To be recognized as a leader, is it necessary to have a vision? The obvious answer is no, atleast, generally speaking. This is so because a leader is not necessarily the person at the apex of the organization chart; there are invariably as many leaders on the lower levels of the hierarchy too. It is critical to remind ourselves at this stage that the simplest definition of a leader is; a person who has followers. So, in more than one way, the manager of a unit, with several reports, is a leader. The manager KPI’s would relate to the respective division’s goals and objectives for a year or several years. Goals and objectives, are not a vision.
The concept of vision is not about sight; it is all about the divinely blessed ability to see beyond the visible and obvious. Essentially it is the eye of the soul. So, this piece is about that vision, which the board of an organization spells out to the designated CEO; who has to realize the vision through strategy and policy making; subsequent to which the CEO develops goals and targets, that are assigned to his team and co-workers.
In relation to this stated context, vision is the sine-qua-non of leadership. All that may appear hazy and cloudy to others, will look clear to the one possessed of vision; it is the art of seeing the invisible, too. The use of eyes is to look, but it is the ability to look beyond the apparent, that constitutes vision. Vision allows us to make great endeavors and efforts. The naked wires in the hands of Thomas Edison did not make sense to the on-lookers, only he had the ‘vision’ that when connected with the, right formula, those very wires would produce/generate light and it was his conviction.
We only see what we look for; we can however also envision our dreams and thinking. There is amongst philosophers a clear distinction between what is looking and what is seeing? -- looking is a physical act, witnessed by others too, which essentially is the work of an eye; whilst ‘seeing’ is spiritual, it allows for the imagination to not merely soar, but also remain within continuous focus.
Corporate leaders too make a mental picture of what direction the organization should move towards - in the life of the corporate, like a nation, there is no single destination to arrive at … the vision is but a journey with predetermined and finely placed on a timeline, the numerous milestones, to be achieved, while on the journey. Significantly therefore vision, both short and long-term, is to set the sails correctly and appropriately, to ensure that the direction set, corresponds with the primary dictates of the managers. The founding fathers of USA spent several months documenting their vision for the future country, ultimately titled ‘Declaration of Independence’. Their journey is continuing accordingly. As they progress on the path, they introduce out of experience more improvements.
The wider the horizon of thought, the better is the vision. Never draw upon the rear vision glasses for the future journey, instead see straight through the windshield/screen. Vision can only be forward-looking. Albert Einstein had remarked, “Most people see what is and never what can be”. Here in my view the ‘most’ represents the ‘followers’ and those who can see ‘what can be’, are leaders/visionaries. Those subscribing to the achievement of the impossible are visionary managers. These are those who willingly leave and abandon the apron strings of dependability on the continuation of status quo and are confident enough to think they can change, all that is besetting as a challenge.
From the arena of politics, we acquire awareness that leadership is not being leader just for an area, called say, a country -- leadership extends beyond this narrow description. Lee Kuan Yew, the Singaporean leader was the most brilliant and vitriolic critic of Vietnam; yet later on in life, he became for the Vietnamese leadership a guide, mentor and advisor. He helped Vietnam develop an economic Vision. As a reference point to our own predicament of how to deal with the white elephant called State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), I got attracted to the following remarks, Lee made in his voluminous memoirs, “We (him and the Vietnamese leadership) discussed the loss making state-owned institutions, SOEs. They wanted to privatize them or sell-off to workers and others. I explained that this method would not provide them with what was critical- efficient management. Singapore airlines was 100 percent government owned, but it was efficient and profitable because it had to compete against international airlines. We did not subsidize it, if it was not profitable, it would have to close down. I recommended that they privatize the SOEs by bringing foreign corporations to get an injection of management expertise and foreign capital for new technology. A change in the management system was essential. They needed to work with foreigners to learn on the job. Privatizing within the country by selling to their own people could not bring about this result”. This is visionary stuff. Is somebody reading/listening at the PM’s Office or the Ministry of Privatization? A dire need to think beyond conventions. We have not been able to conclusively decide on how to deal with our non-performing SOEs.
Vision must inherently be inspirational and motivational. Followers must be drawn naturally towards it and they must own, the vision as their own. This can be achieved if the leader embarks with some element of a dramatic start, the doubts must be dispelled, suspicions removed and all fears must be set aside.
The demand on visionary leadership is to be seen as one that honors commitments, reflects positivity against challenges, recognizes hard work and encourages initiative. It is the leaders job to create the visionary narrative and thence sell it well, with adequate articulation to the team. Brick and mortar in isolation do not present an awesome sight, but when glued together they can become Taj Mahal. A visionary sees clearly the fruit of his labour, even before it sprouts or blossoms. Visionary leadership is about planting for tomorrow and beyond, with no hope or expectation of reaping the harvest. Laozi, the famous sage from China had said, “To see things in the seed, that is genius”. Leaders be at a minimum must have intellect and wisdom, in equal proportion. Visionaries are selfless individuals; those narrow of vision cannot be big of heart.
Corporate leaders must take a cue from Henry Kissinger’s words: "If you do not know where you are going, then you are unlikely to go where you need to go".
The author is a senior banker and a freelance columnist