffer along with their troops?

Take discipline.  Bake it with the five other traits that I am going to discuss and you have the makings of a great leader.  Without discipline, you have nothing and are nothing.  You can pretend, you can play games, you can wish, you can hide, but you cannot run from the fact, that discipline is an essential ingredient to greatness. Everything else without discipline is trivial and ephemeral. With discipline comes pain.  If you are not willing to take pain then as Harry Truman said “get out of the kitchen.” Leaders without discipline are like salt without the saltiness, they are fit only to be discarded.

How many times have you seen a mission statement that said “We want to be the best” or “We highly value our employees”? We tend to just take these for granted and most employees will simply ignore them. In fact, even at the best companies or most successful companies, the mission statements are virtually unknown by most employees if not most of management. I have visited dozens of companies wherein most of management could not begin to tell you what their mission or vision is. Why?

The answer is simple. Either the mission statement is in the head of the founder or the existing mission statement is boring and unmemorable. Cookie cutter statements such as noted above are not going to inspire anyone. Worse, they fail to provide any stategic direction. What is missing is imagination. The kind of imagination that inspired the Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland and Avatar. I am not talking about “Pie in the Sky” type planning. I am talking about words and visions that inspire and excite us. Adventures and goals that take us out of our mundane everyday lives and help make us part of something bigger than ourselves. We all want to be part of something great, something memorable. Whether it is simply by supporting our sports team, having our children on a winning team or joining the church choir, we need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. However, we must believe that this “bigger’ thing is going somewhere exciting or has the potential to be a winner. 

Are you inspired by your company mission or vision? What would it take for you to be more inspired? Do you self inspire? Do you have y0ur own personal vision and mission? Why not?

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