What is Vision in Leadership?

What is Vision in Leadership? In a three-part feature, Professor Christian Koenig and Tom Gamble, ESSEC Business School, approach the question of how leaders can build a vision, purpose and meaning for their teams and organisations that can benefit the wider community and the common good.

In a three-part feature, Professor Christian Koenig and Tom Gamble, ESSEC Business School, approach the question of how leaders can build a vision, purpose and meaning for their teams and organisations that can benefit the wider community and the common good.

What is Vision in Leadership? by Tom Gamble and Christian Koenig, with acknowledgements to Robert Dilts.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea. Antoine de Saint Exupéry

What is vision in leadership? What are the challenges?   

“Vision” in management and leadership is a word that is used confusingly. How often have you heard people say “we have to gain vision on the market” or “our vision is to become the first in our field”. Moreover, vision is often mistaken for goals, strategies, and ambitions. So in a leadership context it is not about personal, inwards looking strategies, goals and objectives, but all about setting a long-term perspective, aspiration or destination.

It has to include a certain “vagueness” in order to inspire people’s imaginations to visualise a personalised image of that vision, yet it moves people in a direction within a set of guidelines. These guidelines may contain specific rules and objectives, strategies on how to reach the objectives that lead to the vision, milestones, beliefs, skills requirements, behaviours and overriding purpose. A vision has to be approximate enough to fire people’s minds and inspire them, but also plausible enough to resist ridicule, disbelief, rejection or failure.

Finally, a leader’s vision is perennial. It outlasts the leader when he/she has gone from the picture. It can provide the manager-leader with a lasting legacy – the matter that provides organisations with their necessary myths, legends and “founding fathers”.

The characteristics of a vision for your teams and organisation

Vision and envisioning has a set of concrete attributes, primarily providing long-term goals that excite, engage and motivate people and describe a specific journey towards a destination. A vision also creates stretch between people and resources which provides motivating challenge.

These challenges in turn lead to creating benefits and added value that create competitive edge – new skills, new products or services, positioning, market share or innovations. A vision, through the challenges it sets, necessarily inspires the creativity in how to reach it through team/skills mix, ideas, initiative, empowerment, strategies and resources.

Finally, it offers people a picture of the future that impacts their present and drives them to overcome everyday trials and hardships by setting a hope, ideal and target to reach.

The challenges facing the leader

The very raison d’être of a leader is to guide or lead people somewhere and to lead them to believe differently. But the task is not an easy one. The leader has to find the fine balance between dream and credibility, imposing and sharing and setting example before he/she can make people believe that the destination is worth going to.

Vision is also an exercise in creativity and credibility: it has to set new rules of the game and ambitions, and it has to be embodied in concrete results. A vision is not a mad scheme or conceptual fantasy that once ventured demonstrates a complete disregard of reality or lack of sufficient resources. Neither is it the sole idea and dream of a leader who imposes it on the team or organisation. In order to gain people’s heads and hearts, the vision has to be flexible enough to take on its contributors’ ideas, own pictures of what the vision will bring and their initiatives to reach it.

Communicating the vision not only demands great skill on the part of the leader in connecting to his/her people, but also includes walking the talk – actually doing what you say and encapsulating the values and behaviours required to do it.

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Learn more about the Council on Business & Society

The Council on Business & Society (The CoBS), visionary in its conception and purpose, was created in 2011, and is dedicated to promoting responsible leadership and tackling issues at the crossroads of business and society including sustainability, diversity, ethical leadership and the place responsible business has to play in contributing to the common good.  

Member schools are all “Triple Crown” accredited AACSB, EQUIS and AMBA and leaders in their respective countries.

The Council on Business & Society member schools:
- Asia-Pacific: Keio Business School, Japan; School of Management Fudan University; China; ESSEC Business School Asia-Pacific, Singapore.
- Europe: ESSEC Business School, France; IE Business School, Spain; Trinity Business School, Ireland; Warwick Business School, United Kingdom.
- Africa: Stellenbosch Business School, South Africa; ESSEC Africa, Morocco. 
- South America: FGV-EAESP, Brazil.

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