The Art of Leadership: One Clear Vision

If the requirements of a effective leader are ranked in order of importance, the ability to set and communicate a vision for the organisation will (or should) be at the top of the list. No leader can afford to be vague about the purpose of their organisation and their plans for the future, both immediate and long-term.

We should stress that setting a vision and writing a mission statement are not the same thing. A simple and clear mission statement can help to communicate the direction of the organisation but, let’s be honest, it is difficult to find a mission statement these days that has not been buried in management speak. By setting a vision we mean understanding and communicating the point of the business – why do you do you what you do, every day?

The 17 leaders we interviewed for our recent book What Do Leaders Really Do? came from a wide variety of organisations and backgrounds, from a FTSE 100 company to the England rugby team. Each one stressed that they would be no kind of leader unless they had – and frequently demonstrated – a clear sense of purpose.

The central issue for any leader is how to hit on a sense of purpose that will appeal to all employees. The business writer Warren Bennis argues that all great organisations are built around a shared dream. ‘Your team need not believe that it is literally saving the world,’ says Bennis in his book Secrets of Great Groups. ‘It is enough to feel it is helping people in need or battling a tough competitor. Simply punching a time clock doesn’t do it.’

Often, setting a vision is as simple as creating an imaginary hurdle. One of the leaders we interviewed, Martin Glenn, the former president of PepsiCo UK and now chief executive of the frozen foods group Birds Eye Iglo, believes strongly that a vision should appeal to the emotions. ‘People respond well to stories,’ he said. ‘We remember emotions better than we do fact.’

Glenn put his ideas into practice when he took over at Birds Eye following its demerger from Unilever, the group was the largest frozen foods business in Europe. He recognised that his employees needed a motivational target, and quickly.

The enemy Glenn identified was the chilled food market. ‘Frozen food is a much smaller market than chilled food and a much less important one,’ he told us. ‘It’s much more fun being an underdog in a turnaround situation than it is being the big beast. It appealed to people’s basic human emotions about where they would rather be.’

Identifying an enemy is not an option for every organisation, though. The good news is that a good vision is not a mystical process. The business writer and lecturer John Kotter argues that setting a vision is not about inspiration, but about pure hard work. He describes it as a ‘tough and sometimes exhausting process of gathering and analysing information. People who articulate such visions are not magicians but broad-based thinkers who are willing to take risks.’

In Kotter’s view a vision does not have to be brilliantly innovative (he argues that some of the best are not). The crucial element is that it is understandable and can be translated into a realistic competitive strategy. A good vision will serve three important purposes:• It clarifies the direction of the organisation• It motivates people to take action in the right direction• It helps co-ordinate the actions of a wide collection of individuals.

The process of setting a vision for an organisation was explained very clearly to us by Sebastian Coe, chairman of the London Organising Committee of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. In May 2004 Lord Coe was appointed chairman of the Bid Committee for the Games, just over a year before the final decision was due to be made on the winning bid by the International Olympics Committee. As he told us, at the time the mission of the organisation was clear; it was to win the bid. What was less apparent was why its mission was to win the bid.

Lord Coe told us that he felt strongly that in order for the bid to be successful, there had to be a clear vision that was inspirational, could be clearly articulated and that was as unique as possible (if it was to stand up against the other bids). The vision would also have to be carried forward to a fast-growing organisation, if the bid was successful.

Coe took a systematic approach to developing a vision for the Committee, gathering together everyone in his team for two days, with the help of external facilitators to ensure that the group did not talk itself into circles. The starting point was Coe’s belief that the sport he had been involved with for most of his life was slowing drifting off the radar screen of the younger generation. ‘I always knew that we were going to talk about engaging the next generation, about taking the chance to regenerate a large part of East London and about getting sport higher up the political and social agenda,’ he told us.

‘When I joined the Committee we had a collection of hugely talented people but I did sense that the transport people just wanted to build the best transport system in the world and the security people just wanted to create the best security system in the world. No-one was really answering the question, “Why?”. We needed to go back to basics and think about why we were really doing this. It wasn’t to build a better railway or the most inventive stadium. It wasn’t to boost tourist numbers. It was to get more kids into sport.’

At the end of two days of discussion, the team had drilled these ideas into the simplest possible vision: ‘It was to inspire young people; that was why we are here.’ The Committee’s official vision statement now says that its aim is to stage inspirational games that capture the imagination of young people around the world and leave a lasting legacy. The Committee’s bid, and Coe’s famous speech at the IOC meeting, was built around this vision and, he believes, was the vital element that won London the Games. ‘My gut feeling was that once we had articulated the vision clearly we would have a much better change of being able to communicate it externally. And that was the case.’

In other words, creating the vision is only half of the battle. All the leaders we spoke to stressed that a good vision means nothing unless it is communicated clearly throughout an organisation. Next time we will look at how leaders communicate throughout their organisation, both in terms of an overarching vision and the more mundane day-to-day communication that ensure that their employees remain committed to the organisation as well as its leader.

What Do Leaders Really Do? by Jeff Grout and Liz Fisher is available from - click on the writing link on the website

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