Leaders set direction, align resources, and motivate action as suggested by the panels in Figure 1. Another way to put it is that a leader develops, holds, nurtures, communicates, and drives to achieve a vision.
As in Figure 2, it helps to think of the leader holding a map, like Harry Potter’s Marauder’s map that is always changing, making sense of it, and navigating the course with those led looking on over the shoulders. The best leaders constantly check with their top team to confirm that they are headed toward the same goals, in the same way, and for the same reasons.
Top leaders are also always open to input from their core team to tweak goals and plans along the way. Clarity starts with the leader. If the leader is not clear then no one else can be clear. A leader either:
- Has a vision and a plan and is marshaling and motivating resources accordingly.
- Does not have a vision and plan and is, or should be, driving to put one together.
When things fall off track such that the status quo is no longer acceptable, the organization will founder until a new vision and plan to achieve it are formed and communicated. To regain its footing a leadership team might go offsite with a facilitator to develop a new vision and game plan.
Asserting a Vision
Preparing for and conducting a facilitated session can accomplish a lot. It can help a leader get clear by serving as a forum in which to talk about ideas and plans; it can help a leader who thinks they are clear to test for alignment among their top team; and it can inform a leader who is coming up with a vision by getting feedback, ideas, and pushback from those he or she most trusts.
On the other hand, a vision does not magically appear from any facilitated process. Without someone asserting a vision for the team to react to, work on, and push and pull into something they can all align around, the group will be ineffective. Many vision-setting exercises get stuck because no one in the group is comfortable enough to put forth a specific idea for fear that:
- Others will think it presumptuous of them.
- It may be ridiculed.
- It may be wrong or inadequate in important ways.
- It may inhibit others with better ideas.
The group, though, needs something to work with and it is a leader’s job is to give the group something to work with.
Whoever asserts a vision for the team to work with towards a clear conclusion, is acting as a leader.
To get a set of possible visions to start with ahead of a session, the leader with the help of a coach or facilitator might do any or all of the following:
- Have each team member submit a vision, anonymously if necessary.
- Hire a consultant to generate alternatives.
- Compile alternatives based on what other admired organizations are doing.
In the session, select from the above, or from what otherwise occurs, and start with that as if it were the vision. Iterate with the team on it until it becomes clear that it is right and alignment can be achieved, or set it aside and work with another.
Repeat until a vision to align around is found even if it takes several sessions. If participants share their thinking openly, fully, and honestly they can go a long way towards achieving the needed clarity.
The one who then holds the results of those efforts and who furthers its development, communicates it to stakeholders, and aligns and drives resources in its pursuit is effectively filling the role of leader.
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Editor’s Note: Updated May 2020, originally posted December 12, 2012.