Why visions fail
Once a vision misses its time and season, it disintegrates into mere wishful thinking.
Nothing proves more fatal for vision than shifting attention.
I have counselled leaders to acquire a third eye – the eye to see an ideal future state for their organisations. I mean the capacity to conceive and implement visions of developmental changes. For vision is the hub of leadership. Leaders who
deride visions can’t improve their organisation in any remarkable way.
For example, when Louis Gerstner Jr. became CEO of IBM in 1993, the company was in deep red with annual net loses of $8bn. Yet Gerstner was quoted as saying: “The last thing IBM needs is a vision.” But within two years, he changed that view and embarked on a vision trip that led IBM into a network computing service. Soon, the company was recording 20% annual growth in the new venture. Note, however, that without vision Gerstner didn’t turn the tide for IBM. But when he developed, clarified, shared and launched a vision, the company revived.
Yes, visioning is an indispensable function of leadership; but visions sometimes fail to materialise. As a forecast of the future, a vision requires that certain factors be shut out to give the vision chance to mature and materialise. The realisation of a vision isn’t automatic. You may have a mental picture of remarkable development for your organisation and its people. But if you ignore the effect that certain intervening variables may have on your vision, the vision may turn out to be wishful thinking. Giving the factors the chance to act is the reason why some visions fail to “click”.
I call the factors inhibitors (see diagram). They may strike at three stages in the visioning process: between the vision’s formation and action; between action and mission; and between mission activities and full realisation of the vision’s goals (destination). I will treat each inhibitor separately.
Factors inhibiting the visioning process
* Desperation: Because of their importance and centrality in leadership, visions are attractive to leaders. No sooner a leader assumes office than he begins to think about visions. Such obsession may make the leader overlook the seedbeds of authentic interest and ambition that visions require to emerge and mature. This rush into visioning is a desperate act put up by some leaders to justify their appointments – since it gives the impression that something new is about to happen. A vision so desperately formed and launched to boost the leader’s image and massage his ego is bound to fail. The absence of gestation and authentic interest will doom any vision.
* Delay: The motivational writer and bestselling author, John L. Mason, said: “Ideas have shelf life; that’s why we must act before the expiration date.” Visions have a lifespan beyond which they become impracticable and unnecessary. Therefore, while you shouldn’t hurry through visioning, you shouldn’t drag the process and defer action. The Book of Ecclesiastes says: “There is a time for everything.” Once a vision misses its time and season, it disintegrates into mere wishful thinking.
Strike the iron when it is red hot, an adage says. I say launch the vision when it matters; for later unpredictable cosmic forces might strike and cause it fatal damage. Develop your vision. Share it with your organisation’s rank and file. Set a launching date. Wait for clear weather; then get going.
* Derailment: By derailment, I mean the loss of focus. Nothing proves more fatal for vision than shifting attention. If you keep deferring action on your vision or you relish detours while the vision is in flight, you will derail. Perseverance keeps visions in orbit and ensures they are pursued to the end. If you lose focus and call it deferment, you might find on resumption that the world has moved on and your vision isn’t relevant anymore. Remember, visions have shelf life. So, avoid distractions. H. Besser shares a Norwegian fable (re-told by Robin Kegler) about a man who left his hometown to rejoin his fiancée. They planned to get married when he arrived. That’s vision! Now, our man didn’t like the direct route to his fiancée’s place because the route lacked adventure. Eventually, the man forgot about his purpose and went on aimless tours. After many years of wandering, he came back to his senses and decided to retrace his steps. But his fiancée had stopped waiting and married another man. By the time the man arrived, he looked much older, lonely and poor. His long journey had brought him no gain but robbed him of his vision forever. Lesson: Hold on to your vision as long as it is relevant. Deferment of a vision may result in its death.
* Dictatorship: The fourth factor that may scuttle a vision is dictatorship. You may conceive the vision alone; but you need midwives to help you develop and deliver it. Autocratic leadership may apply in certain organisational context, but never in the birthing of and acting on visions. The vision thing won’t answer to the traditional top-down method of innovation transfer. A vision must be shared with the workforce on whose efforts its realisation depends. Ken Blanchard and Jerse Stoner, two experts in visionary leadership, advise that you “allow others to have an opportunity to help shape the vision, to put their thumbprint on it. This will help to deepen their understanding and commitment…”
Sharing your vision with the workforce and calling for their input doesn’t mean erosion of your authority. Rather, it places you firmly in the driver’s seat and helps you keep everyone on board as the journey begins and continues. Leaders averse to participative style of leadership may carry on well with a measure of success. But the sour dividends of low commitment and employee retention will be part of the gain. For employees know how to cut down their loyalty and feign productivity when they are not motivated to see the leader’s vision as their own.
* Defective Communication: It isn’t enough to share the vision with the workforce; you have to communicate the vision such that you earn the people’s support. And this isn’t as simple as it seems. For communication isn’t just saying what you want to say but ensuring that you are understood and given expected feedback. And that can’t be done in a one-way-traffic flow of words. Development communication is interactive. A channel for feedback should be created in the system or you won’t be able to tell if you are heard.
Donald Clark, scholar and writer on leadership and management, hints at this when he writes: “Communication is an exchange, not just a give, as all parties must participate to complete the information exchange.” Doing this doesn’t mean you are pandering to people’s whims. But it does mean that you understand that you can’t handle the challenges of your visions alone; and those that might help out need to buy the vision and make it their own to give maximum dose of their commitment to the efforts needed to realise the vision’s goals. Communication, especially for persuasion, carries the air of deceptive simplicity. But it is a complex human activity that thrives on the intricacy of the spoken and written word. I will examine in detail the role of communication in leadership at the appropriate time. Meanwhile, when you communicate your vision to your workers, be forthcoming, honest, passionate, humble, firm and open to counter–opinions. Speak so the people may buy.
* Despair: Once launched, a vision moves an organisation into a faith venture. Nothing is predictable in nature; and the changing landscape might threaten the survival of your vision. Money may become scarce, machines may break down and key workers may leave. All this may shake your resolve to continue with the vision, though the prospects of success still appear bright. The feeling of despair is stronger and bites harder when all social indicators are suggesting you had better wind it up and quit. But if the vision hasn’t “expired” and your organisation’s progress still depends on it, hold on to it and keep inching forward. You may re-organise, recruit, re-order your priorities and re-make your budget. Pray if you can but don’t kill the vision if it begs to live.
My attempt to establish my ministry (the Deeper Life) in Ghana was rattled by certain resistant forces. I had held a successful programme that drew hundreds of followers. I had formed partnerships with native ministers and was counting on their support to open a branch and take off. But we disagreed on certain principles; so they walked out on me and left me to carry the can. Initial followership thinned down such that it appeared better to quit the project than continue. But I continued, anyway, because the vision looked viable. My ministry has since taken root in Ghana with membership now about 15,000. His vision dies he who surrenders to despair.
* Doubt: Doubt is very dangerous to visioning. A vision is an imaginative picture of a future state you desire for your organisation. While such a mental portrait of change should be realistic and achievable, you will require a good dose of faith to believe it will happen; or you won’t start out. If you allow in doubt at any stage of the vision process, you will get stuck and eventually quit. The causatives of doubt are: limited resources, threat of competition from rival organisations, the landscape, timing, and the weather. Watch for them and ignore them when they arise. There are other factors responsible for the death of many visions. But those discussed here are major ones you need to resist so that your visions may come true. Although visioning is the nucleus of leadership, leaders need more than visions to put their organisations on the world’s industrial success map. I will dwell on these other essentials next time.