Read almost any book on leadership, whether it's written for business people, academics, clergy, or others, and you'll see essentially the same piece of advice. Leaders, they say, must start with and harp on a vision.
Some insist that the vision must well up from the leader, from his or her gut or as the result of prayer. Others commend a process that develops consensus through a systematic poll of an organization's stakeholders. But however it comes about, the gurus tell us, once a vision is identified, it must become the roadmap, the obsession, and the mantra of the leader.
There is merit to this, of course. But a vision can become a prison for a leader. It can also become an excuse. I knew the leader of a large organization who was big on "the vision thing." It dictated his every decision, to the point of his neglecting the necessary care and feeding of his subordinates and failing to take advantage of opportunities that would have been well-suited to his company. Inertia set in and soon, it became obvious that when he talked about vision to his board or employees, they were tuning him out. He resigned his position.
Don't get me wrong. Leaders need to have a vision. But their visions must be kept in tension with other elements of the leaders' art. A helpful article appearing in the latest issue of Leadership magazine profiles lay and clergy leaders of churches that have turned around to grow after plateauing numerically. One of the article's conclusions: "Turnaround leaders pay careful attention to team building and timing, not just vision."
Caring about people and being sensitive to when it's time to forge ahead, or consolidate, or innovate are at least as important as vision. Vision is overrated when these other attributes of leadership are subordinated to it.
[In the next installment of this series, I'll talk about the first thing that a leader must do.]