We’ve spent the last couple weeks talking about the power of vision, both as leaders in a professional environment and as individuals. It’s easy to look at someone like Elon Musk who harbors vivid images of cleanly-fueled cars and affordable space travel and see how such vision drives his daily actions. But what about you and me? For the rest of us trying to figure out where we are in life, and more importantly, where we want to go—how do you develop such a lasting picture in your mind that has the same staying power? Vision is as important at work as it is at home and you must devote real energy to its creation and maintenance. So that’s what we’re going to talk about all month—VISION.
What is “vision”? Does it sound more like something an HR focus group needs to worry about? I’d argue that if you’re making that assumption, it’s because you’ve only been exposed to corporate vision statements that often don’t have much weight behind them—assuming you even know what your company’s is. These statements have all the potential in the world, but without regular communication and much needed context, that potential is lost on you. Your organization probably has a vision statement; you may even know what it is … but could you articulate what role you play in its achievement? If the answer is no, who could blame you for believing such a thing irrelevant to your life? With everything else at home and at work to worry about, the last thing anyone needs is more time spent on a vision statement. But the reality is that these disconnects don’t prove a vision’s lack of utility, only a leader’s inability to translate that vision into meaning that drives team members forward. No matter where you are in the hierarchy, vision should be foremost in your mind—the end state you see for the impact you will have on the world around you. What should you look for in a vision? Here are three rules to consider when crafting a vision or trying to figure out if the one you’ve been provided is viable.
Rule #1: Visions are aspirational. Some would argue there’s no value in goals or objectives if they aren’t “realistic” or “relevant” (if you’ve never heard of the ‘SMART’ goal-setting model, read more here). When developing goals, you’re supposed to ask practical questions—is this the right time, am I qualified to achieve this, does this goal fit in with the others? While I am a believer in realism when we talk about day-to-day actions and incremental steps toward a vision of the future, I have also come to believe strongly that a lasting vision cannot merely be ‘realistic’. It must be aspirational … other-worldly … something that would be difficult (if not impossible) to achieve without effort. Your vision represents the best case in your mind’s eye, what the new project or the customer’s experience or your life would look like if everything went perfectly. What does the customer’s satisfaction, your team’s loyalty, or your happiness look like? “Receives the product on time”, “we make next quarter’s revenue target”, or “I get a job that pays for this house” … none of those can be enough. They will not be enough. All three might be worthy objectives that can, themselves, be ‘realistic’ to the moment, but none will sustain and motivate the kind of progressive effort necessary for continual improvement and, most critically, personal and professional growth.
Rule #2: Visions are shared. Visions of the future are meaningless … even the personal ones … if they are not shared. For the team at work, it doesn’t help anyone if only the person in charge knows the vision and can see it for themselves. In this case, managers drive their people toward ideals those same team members can’t internalize for themselves, which leads to those same, valuable employees staying with the job simply for the paycheck or benefits. Even if you retain some of them over the long-term, you’ll watch as their motivation drops and their engagement tempers.
Rule #3: Visions are developed. Why do corporate vision statements seem to lose momentum or fail to engage the workforce long-term? They’re not vivid, rich in detail, or easily embodied by the team that’s in place to achieve it. I’m not saying your vision should be page after page of exposition or analysis; one phrase or sentence should be enough to inspire your group. What is often missing is the leader’s description of what that vision looks like in real life. Beyond the vision statement, a lasting vision is an image—or series of images—that represents the ultimate ‘win’. But you can’t conjure it once and call it a day, confident that will be enough to move forward. The vision must be examined, turned over, and filled in. It must be rendered in full color, ready to feed an example for the team when they need a better idea of why they’re doing what they’re doing in the first place. Emphasizing such fidelity in a vision does two things: 1) it makes the aspirational, far-off ideal feel more attainable and therefore enables goal-setting in the near-term and builds motivation; and 2) it enables you as a leader to share the vision with your team—friends, family, coworkers. The more detail they can ‘see’ and ‘feel’, the more likely they can internalize the imagery and take ownership of their own role in its achievement.
So what does all this matter? Why spend the time and energy crafting an aspirational vision, rendered in full color, that you then have to share with the world around you? Because with everything that’s going on around you, distracting you, pulling you in multiple directions … a lasting vision provides a meaningful end for which to strive. An end that drives the daily effort necessary to always be improving, growing, and developing into individuals and organizations that can offer much more to the world around them.
Next week, this month’s series on vision continues with a look at New Year’s resolutions … why we fail at seeing them through and how applying the three rules of vision can enable you to achieve something great in the coming year …
If you live in the United States, you may have spent half of last week (and likely most of the weekend) surrounded by rich food, even richer desserts, and a trove of family, friends, and acquaintances you may not see the other 11 months of the year. Thanksgiving is an American holiday with a global message, a focus on being grateful for what we have and those with whom we share it. For many millions, though, it’s a prelude to Christmas and the stress that comes with multiple shopping lists and the pressure to save money while piling up as many gifts as possible per person. Though I hope you all ascribe to the former vice the latter, I hope even more so that your Thanksgiving was fulfilling in the end. In my case, it was beyond so. Not because the turkey was that much better (it was pretty good) or that we saved a ton on Black Friday (never tried it, never will), but because I finally lived out a vision of life harbored in the depths of my heart and mind for more than a decade.
Does your family save the wishbone? The tradition is older than the holiday itself, going back to Roman times. Two diners grab hold of of the triangular clavicle from the front of the turkey and pull apart, each hoping to have in-hand the bigger of the two pieces. Whoever wins that bigger piece has their wish granted. You may scoff but my wife’s family saves the wishbone every year and a couple always breaks it. We’ve split the wishbone many a Thanksgiving before—and for me, the wish was always the same. Moving around as a military family makes for some unique life experiences, but also results in you missing many holidays and family gatherings you would otherwise take for granted. And it’s difficult to establish traditions when you move every couple years; your circle of friends changes and your family can’t always afford to chase you around the country (or world, for that matter). We’d always talked about “settling down” after my time in uniform was done. Buying a house with space for kids and dogs to run. Finding jobs that afforded new freedom by keeping us in the same place. Being another epicenter of activity for a family all situated within four hours’ drive of one another. I’d maintained this dream for more than 10 years, returning to it every Thanksgiving and Christmas—especially those where we were apart from parents, grandparents, and extended family. I would imagine myself at the head of a long dining table, wielding a large carving knife over an unsuspecting yet fully-cooked turkey. Yes, I would sometimes picture Clark Griswold of National Lampoon’s fame … but without all the drama and trees-on-fire effect. For years my wife and I split the wishbone and this was the image I had in mind. Then for the next 364 days, I would visit that vision amidst the bustle of our daily lives.
I had become so used to dreaming it, not living it, that I missed much of the anticipation leading up to this year’s Thanksgiving. Nearing the end of my last assignment away from home, the last six months have been a whirlwind—we bought a house and moved most of the household. With our home coming together, we were eager to host Thanksgiving this year for anyone willing to make the drive. My wife moved ahead of me, so she was responsible for most of the planning as I continued work on the west coast. As everything came together, I remained busy and didn’t focus on what all of this meant. I had been consumed by this vision for so long, I hadn’t thought about it finally coming true. On Thursday afternoon, somewhere around 1pm, I sat down at the head of an eight-person dining table (connected loosely to a card table with three more) with turkey, ham, and sides arrayed end-to-end and all eyes looking back at me. In that moment, calmed in a moment staring back at my family, sharing my home, all around the table, I realized how powerful a vision I’d had all those years and everything I had done to enable it, without knowing in many cases. That vision had given me meaning and a direction personally and professionally that couldn’t be matched with simple language.
After everyone had enjoyed their seconds and thirds, and a slice or two of pie, before the naps kicked in and football-watching began in earnest, my wife and I met in the kitchen and she pointed to the wishbone on the now wholly ravaged turkey. She asked if I was going to cut it out so we could take hold and make our wishes. I looked at the bird a moment then turned back, now knowing what to say. I didn’t know what to wish for. What I’d envisioned for so long had come true. It was someone else’s turn to take hold of the wishbone and see their own vision, to think long and hard about what they saw long-term for themselves and their family, the dream that would carry them through each day. Until one day, for them, that vision comes true too.
Enabled Word exists because of the power of lasting vision, and the power that comes when organizations craft such a vision then enable their teams to find meaning in its achievement. This holiday season, take time to wind down from a busy year and step back to be grateful for those around you. At work and at home. Never take your teams for granted. And never take for granted the power vision can have in everyone’s life.