Usually, the word “vision” in leadership brings to mind lofty, high level ideals – a long term strategic objective. But leaders with vision do more than align staff members with a company’s mission or rally the public around a common cause.
Visionary leaders focus on everyday objectives as well. They are optimistic and enthusiastic and inspire those around them. People naturally follow leaders who arouse their hopes just as surely as they reject anyone who is perpetually pessimistic. Have you ever known an effective leader who was lazy or constantly negative?
That’s not to say that visionary leaders operate in a vacuum. They cannot simply pretend that setbacks don’t occur or that challenges don’t exist. The reality of a given situation may very well present real and significant problems to be addressed. They have to be honest and forthright to stay credible. But rather than allowing the focus of the group to become fixed on the obstacles, they engage the team in developing productive and meaningful solutions.
Visionary leaders are passionate and purposeful about the work that they do and the objectives they seek. Indifference is contagious and erodes the credibility and effectiveness of a manager, so leaders demonstrating strength of vision must have the courage to challenge those around them, subordinates and superiors. In this context, ‘challenge’ means that visionary leaders question the validity of assumptions or reasoning of others, not to be obnoxious, but to better understand and facilitate meaningful two way communication and feedback. It’s a fine line to be sure, but if leaders are afraid to speak up, the flow of communication becomes so filtered that it is rendered meaningless, or worse, actually opposite of what was originally intended.
There’s a great book by George Washington University Professor, Jerry Harvey, called “The Abilene Paradox.” In it, Harvey illustrates the paradox in which a group of people collectively decide to pursue a course of action that none of them actually wants, however no one speaks up against it for fear of being the squeaky dissenting wheel. They each incorrectly assume everyone else wants to go along.
Just as visionary leaders must be willing to challenge those around them, so must they be willing to be challenged. How often do we solicit the opinion of others thinking we want information, when we really just want affirmation? That kind of confirmation feels good, but it doesn’t mean very much. It’s like telling the emperor that his new suit looks fantastic instead of pointing out that he’s walking around naked. And guess what often happens when the information we receive doesn’t quite align with the affirmation we were looking for? That’s right, the emperor is not happy… until he finally realizes that someone had the courage to be honest with him and act in his best interest.
I think it’s natural to prefer a response that validates rather than challenges, but there is tremendous value in constructive feedback. Visionary leaders check their ego at the door and rely on those they trust to be honest and provide candid information and insight. Their purpose is to make everyone around them better, but they also reap what they sow. Engaging others in an objective focused process makes them stronger, more effective, and more motivated. And that’s the whole idea.
“I don’t want any “yes-men” around me. I want everybody to tell me the truth even if it costs them their jobs.” ~Samuel Goldwyn