We have long understood the ability to describe an attractive future to be a core competency of leadership. A vision is a description of the future that is attractive because it expresses the possibility of realizing values that are important to people. A leader who can articulate such a vision creates the following of people who share a commitment to these values.
It is useful to look at what leaders do when they articulate a vision. Fundamentally what they do is speak. This may seems obvious, but it also helps take the mystery out of leading. It is not just any old speaking that leaders do when they create vision. They speak new possibilities. They declare what they see to be possible. Think about the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” At the time, these words were not statements of fact, or even a general popular opinion. These words were an articulation of a possibility that did not yet exist, yet was extremely attractive. The more audacious the possibility, the greater the gap between the vision and the way it is today. Vision emerges as a collective commitment to a set of possibilities in the future, reflecting the shared values and mutual understanding of everyone. The challenge that leaders face is to speak visions in ways that engage people. At first, visions may sound impossible to people in the organization. You can look at this as a leader talking “pie in the sky” or as people being unable or unwilling to hear new possibilities. When Gandhi said, “the British will leave India,” it was an outrageous thing to say. Nonetheless, in 1947, the British did leave.
Leaders recognize that it is their job to speak in a way that allows people to engage with the future they are describing. To engage people, leaders must take into account the assumptions that people hold about what is possible. We all have views about what can and cannot be done. A good leader will engage us to examine our assumptions and question them. Another term for our set of assumptions about how things work is “mental model”.
Leaders who are concerned with activating people’s energy and engagement will be mindful not to force their vision on people. Instead they will engage people in dialogue, putting forward their own view of what is possible and listening respectfully to the views of others. When people share their mental models, they build mutual understanding that creates a greater sense of trust and a basis for alignment. Vision emerges as a collective commitment to a set of possibilities in the future, reflecting the shared values and mutual understanding of everyone.