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Thomas Jefferson had a bold vision as the United States broke away from British rule. Consider his letter to John Adams in 1823, when he said, “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” Jefferson was contemplative and progressive in emphasizing his dream of a different America. He was a visionary.
Many others have failed in dogmatic pragmatism. George H. W. Bush had several leadership qualities, such as humility and integrity, but Bush scholars universally agree that he lacked vision. His perspective on the United States was similar to Blockbuster and Kodak: let’s double down on our history and what’s worked in the past.
Bush is even known for saying that he doesn’t understand “that vision thing.” In his inaugural address, he said there’s no need for the country to “invent a system by which to live.” All we need to do is “act on what we know.”
There’s utility in traditional thinking, but it becomes a strength overused when you can’t do the other side of the coin — vision. Bush was a one-term president, losing to a relatively unknown Bill Clinton because he lacked an inspirational message.
So, how can CEOs create a vision so powerful that it ignites organizational transformation?
1. Vision from the heart
In Nietzsche’s words, “Only as an aesthetic phenomenon are life and the world justified eternally.” A vision should only affect us in the way art can, revitalizing the spirit and the selves’ experience, as opposed to the task-oriented and linear nature of day-to-day goals. The executive’s vision is an aesthetic, imaginative idealization that gives meaning to the organization, like an artist moving from a blank canvas to what could be.
2. Align with the organization’s values
Unlike strategic objectives, which are rationally derived, visions are values-laden. They give meaning through an ideological goal. Since they are about what should be, they are, by definition, an expression of values and corporate identity.
Thus, effective CEOs keep the vision malleable in relation to the business landscape but never change the values underneath. Not only that, but their personal values align with the organization and its vision — one reason for doing a values assessment in CEO succession.
3. Create the vision with others
The best CEOs have a clear vision that’s tied to their values. It isn’t a fully democratic process because the CEO must believe passionately in it. However, it’s essential that the vision is not unilaterally imposed but rather distilled from the contributions of leaders throughout the organization. The first reason is buy-in from everyone else. The entire company needs to feel it in the heart, too. The second reason is that the organization existed before the CEO and will after the CEO, so the vision must align with the entire organization for continuity.
4. Make it valuable to all stakeholders
Some of the most catastrophic events in history have been the result of a psychopath’s vision. Visions can be powerful, influential and morally corrupt — all at the same time. Conversely, real leaders create a vision that benefits the entire ecosystem, where the rising tide lifts all boats and makes the world a better place. Robert House, from the University of Pennsylvania, defined a greater good vision as “an unconscious motive to use social influence, or to satisfy the power need, in socially desirable ways, for the betterment of the collective rather than for personal self-interest.” This is using the will to power for the betterment of humanity, to shape the future, rather than as a source of ruthless evildoing.
5. Use the vision to galvanize change
In academia, there’s a close relationship between visionary and charismatic leadership. Consider House’s Theory of Charismatic Leadership, Bass’ Transformational Leadership Theory, Conger and Kanungo’s Theory of Charismatic Leadership, and Sashkin’s Visionary Leadership Theory. They all emphasize how the most effective visions challenge the status quo and inspire evolution. The CEO evaluates the organization and its context, such as its core competencies and competitors, and through vivid mental imagery, paints a picture of the future.
Since vision is related to influence and change, it’s easy to understand how Kay Whitmore from Kodak and George H. W. Bush had ineffective visions. They were preventative instead of future-oriented and, therefore, neglected to become bigger, faster, stronger, and even something brand new. They were demotivating instead of galvanizing and failed to energize the organization.
6. Ensure it’s believable
Visionary leaders are often bold and risk-taking, as well as imaginative. Like a psychic in Vegas, they’re bold enough to think they can see the future and inventive enough to dream up a new reality that challenges today. With this psychology, the strength overused is that visionary CEOs are often alienated from reality. Conversely, the most effective CEOs are versatile enough to, as inherent in Marshall Sashkin’s theory, balance vision with operational actions. Their visions are inventive, aesthetic, imaginative, bold, and innovative but believable and achievable.
7. Use the vision for strategic decisions
Another benefit of vision, besides influence, is that it frames consequential strategic decisions. At Netflix, Reed Hastings could have charged ahead with being the number one DVD-by-mail company in the United States. But, as explained in the book CEO Excellence, the new direction was supported by a vision of transformation. “The big strategic moves that followed made sense in ways they would never have otherwise: moving into video streaming, betting on the cloud, creating Netflix originals, driving exponential globalization, and so on.” The vision justified a series of innovations, decisions, and where the company should focus its limited time and resources.
In all, the CEO’s highest duty is breathing life into the organization, giving it meaning and harnessing the social forces toward a worthwhile future. Only as an aesthetic phenomenon, not one of logic, power, and control, is an organization’s existence authentic and fully realized. Art reflects life, not just beauty, and an organization’s vision reflects its identity and fulfills its purpose, without which it is lifeless.