Tuesday, January 24, 2006

When the "Vision Thing" Skipped Town

Somewhere in the multitude of Prime Minister Paul Martin’s priorities, a vision lurked. Occasionally, it would shine through, like “a new deal” for cities. Then, it would disappear among the chaos of other competing issues. Martin’s loss underscores the importance of inspiring those he serves with a clear and compelling vision and staying the course. Paul Martin succumbed to the complexity of the task.

George Bush senior made light of vision being a critical tool for an effective leader. Was he right? Time has proven otherwise. He underrated how much we look for a vision to organize the challenges that confront us. It’s no different than finding a thesis for an essay. The message must be clear and supported by the evidence! Thus, the complexity becomes less of a fog. Hope springs forth. Some possibilities may come to pass.

Take the “new deal” for cities. The wording evokes times past when, for example, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (F.D.R.), renewed and rebuilt the American economy to pull it out of an internal war: the 1933 depression. A new deal worked then. Why not now? The times and the challenges are different. Economic development is the common thread, now as then.

Does the vision capture complexity? You bet! A new deal must address both the hard and soft challenges. Improvements to infrastructure, roads, transit and policy tools for raising money to fit local needs go hand in hand with social infrastructure opportunities. They include better day care, affordable housing and tuition, security of neighbourhoods, more attention to the needs of youth at risk and access to health care. Paul Martin could have lived off that vision perpetually and touched many of the issues that create angst among voters.

In the absence of a vision, the change agenda of other political leaders filled the void. The issues must migrate somewhere. Like water, they followed the path of least resistance, to the leaders who could package them more effectively. Now, they await being organized into an understandable framework (a vision) that resonates across boundaries and grabs the energy of people. It will not be enough to talk only of change.

Sounds simple, but it is not. The vision must be rooted in reality, addressing problems that, if eliminated or reduced, would create a more livable environment for many (in an organization, in a community). A vision of worth also stretches our minds. When our rationale selves say, “No, we can’t do this, it is impossible”, the leader says, “Yes, we can. Let’s give it a try and see what happens.” That’s when creativity steps in and people literally invent how to get there!

A vision is useless without focused action (or execution of a few major priorities). The world is awash with failed CEO’s who talked but didn’t walk. A vision must be rich with images of what could be, like Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”. At the same time, that same leader must work hard to transform the dream into concrete benefits. We know that King’s dream continues to this day to drive us toward a better world. We do need mega-doses of patience because big dreams take time.

To be sustainable, a vision must reflect positively the soul of the deliverer: is he to be believed? Does his passion shine through, like a cause and a calling? Does it honour common purpose, or the invisible leader, as the 1940s management guru, Mary Parker Follett emphasized?

The vision must also “align” with the core beliefs and values of the leader. If they don’t, people will instinctively “smell a rat”.

Annette Simmons explains in The Six Stories You Need to Know How to Tell,
“People don’t want more information. They are up to their eyeballs in information. They want faith—in you, your goals, your success, in the story you tell. It is faith that moves mountains, not facts. Facts do not give birth to faith. Faith needs a story to sustain it---a meaningful story that inspires belief in you (the leader) and renews hope that your ideas, do indeed, offer what you promise. Genuine influence goes deeper than getting people to do what you want them to do. It means people pick up where you left off because they believe.”

I would add that facts are important or put another way, some show of the evidence (the lessons of history, sustainable “best practices”, current problems) is necessary to justify the direction. But, in the context of Simmons comments, they, the facts, have no relevance without a vision to frame them and trust in the leader’s integrity.

Therein lies the real dilemma for any leader---presenting oneself as having a soundness of character that is “integrated”. To integrate, is “to form, coordinate, or blend into a functioning or unified whole” (Webster’s Ninth English Dictionary, p. 628). This implies a self-knowledge, a world within us from which vision is shaped. In Blake’s words:

In your own Bosom, you bear your Heaven
And Earth & all you behold: tho’ it appears Without,
It is Within (Blake, 1965, p. 223).

In his research on the longevity and success of organizations in Good to Great, James Collins discovered that great companies are internally driven and externally aware. This mirrors Blake’s “take” on personal success.

Paul Martin’s demise may be a function of having his integrity driven too much by “externals” and not enough by his core—who he really is.