‘The Vision Thing’

Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion. [John Welch, American businessman, former head of General Electric]

Vision is the key to understanding leadership, and real leaders have never lost the childlike ability to dream dreams… Vision is the blazing campfire around which people with gather. It provides light, energy, warmth and unity. [Bill Newman, Australian broadcaster]

The very essence of leadership is that you have to have a vision. It’s got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. [Theodore Hesburgh, former President of the University of Notre Dame].

The above quotations are representative of a large number that are routinely abstracted from a galaxy of books on leadership and management in order to provide would-be leaders with personal motivation, business wisdom, and professional guidance. Indeed, if you enter the words ‘leadership’ and ‘vision’ into a web-based search engine, you will find hundreds of references to these quotations and to others like them. The sentiment that these all convey is that leaders have to do ‘the vision thing’ and that, if they do, followers will be drawn to them, like moths to a flame, and willingly do their bidding. Also implicit in such quotations is the notion that a sense of vision will serve to exalt the leader in the eyes of followers and imbue him or her with mystic appeal in the form of charisma. According to this view, the visionary leader is an enigmatic talisman, an organizational Pied Piper who takes followers to places that they are unable or unwilling to go on their own. 

In practice, though, things are not that simple. For just as vision is the stuff of leadership, so too it is the stuff of manic tirade, of schizophrenic hallucination, of grandiose delusion. In his text on the leadership secrets of Hitler and Churchill, the Cambridge historian Andrew Roberts makes this point by quoting the American journalist Heywood Broun:

Just as every conviction begins as a whim, so does every emancipator serve his apprenticeship as a crank. A fanatic is a great leader who is just entering a room.

The fact is, though, that some would-be emancipators never cast off their status as cranks and some potentially great leaders are never seen as more than fanatics. For this reason, on its own, possession of a vision has been found to have almost no power to predict whether or not someone will be a successful leader. This point is made compellingly by David Nadler and Michael Tushman (1990) on the basis of an extensive review of research that involved tracking leaders’ performance over time. At the end of this they conclude starkly “unfortunately, in real time it is unclear who will be known as visionaries and who will be known as failures" (p.80). 

For this reason, the question of how it is that a leader’s vision can be translated into the efforts of followers emerges as a master problem in the leadership literature. Indeed, as Roberts observes, “this question lies at the heart of history and civilization" (2003, p.xix). At a practical level too, the implications of being able to answer this question satisfactorily are enormous, as it speaks to a range of behaviors upon which collective success depends. For example, the success of leadership vision is integral to processes of collective engagement, active citizenship, and social change. It has the capacity to unite people, to give them a sense of shared purpose and to make the impossible possible. Consequently, while it is wrong to think that a sense of vision makes someone a charismatic leader, it is also wrong to think that charismatic leadership — and, more importantly, the progress with which this is associated — can be achieved without it. 

So how is it that the plans and schemes of an individual (or select individuals) become the wishes and actions of a multitude? What is it that allows words and ideas to be translated into material reality? And why are followers sometimes prepared to ‘go the extra mile’ to ensure that the goals identified by a leader are achieved? 

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