Vision is Being a Few Steps Ahead
Despite spending most of my adult life as a not particularly religious person, this a quotation about vision has hung in my mind since I wrote it on my closet door in chalk when I was in high school.
Where there is no vision; the people perish. -- Proverbs 29:18
It can feel grandiose. Within the context of religious story and tradition, vision does seem like something outside the reach of most people. Who among us would claim to be a "Great Leader" or a Prophet? Even the "Great Leaders" often try to reject the role.
And, of course we are drawn in by the idea of Great Leaders, Prophets, and people who just seem "larger than life." Leaders like that can help inspire confidence and hope when we don't possess it ourselves. But those people are rare. And, it is possible to be a visionary, but not a leader. Vision is a necessity for good leadership, but it is not sufficient.
But what does it mean to have vision, for those of us who aren't visionaries or Great Leaders?For most leaders, having vision means being at least a few steps ahead of the people you are leading.
Most adults don't expect leaders to have all the answers. After all, the sands are shifting beneath our feet all the time. Who can say what tomorrow brings? But, we do want leaders who are at least a few steps ahead on the path we are traveling together with some sense that those steps are in the right direction -- otherwise they aren't leading, they are creating chaos and setting the stage for people to "perish."
If you've ever tried to make up a story on the fly for a child at bedtime when you can barely keep your eyes open, you know how staff of leaders without vision "perish."
Child: tell me a story
Parent: Umm... I'm really tired, but OK let me try. So ... once upon a time there was a princess warrior who .... [eyelids closing; drifting off]
Child: What? What did they do.
Parent: Oh. Umm.. yeah so they were in a big battle.
Child: What battle? Did they have a sword?
Parent: Yes! It was the great.. battle of ... princess warriors. The princess warrior was a master archer who ....
Child: What? I thought you said she had a sword? Did she have both?
Child: hello??? [followed by giving up or act out]
The child is first confused; wondering what is going on with this story. Eventually the child starts feeling frustrated because no matter what they do (try to figure it out on their own; ask for more information), they can't figure it out. Eventually the child is disappointed because they realize the storyteller is asleep. Then they give up or act out.
Leaders who don't have any vision recreate the child's experience in their staff. Staff is confused about what is going on. If they ask questions to try to figure it out and get confusing answers or no answer at all they get frustrated. Over time staff members disengage and start exhibiting problematic behavior -- both of which are contagious. You can also have an additional culture spiral if leaders get defensive when staff get frustrated.
When you have confused, frustrated, disengaged staff. They aren't following you any more. You've lost them. They have "perished."
If you can manage to be a few steps ahead then you are someone who can be followed. Then you just have to prove that you are worth following.