In today’s business reality the level of complexity and the increased rate of change cause challenges for many leaders. Motivating people to change direction, building new strategies, transforming business models, and adopting new ways of collaboration. Quite a job! Especially in these times it is crucial for leaders to have a clear vision of the future. And this is not textbook talk. Walk around in organizations, look around and listen carefully to the people. They can quickly point out the leaders who have a vision versus those who have not. Successful organizations with motivated people will talk about their future and the vision they are accomplishing. Organizations in trouble will mention the lack of a vision as one of the key reasons for their stagnation or decline. In fact, in the course of history great leaders have always been praised for being visionary! However, many leaders struggle to create a vision. Is it because the ability to create a vision is only reserved for a small group of exceptional leaders? I don’t believe so. Envisioning the future is a universal quality that we all have. We just need to mobilize it and maintain it. And apparently this is not always easy. Why? What can leaders do to improve their capability to develop a vision?
By working intensively with business leaders over the past decades we have witnessed three specific obstacles that can hinder leaders to develop a vision of the future.
Habituation can grow when people are in the same situation for a period of time. It can even develop to such a level that we believe our situation is as good as it will ever get, and we stop believing that we can change it for the better. We can become complacent. We start to focus our energy on keeping what we have and perceive change as something bad that is trying to take this away from us.
How different this is from how this Chinese man perceived his situation:
Zhang Xin, a young man whose parents where wheat farmers in a poor agricultural province in central China, and who used to live with his family in a one-room house next to the fields. He had graduated from Tsinghua University (China’s MIT) and found himself a job as software engineer at Huawei in the city. His success, as Zhang once told a Time magazine reporter, had changed his family forever. None of his descendants would ‘ever work in the wheat fields again. Not my children. Not their children. That life is over.’ Zhang built a vision of a better life. Not only for himself but also for his family. He believed that a better future was possible and he started to chase it.
The belief that a better future is possible, not just for themselves but also for others, is a crucial driver for successful leaders to create a vision. They believe in a better future, even if no one else does.
- Impatience, wanting only quick success
I witness more than once how the hectic business environment of today drags leaders into a mindset of ‘go with the motions’. They are tempted to apply a short-term focus to keep up with the speed. After a while they even start to believe that this short-term focus is the only way to stay successful as a leader. They grow impatient and are only interested in actions that create quick results. They are even willing to lower the bar for themselves and others to be able to reach these short-term successes. At that point they are no longer aware of the fact that this lack of vision might jeopardize the future success of the company.
A powerful vision starts from within. Successful leaders take time to listen to their ‘inner voice’ on a regular basis. They schedule time to take a step back from the daily rush, to reflect about accomplishments, ambitions, aspirations, and about what they would like to change. They have learned over time to recognize the type of environment and setting that works best for them to do this. They look for circumstances to stimulate their brain with new experiences, to trigger their creativity. They have created this discipline because they know that these moments are essential for developing a clearer vision of the future. (Read this article ‘How Da Vinci-Like Thinking Helps You Imagine Future Success’)
- Letting go of the vision after experiencing setbacks
Some leaders do have a clear vision of the future, but have difficulty with dealing with the uncertainty that goes with it. They make detailed action plans with rigid and very specific expectations of the results that each step should bring. But as soon as they are confronted with disappointing results they lose confidence, start to doubt, and let go of their vision. These leaders forget that a vision is a strong desire, but without guarantees! It is a clear picture of the desired future, but very often without all the details. In fact, the journey towards it is often full of uncertainties.
Successful leaders understand the importance of an action plan to make the vision become stronger and clearer step by step, but they also know it requires willpower, flexibility, resilience and persistence along the way. (Watch this interesting speech about uncertainty and willpower by Jim Yong Kim – President at the World Bank)
“I believe life is a series of near misses. A lot of what we ascribe to luck is not luck at all. It’s seizing the day and accepting responsibility for your future. It’s seeing what other people don’t see. And pursuing that vision.” Howard Schultz, Businessman, Entrepreneur.
Aad is a global leadership advisor, change leader, senior leadership team facilitator, executive coach, and frequently asked keynote speaker. He is founder and managing partner at HRS Business Transformation Services where he works with executives and leadership teams internationally on three key topics: ‘leading complex change’, ‘cross-cultural leadership’, and ‘post-merger integration’. Find out more about Aad and HRS’ services. If you would like to invite Aad to your organization feel free to contact him here.
- Leading Change: How Focus Creates Sustainable Change (leadershipwatch-aadboot.com)