How do leaders get vision?

The short answer to this question is: People find what they look for and leaders look for vision. We all pursue our priorities and leaders prioritize finding fresh vision.

Use these 11 progressive steps to craft, fine-tune, and communicate vision in your organization.

1. Learn everything you can about your organization, similar organizations, and your industry. (Nanus) (xi)

Every business and industry has fundamental competencies and you must know them. What does it take for an organization in your industry to succeed.? What are the non-negotiables of your organization? For instance, the fundamental competencies of a church are different than those of a manufacturing company. Doing business in China presents different constraints than doing business in Brazil. You must have a firm grasp of the uniquenesses of your organization and industry.

2. Define reality; what is the current state of your organization?

“An accurate, insightful view of current reality is a prerequisite for crafting vision. You must be committed to the truth.” Peter Senge

A leader’s first task is to define reality; what is the current state of your organization? You cannot be clear about what the future of your organization should look like unless you are clear about its present state. Be an optimistic realist—a realist about the past and an optimist about the future.
A good place to start is to answer five questions posed by Peter Drucker. He said every organization must have a good answer to these issues: (xii)

  • What is our mission?
  • Who is our customer?
  • What does the customer want?
  • What are our results?
  • What is our plan?

Another approach is to delve deeply into the SWOT issues:

  • What are our strengths?
  • What are our weaknesses?
  • What are our opportunities?
  • What are our threats?

In your search for a thorough and honest picture of reality, you and your team must have frank dialogue among yourselves but you should also solicit the input of others, including customers, competitors, front-line workers, and even spouses of employees.

3. Initiate the process of crafting vision.

As the leader, you are responsible for ensuring that your organization has updated, viable vision. If you don’t do this, it will probably not be done. Followers just assume that the leader will handle this, and, not wanting to be insubordinate, they most likely will not take the initiative.

A leader takes the initiative in two ways:

As the leader, you take the time—alone—to dream about the future. Most people don’t take the time to think systematically about the future of an organization but leaders do, so you must. On a regular basis, spend time thinking about the future.

As the leader, lead your team in thinking about the future. While you are responsible for your organization having vision, that doesn’t mean you have to craft vision by yourself. Actually, developing vision collaboratively with your team is usually better than doing it alone. Most organizations are so complex and their environment so difficult, that no one individual, no matter how bright and talented, can see it all. On a regular basis your team needs to hear you say, “Let’s take some time to think about the future.”

Burt Nanus says, “It is much better to develop a vision with others than to try to do it all on your own. A group process is likely to improve the quality of your vision by bringing a wider range of informed viewpoints and expertise to bear on your search. It will be easier to implement the results when your team has had a hand in the choice of vision and shares responsibility for it.”

Kouzes and Posner also recommend collaborative vision casting: “Leadership is not a monologue, nor should the creation of a vision statement be done individually and without the active involvement of others who must attend to these operations. The process of finding common ground, often through the creation of a statement of shared values and vision, is as important as the content itself, and sometimes even more so.” (xiv)

4. Invent alternate “pictures of the future” and choose the best.

Relative to your your organization’s future, there are probably multiple, attractive alternatives to pursue. Consider many options and choose the best.

Vision doesn’t have to be original. There’s nothing wrong with noticing what is working for others and copying it. The old adage, “Most good ideas are borrowed; most great ideas are stolen” is both humorous and truthful. Of course, copyrights, patents and trademarks must be honored and proper acknowledgments made, but don’t think that your vision must always be novel. Sam Walton, founder of Wall Mart, once confessed, “Most everything I’ve done, I’ve copied from someone else.”

Leaders are good “spotters” – often functioning more as talented curators than as gifted artists. Leaders know how to recognize what others have done that will work for them and they’re not too proud to borrow the idea.

5. Submit all potential vision to robust dialogue.

All ideas and plans will be improved upon when submitted to the wisdom of others. That’s called robust dialogue. Consider all initial ideas to be malleable —rough ideas that need to be fine-tuned—and let your team massage them. Their input will make the ideas better and will increase their sense of ownership. Simply ask, “What do you think about this idea?” and then listen attentively.

6. Write the vision down.

Do not underestimate the importance of writing down the vision. Writing helps us codify and clarify our thoughts and it makes it easier to communicate the vision to others.

Nanus offers a helpful template for recording vision. Complete this statement for various time-frames (one month, six months, twelve months, eighteen months, etc.).

My organization plans to make enormous progress over the next ________ (months, years) by ___________________________. (Nanus) (xv)

7. Allow vision to mature.

Before you finalize vision, put it in the oven and let it bake for a while. Good vision is usually the result of a considered process.

This is why vision retreats (usually off-site events with the express purpose of crafting vision) often produce inferior results. It’s difficult to craft good vision in one setting. While it may be helpful to devote several days to focusing on the future, consider it as part of an on-going process, not as an isolated, single and stand-alone event.

Of course, at some point in the process you do have to pull the trigger and act on your vision, but be patient, thoughtful, thorough, and careful in working to get it right.

8. Communicate the vision.

Nanus says, “Vision is little more than an empty dream until it is widely shared and accepted.” Crafting vision is, perhaps, the easy part; communicating the vision and garnering genuine commitment (not just compliance) is a tremendous challenge. Do not underestimate how hard it is for people to “see” something that does not exist. Image a sculptor trying to describe to others what he sees inside a block of marble—that’s the challenge a leader faces in communicating vision.

Here are some suggestions on how to communicate vision.

Share the vision.
Leaders speak often of the future. Don’t neglect this obvious and critical step: share the vision and ask people to embrace it and own it. Also, give people adequate time to process the vision. It probably took a long time for the vision to mature into its present form so don’t expect people to immediately understand what might have taken you months to solidify. Your goal is for everyone in the organization to eventually embrace the vision and become “vision carriers.”

Vision cannot be forced upon people.
Warren Bennis reminds us that “Vision cannot be established in an organization by edict, or by the exercise of power or coercion.” A heavy-handed approach may solicit a measure of compliance but it will not garner people’s whole-hearted endorsement or involvement. You must share the vision in an attractive way and ask people to adopt it.

Personify the vision.
Never paint the vision without placing yourself in the picture. Kouzes and Posner teach us that, “If the vision is someone else’s, and you don’t own it, it will be very difficult for you to enlist others in it. If you have trouble imagining yourself actually living the future described in the vision, you’ll certainly not be able to convince others that they ought to enlist in making it a reality.” (xvi)

A good example of a leader personifying a vision was Mother Teresa. Her organization, Missionaries of Charity, existed to “Reach out to the destitute on the streets, offering wholehearted service to the poorest of the poor” and she embodied that vision daily.

Vision “leaks”; that is, people forget, so you must continually reiterate vision.
It’s naive to think that you can state the vision once and assume that everyone understands it and will adopt it. You must talk about the vision so many times you may get tired of repeating it.

The more you know your people and they know you, the more likely your vision will be accepted.
Bennis and Nanus write, “Trust is the emotional glue that binds followers and leaders together. The accumulation of trust is a measure of the legitimacy of leadership. It cannot be mandated or purchased; it must be earned. Trust is the basic ingredient of all organizations, the lubrication that maintains the organization.” Followers may be understandably reticent to embrace the vision of a leader whom they do not know. John Maxwell says, “People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision.”

9. Make necessary changes in organizational structure to accommodate vision.

Bennis and Nanus teach, “Changes in the management processes, organizational structure and management style all must support the changes in the pattern of values and behavior that a new vision implies.” (xix)

If your vision is just an incremental modification of the current status, major structural changes in the organization may be unnecessary. But if the vision is a radical departure from the status quo, significant changes may be required so that the organization’s structure will aid, not impede, the new direction. These changes may impact human resources, budget, facilities, systems, and operations.

10. Immediately connect vision with execution.

“Ideas don’t move mountains; bulldozers move mountains, but ideas show where the bulldozers have to go to work.” Peter Drucker

Quinn adds, “When we have a vision, it does not necessarily mean that we have a plan. We may know where we want to be, but not know the actual steps to get there.”

The epitaph of many organizations might be: They had an exciting vision but it was poorly implemented. Crafting credible vision is necessary but not sufficient; it gets you to first base but doesn’t add any points to the scoreboard.

Vision defines what the organization wants to do; execution considers how it will be done.

It’s important to talk about execution while you’re crafting vision because it forces you to test the credibility of vision early on. You may be visualizing a future that is totally unrealistic and unattainable.

11. Continually adjust your vision.

Military personnel know that no strategy can withstand first contact with the enemy. Military strategists compose a strategy based on available information but as soon as the enemy is engaged variables change and plans must be adjusted.

Similarly, football coaches prepare a game-plan before the game but it is usually fine-tuned at half-time in response to current reality.

In like manner, regardless of how well-thought-out your vision may be, when it comes in contact with the future it will need to be adjusted. This is particularly true for dynamic organizations operating in fast-changing environments.

Vision cannot be static and immutable. Because we’re dealing with the unknown (the future), vision must be malleable and dynamic. That’s no excuse for being wishy-washy, tentative, or hesitant about your vision, but you must be flexible and resilient.


Vision-casting is a never-ending process. Get good at this and you will lead well; ignore this lesson and your leadership will always be lacking.

Re-printed from “Think with Me”



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