Finding an Appetite for Vision

As we discussed last week, there is plenty of evidence that a leader with a strong vision can help an organization thrive. Increasingly, the need for an organizational vision is conventional and accepted wisdom. So why does the gap between believing in this and doing it persist? Why is it so hard for leaders to develop and implement a vision? Over the past decade, I’ve found that leaders who overcame this gap were adept at being able to see far into the future; they also had a greater capacity for introspection and were able to see and understand their own feelings as the vision evolved. They could articulate the vision and their passion for it both to themselves and to others. They were willing to face the reality that if the vision process at their organization stalled, it was perhaps because of their own inertia. And, most important, they were willing to be true to their own values and refrain from placing blame for inaction on some institutional imperative or “resistance to change.” Rather than viewing the vision dispassionately from the outside, they engaged in a full exploration of how they thought and felt about the vision and what would be required of them to implement it.

These leaders were willing to ask themselves a critical question: “Where does my appetite for vision, with all the risk inherent in its development, come from?” The response to this question provides important insight into where your particular passion stems from.

The “appetite” often comes from living through life-changing events that trigger unique insights, and emerging with a new resolve. It comes from finding the passion on a personal level and harnessing it to hold on to, even before the vision development process gets under way.

Many people have been forced to look inward for meaning in response to an emotionally charged event such as the death or serious illness of a loved one, a divorce, growing up poor or discriminated against, rejection by a role model—things beyond their control that were integral to who they became. These experiences may leave them with feelings of profound separateness, perhaps anger and disorientation. For these people, what often emerges is the need to examine goals, values, and how they want to live in the world. The question, “Why did this happen to me?” evokes emotional energy, which can either be turned on oneself in a counterproductive way or applied in a creative burst of productive energy.

Two wonderful examples of leaders who used this energy for good are Andy Grove and Dave Thomas. Grove is the former CEO and current chairman of Intel. He escaped Nazi Europe with his parents, learned new languages to survive, came to the United States with virtually nothing, worked his way through college and a doctoral program, and waged a winning fight against prostate cancer. Thomas, founder of Wendy’s, was an adopted orphan and high school dropout who ended up leading a chain of six thousand restaurants. He had the audacity to think he could improve on the fast-food burger, and he dedicated his life to helping abandoned children.

Theories and research that attempt to explain the success of organizational leaders express a similar theme: leadership is less about sheer talent than about introspection forged from events that caused great discomfort or even suffering. It is more than a coincidence that so many people who have successfully built and run complex organizations have been shaped into leaders by great personal trials. At one time or another they have had to let go of something they thought was important.

Now, they seek to help others cross the abyss between where they are—the status quo—and where they want to be: that highly defined vision of the distant future. Perhaps they can do this for others because they have had to do it for themselves. They have the capacity to speak to the depths of another person because they are in touch with their own deeper conflicts. They found support along the way through the intensity of their convictions and their awareness of the impressions they left on others.

In 1987, serial nonprofit executive director Elisabet Eklind got married and moved to the United States from Stockholm, Sweden, where she had lived all her life. In March 1993, her husband died after a long battle with cancer. She told me that as she sat in her home after his death, she realized that she could either “die” then and there as well—simply continue going through the motions of living—or she could rebuild herself. Start again, in other words, and work through the pain. She chose the latter and, as she says, has emerged “a stronger, better person for the effort.”

Eklind’s effort to find a new awareness has shaped her life in ways she never imagined. It has also shaped the way she approaches her work, first as executive director of HIPPY USA, a nonprofit whose purpose is to enhance the potential for educational success of low-income children, then with other nonprofits she led, and now as the executive director of the international NGO VGIF. She realized that to truly realign the values of her organization, she would have to bring the effects of her personal journey to bear on the effort. “You carry significant experiences with you, and they shape the way you look at the world,” she said. “And if you let them, they shape the way you approach your work and think about what your organization or company needs. I began using my own personal experiences at HIPPY to help see the organization with greater clarity than I ever could have before.”

Those who create and implement visions that serve as engines for guided corporate growth know who they are and what they want their organizations to be. Their articulated vision comes alive from a conviction that not only meets their personal need for action but is also part of a much larger purpose. In this way, all of us may turn the worst moments in our life into an opportunity to become something greater.

What significant event in your life has helped you better understand your core values, and how might those values play a part in your organization’s vision?