What makes for inspiring leadership?

The key to good leadership can be thought of as the creation and keeping alive of a compelling picture of the future state of your organisation. In other words, a ‘Vision’.

If, as you read this, your organisation has not provided you with a compelling picture, one that seriously excites you, then your leaders are not leading effectively.

If you are the leader of an organisation that does not have a vision you have contributed towards creating, that excites you and everyone around you, and that you are ‘holding’, then you are leading an organisation that has insufficient focus.

What is your role as a leader?

Your key job is to ‘hold’ the vision – to take full accountability for the job of keeping the vision alive, day in, day out. How do you know it’s alive? People are continually excited, inspired and committed to its achievement. If they are stressed, weary, overloaded and resigned, they’ve lost it! It’s your job to resolve whatever needs resolving to bring people around you back into that state of excitement and inspiration – back in touch with the vision.

How can you do this?

  • The first part, though not easy, is simple: engage people in creating a compelling picture of the organisation’s future which is attractive to its customers, suppliers and investors, and inspiring and empowering to those who work in it.
  • Design a plan to fulfil the vision, and focus everyone’s efforts on its achievement. A vision is just a set of words; until it is translated into action and results, nothing has changed.
  • Now this is the difficult bit! Live, breathe and role-model the vision every day. Successful leaders never assume that their organisation is ‘on board’ with the vision – they go on and on and on about it. This, not the day-to-day detail, is your primary job as a leader.
  • Don’t do people’s jobs for them, or chase them to do their jobs; clear the way for them to do their own jobs effectively and fulfil the vision.

What makes an inspiring vision?

Great visions, and effective leaders, rattle cages. They are radical, contrasting sharply with the current view, and with the past. They demand attention. The question is, “What are we building here?” And the answer isn’t incremental: ‘more’, ‘better’, ‘higher’ are not words which are visionary or inspiring, but ones which are rooted in the past. You can only do ‘better’ if you are basing your objectives on what you’ve already done! Objectives by themselves are not exciting. A great vision communicated by a great leader is, and draws people in.

Whose visions are these? (Answers at the foot of this post).

  1. To have a computer on every desk.
  2. Land a man on the moon and safely return him to earth by the end of (this) decade.
  3. All men will be judged by the merit of their character, not by the colour of their skin.
  4. Low Prices, Low Costs.
  5. To become the most competitive enterprise in the world by being number one or number two in market share in every business the company is in.

These examples may not excite you – they were designed by and for the people they were meant to attract. That’s the very point we’re making here – visions on paper don’t work! You need to breathe life into them with your own passion and commitment. However, every one of them is a bold statement of a clearly recognisable outcome. Every one is capable of measurement – indeed, some have already been achieved. CEOs and executive groups often find it difficult to stretch their thinking toward the future. They’re very “grounded,” realistic people. They are drawn towards missions, which describe what an organisation does now and in the future, rather than visions, which describe why an organisation engages in these activities.

Don’t create a strategic plan to achieve a goal or objective in the hope that it will inspire – it won’t. Explore and draw out your vision first, to provide the context for your strategies and objectives. Computers, processes and policies don’t need enrolling, inspiring and focusing – people do!

Our experience of working with developing organisations is that the process of drawing out the shared vision is as important as the vision itself. And the process will vary from one organisation to another. But the genius of a great leadership group lies in its ability to create a vision that is simple enough to be really understood and remembered, credible enough to be embraced by all, and, above all, special and inspiring enough to have everyone committed fully to working continually towards attaining it.

Answers to ‘whose visions are these?’:

  1. Microsoft.
  2. President John F Kennedy. This is the famous challenge issued to NASA in 1961 – a simple, specific task and timeframe.
  3. Rev Dr Martin Luther King – this is an excerpt from the famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.
  4. Ryanair.
  5. General Electric – this statement was the famous challenge that CEO Jack Welch issued to his division heads in the mid 1980s.

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