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Vision – What a Leader Must See

by Andre van Heerden

Rheims Cathedral - Domenico Quaglio

In his famous war memoir, Flight to Arras, the French aviator and writer, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, provided an eloquent metaphor for leadership: “A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single person contemplates it and sees the image of a cathedral.”


Where are the visionaries to see a better future in the rock piles that litter our socio-political and corporate landscapes at the beginning of the Third Millennium?


It is a commonplace that vision is an essential requirement for a leader.  However, overuse has eroded the meaning of the term, often reducing corporate visions to facile, feel-good fluff that no one gives a second thought.  The more immediate demands of everyday life in the eternal present of the postmodern West, fires screaming to be put out, or quick fixes promising a bliss that never arrives, are what move most people today.


In a time of instant gratification, fuelled by consumerism, promiscuity, and narcissism, short-termism has become the default mode for politicians and business executives.  Strategy, which eschews immediate gains in favour of an integrated effort to achieve the long-term fulfilment defined by a vision, has become a cant word to which people pay only lip-service.


Many academics have jumped on the gravy train, pooh-poohing the practicality of strategy in an age of rapid, discontinuous change, or reducing the concept to subversive expedients like the simple rules approach.  They are, of course, just playing with words again, providing a smokescreen, so that the politicians and business executives can get on with the shoddy, short-term shenanigans that are tearing liberal democracy and free market capitalism apart.  


The advocates of short-termism extol the virtues of flexibility and unfettered ingenuity, ignoring the fact that strategy, by its very nature, includes tactical responses to unforeseen developments, and pragmatic revision whenever the goalposts shift.  The word revision is instructive; it means reshaping the vision in the light of new circumstances, whether technological, political, environmental, or whatever.  Strategy is a road map, not a straitjacket.


The essence of strategy is that it must be directed at a specific goal, situated in a measurable future.  That goal is the vision.  It demands at least some degree of genius to envision that future fulfillment, bearing in mind that if it is meant to inspire all concerned, it must promise a definable fulfillment for all.  This explains why great leaders are often called visionaries.


Vision gives people direction and purpose, the foundations for the courage, commitment, and confidence required of them in pursuit of the goal.  Managers who are cynical about the value of vision are inevitably the ones who are constantly complaining that they seem unable to motivate their people.  Dostoevsky, in A Writer’s Diary, expressed an inescapable truth about human nature when he told us:


     “Neither man or nation can exist without a sublime idea.”


The vision of America’s Founding Fathers bore fruit in the Great Experiment and the Pax Americana.  The vision of Churchill gave millions across the globe the strength to stand defiantly against the most barbarous tyranny the world had ever known.  The vision of Mandela inspired the long struggle against Apartheid, and enabled the birth of the Rainbow Nation, holding aloft an ideal for not only his own people, but also the rest of the world.


Hardship becomes a badge of honour for people united in the quest for a clearly envisioned future.  Future means change, the reality of which people in the workplace are supposed to be afraid, but whose unease is swept aside by the hope provided by a clear and meaningful vision.  As the psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in his best-selling book, Man’s Search for Meaning:


     "He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how".


The opponents of vision are inevitably those who profit from the status quo and the allegedly unpredictable drift and derailments of technocratic consumer society.  Obviously, there are massive fortunes to be made, and too many of the young and impressionable, highly trained and poorly educated, are groomed to see themselves as wolves of Wall Street in waiting.  But the vast majority of people want to believe that free market capitalism has more to offer than financial fiascos, creative destruction, chronic uncertainty, and middle class decline.  In other words, they want hope; they want a better future.


I recently worked with a large and successful company that went to great lengths in crafting a bold vision that promised a much more productive, efficient, and profitable entity emerging over the next five years.  Management struggled in vain to sell it to their people, who were convinced that the company was being prepared for a “merger” with a major multinational, and that the goal would mean a huge payday for the few, and uncertain futures for the many.


Hope is the acid test of leadership.  People without hope are people whose leaders have failed to provide an inspiring and credible vision.  How many leaders of western nations pass the test?  How many corporate leaders pass the test?


Management today too often wants docile human resources rather than the inspired people, creative, conscientious, and courageous, that leadership seeks.  Leadership enables potential to come to fruition, every person being valued not simply for what they are, but for what they are capable of becoming.  Leadership seeks the fulfillment of each and every person because that encourages the greatest possible contribution to the common vision.


Docility in the workforce, on the other hand, is a perversion of human potential, and a sure sign of misleadership.  It exposes the vapidity of the vision and mission statements crafted without any real commitment to the ideal of human flourishing.


What is it then that a leader must see?


  • The inadequacy of the way things are, and the need for positive change

  • The true potential of the people and the existing resources of the business

  • The various possibilities, both good and bad, enabling the art of scenario planning

  • A clearly defined, more positive future, the vision itself, offering a specified fulfilment for all

  • The practical means required to make the vision a reality, i.e. the strategy

  • Clear interim objectives, that allow the construction of a critical path to consummation

  • Well-defined criteria by which progress must be measured regularly

  • The personal character and corporate culture required to achieve the vision

  • How to communicate the vision so as to inspire people, and win their commitment

  • The truth about everything, strengths, weaknesses, threats, and opportunities – or else the vision will be misleading, strategy meaningless, and commitment impossible.


     “A man sees in the world what he carries in his heart.”


Goethe’s admonition in Faust expresses well the loss of vision in the postmodern West.  The narcissistic, grasping pursuit of material and sensual gratification at the expense of others is clearly antithetical to the understanding of vision as the delineation of a future fulfillment for all.  The irony is that, having gained the technological mastery, we have lost the moral discernment to secure the future of humankind.  Einstein was right when he told us:


     "Perfection of means and confusion of ends seem to characterize our age."

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