That Vision Thing

The name Tony Dungy may ring a bell for many of you, but his name may not be readily paired with the following quote:

“The first step toward creating an improved future is developing the ability to envision it. Vision will ignite the fire of passion that fuels our commitment to do whatever it takes to achieve excellence. Only vision allows us to transform dreams of greatness into the reality of achievement through human action. Vision has no boundaries and knows no limits. Our vision is what we become in life”

While Tony may not be recognized by most as a leader of organizational transformation, I’ll bet that most of the players he coached along the way might disagree. The lesson in Tony’s words is summed up as “vision is where transformation begins; it provides both the destination and the inspiration needed for successful transformation.”

So what is this vision thing? In simplest terms vision can be defined as a “unique image of the future.” It is imaging what is possible–and then telling others. It begins in the mind’s eye–it is visual, not verbal—and it uses imagination (something many of us haven’t used for a while in our daily work).

Walt Disney was a great example. He died shortly before Disney World Florida was opened. The president of Disney introduced Walt’s widow Lillian Disney at the official opening with the words “I only wish Walt could have seen this.” Mrs. Disney walked to the podium and uttered just two words “He did.” The clarity of Walt’s vision for what could be is what inspired Walt’s brother Roy, to ensure that Disneyland ended up as more than just a vision.

Some belittle the concept and refer to it as the “vision thing.” Interestingly enough Bennis and Nanus discovered in their research that “attention through vision” was a key strategy in their study of the top 90 business leaders. So there must be something  to that “vision thing.”

Here are some things to know about the power of vision as the cornerstone of transformation efforts.

  • It differentiates your organization from others
  • It helps in attracting, inspiring and retaining employees and creates a uniqueness that fosters pride
  • Vision works the same way with customers as it does employees
  • Vision is a powerful tool for giving investors something to believe in as the future is created

Effective leaders don’t simply impose their vision on others; they recruit others to a share vision. Especially in our digital age, when power tends to coalesce around ideas, not position. Selling and engaging others with a vision that contrasts the present with the possibility of a different future provides hope and it is hope that drives people to behave differently and to take action to help the vision become a reality. Discretionary effort ensues.

So how then does a leader access this “vision thing”? It starts with a word: Neoteny. Defined as “the retention of youthful qualities by adults,” it is actually much more. Neoteny is a Greek word that literally means the retention of those wonderful qualities that we associate with youth. Qualities like curiosity, eagerness, warmth, and energy. People are attracted to realistic optimism–it gives a leader the power to recruit others to buy into what they see.

By the way, this “vision thing” is not about words on a wall in the reception area. This is about the pictures that employees carry in their heads, pictures that inspire, direct and drive them as part of something bigger than themselves.

With a clear vision in place the only other things needed are the commitment and determination to continually reach toward the vision when it would be easier to go back to the way it was. So spend some time thinking about the vision that you carry in your head, articulate it and then spread it. Leading transformation starts with the leader seeing that “what is”  is no longer an option, and then developing clarity about what is to be and then communicating the heck out of it. That is how championship teams and businesses are created.

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