Leadership and Vision

Point: vision is not simply a fancy slogan or wild-eyed dream, it is a passion to change or impact lives that focus energy, inspires action and provides a reason to endure hardship, setbacks and disappointments that inevitably accompany any objective worth pursuing. “I just don’t think I am much of a leader,” said one of my clients (I will call Bill for the sake of this article), “I don’t have vision I like to work behind the scenes and I am not that inspirational.” I was admittedly surprised by this self assessment especially in light of the description this client had just given me of his dream to build a camp where youth who were confused, unsure of themselves, living in a beat up self esteem or who had experienced abuse could go to find new direction and foundation in life. In fact I listened to Bill outline the broad points of the program or process on which the camp would someday operate.

“I like to build things with my hands; I am not the greatest public speaker. I don’t know what I am doing in leadership and I am not sure I should continue working with youth.”

The pathos I heard on the phone was not new, the discouragement the deep process of reassessment and the reframing of identity characterizes the development of a vision. It is part of the testing of character (endurance, integrity, motivation, compassion, humility, discipline etc.).

“So, what is vision exactly?” I asked. The question lingered in the silence. I recognized that some deep insight into how Bill viewed himself was occurring. “What is leadership?” I asked after a pause. There was a sense that my client was on the verge of a significant series of epiphanies that would open a new vista of perspective in how he viewed himself, the people he worked around and the youth he so desperately wanted to impact.

The silence did the job of leveraging the questions deeper. “I don’t really know that I know” Bill responded. "I know that I am not like Tom. Tom can inspire people by walking into a room, he speaks with such authority and in minutes he generates energy. I walk into a room and engage one person at a time by comparison I don’t feel I generate much of anything. I can’t outline a big vision I want to work with my hands.”

“So, how many years out is the idea of the camp you outlined earlier?” I asked. “Oh, wow, um…maybe 10 years” he responded. “And how many years do you think the camp will exist when it is built? Ten? Twenty? Thirty?” I asked. “Hmm…” Bill's response seemed to be echoing from the depths of his soul.

The power of leadership and vision is an undeniable part of any successful organization. In both academic assessments of leadership and in informal reflections of the nature of leadership both of these concepts exist somewhere. In my work with leaders and organizations it is painfully evident when leadership and vision are absent. Without leadership and vision organizations exist for themselves cannibalizing their own resources and people to simply exist. When I am around such an organization I can’t help but picture Jaba the Hut of Lucas’ “Star Wars” fame i.e., a big blob of consuming pointlessness that has turned completely toxic encouraging betrayal, intrigue and self-absorbed corruption that is no longer capable of even remembering what the point of the organization is much less capable of returning to the mission.

“I see the camp as impacting youth for a life time and I hope it continues well after I am gone.” The answer came slowly almost reverently as though Bill was feeling the weight of responsibility that came along with his dream to impact youth.

As we talked I asked Bill to complete several sentences for me. I designed these sentences to contrast leadership types and to point out that there was no such thing as a solo leader. In fact the idea of “leader” when speaking of organizations has rightly given way to the concept of “leadership” in research. There are a variety of leadership styles and approaches, personalities and talents that comprise leadership. In Bill’s case I wanted him to see that while some leaders have profound symbolic presence others have profound practical presence and that both are needed.

“Bill,” I said, “complete this sentence…Paul and __________________?” “Barnabas,” he responded. (Paul was recognized as the spokesman the orator the one who outlined a significant part of the theology of the early church, yet it was Barnabas who had first recognized Paul’s “conversion” and sponsored him first in Jerusalem and later in Antioch as Christianity picked up momentum outside Judaism among multiple cultures of the Roman Empire.)

“Ok, how about David and _____________________?” “Nathan,” he responded. (David was king of Israel ca 1000-961 BCE. As the political and symbolic leader of the nation he needed and was profoundly influenced by Nathan a prophet, someone who could lead David to reflect on the impact of his own actions/behavior on others in a way that leads him to change those behaviors.)

“You know Nehemiah right?” I asked. “Sure," Bill answered; "he rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem after the return of the exiles from the Babylonian deportation.” “Ok, so, like you, Nehemiah was someone who worked with his hands in living out and describing a vision for his people.” The sudden felt silence on the other end of the phone told me that Bill was having an “aha” moment. “Here is the question, how do you complete this sentence; Nehemiah and _______________?” “I don’t know” Bill said. “Well then that is your assignment; find out what kind of person Nehemiah needed to work beside in order to fulfill the vision he had for the well being of his people.”

Bill will find the priest/prophet Ezra who led the first exodus from Persian back to Jerusalem when he investigates. Ezra’s vision for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the resettlement of Israel was stalled because of local political opposition. Without Nehemiah’s passion for rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem to serve as an anchor of stability Ezra’s vision would have ended in shambles. Both men saw the plight of their people and both men acted with great courage, tenacity, persistence, passion and spirituality to address it. But they approached the task from completely different means of getting to the end goal.

Vision is not about hype or great emotional surges of enthusiasm. Hype and enthusiasm drop like flies in a cloud or insecticide when trouble or resistance arises. Vision is a passion driven by the sight of something that needs to happen stirred in a person who has the courage to address injustice, need, or opportunity that requires a persistent effort to overcome known and unknown obstacles. Vision is not for the weak or the slick. It is for that man or woman whose character is available for the reshaping and deepening that inherently results from pursing something of great value. Vision is one of the hall marks of leadership and Bill will discover that the vision he has can result in transformed lives and will require more than he currently realizes. Why will Bill pursue the vision he has? Because he has seen what it means in the life of a young person’s development to have a mentor who believes in their capabilities, helps them discover their personhood and who affirms that opportunities exist if they will see them.

What is your vision?