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Leaders must have a vision for others to follow

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As a business advisor for the last 13 years, the topic of leadership has emerged as a common thread. We all know we need to lead, but almost all of us fall short of our own expectations.

Why? I have observed that it is primarily due to the fact that we do not even know what leadership is.

How can we be effective leaders if we don’t even know what a leader is, much less what they do and how they do it?

To overcome this tremendous barrier, I have come up with the following working definition of leadership, and a three-step approach for implementation.

A leader has a vision, shares that vision, and equips and inspires others to help attain that vision.

The definition lends itself to an obvious three-step implementation:

Step One: Have a vision

In order for a leader to lead, the leader needs to have some idea what success is. Without direction, without a vision, without some concept of what success looks like, it is not possible to lead.

Here are some steps to make it a little bit easier for all of us.

1. Be Deliberate

Be deliberate about creating a vision, or updating an existing one. Decide to do it. Schedule a time to do it. Set a deadline for when you will be done

2. Be an Optimist

Don’t start down the path toward the vision believing it is impossible. If you do, it will be impossible. Too many people operate as if only those things that have already been done are possible.

3. Involve Others

Leadership is strengthened when others are involved in the creation of the vision. By definition, there must be others involved in order for you to lead (you must lead someone). To involve your team in the creation of the vision, or at least in having input into it, is to have a better vision and one that is more likely to be supported with great zeal.

Step Two: Share the Vision

Have you ever had someone want to show you a surprise, and they have you close your eyes while they lead you by the hand? You don’t know where you are going, and you don’t know if you are about to trip on something. Every so often they forget to tell you about that step down, or the sudden turn to the right. It is so much easier when you know where you are going and can see the route in front of you.

That is what it is like to work in an organization when you don’t have a shared vision. The leaders do their best to lead their staff by the hand, but it is impossible to be there every time there is a turn or an obstacle. When people know where they are going, have an idea of the road ahead of them, and can see their progress, it makes everyone’s job easier and more rewarding

In my experience, while it takes an investment of time up front, sharing the vision with those you work with actually saves time in the long run. If the people who you expect to carry out your vision know what the vision is, they will be more self-directed in the execution of their duties. They will make better decisions in the first place, meaning less rework.

A vision is not something you just post by the time clocks. Nor is it sufficient to print it in a company newsletter or email. To have a real impact, your corporate culture should be engulfed by the vision. You should mention it in key meetings, or use it as a visible tool in making a difficult decision. When an employee asks you to make a decision, respond by asking them what they think the decision that best accomplishes the vision would be.

Step Three: Equip and Inspire Others to Help Attain the Vision

As managers, we spend a big portion of each day equipping and inspiring others. But what do we equip them to do? What do we inspire them to do? Do we have their nose to the grindstone, or their eyes on the horizon?

If we function only as a manager, we equip them for specific tasks, and we inspire them to accomplish those tasks. As leaders, we equip them and inspire them to achieve the vision.

The difference is that equipping and inspiring as a leader internally motivates those we lead; they respond by becoming more self-directed. We tell people where we are going and how we are going to get there, rather than what we are going to do. 

To equip and inspire, one needs information, tools, direction and reward.

The first piece of information that a team needs in order to transform a vision into reality is the vision itself. Secondly, that vision needs to be translated into specific goals and/or actionable tasks. Thirdly, each individual, each department, each function, needs to know the role that they will play in supporting the vision. 

But all teams require tools to do their jobs. Sometimes these are literally tools, like hammers and saws, or computers and desks. They almost always include funds, or a budget. They require an allocation of time for staff, and sometimes training. They may require new systems or changes in policies. 

Even the best of visions and most comprehensive of plans do not stand on their own. They require constant interpretation. Leadership provides this in the form of direction. People will have questions, teams will need clarification on their tasks, and modifications to plans will be needed to deal with unexpected results or assumptions that prove untrue.

It is true that there is great reward in simply being a part of a winning team. But it is imperative that there be some tangible benefit for individuals who contribute to a winning team. Having a financial benefit that is tied directly to such contributions is great, but non-financial rewards can be important in addition to or instead of cash. Efforts to recognize individual team performance are incredibly beneficial.

Dave Bartholomew is the founder of Ascent Advising LLC, working with “corner office” people around the globe to define and achieve their unique definition of success. He and is wife, Nancy, co-founded Simply Living Farm, a shop in Leavenworth providing goods for a sustainable life. He can be reached at Dave@AscentAdvising.com.