Quick: think of an organization or business you know and love. Maybe it’s one you actually work or volunteer at. What’s their vision for success? In other words, what’s the specific statement or narrative that they use to describe wild, vivid, success in, say, ten or twenty years? Chances are they have one – but you don’t know what it is of the top of your head, even if you work there. Or they have one – but it’s so broad as to be virtually meaningless. Maybe it’s just a vague platitude, like “an end to world hunger.” True, it’s not easy to come up with a clear, powerful vision. But the process itself can be a wonderfully creative experience. And once developed, an effective vision can be a rich source of fuel and inspiration for years to come.
Truly great organizational visions tend to have 5 key qualities. And, no surprise – – these are the same qualities of effective social change messages of all kinds:
- Visual: This seems like a no-brainer, but visions should, in fact, involve imagery – vivid pictures, told in words, that literally stimulate the visual cortex of listeners. “In 30 years we will have achieved world peace” is certainly aspirational, but it’s not visual.
- Motivating: Effective visions are emotionally compelling, and deeply motivating. They speak to the heart and gut – not just the head. They inspire people to act, to keep going when the going is tough, to dig down a little deeper because with that extra push, the beauty and power of that collective vision feels within reach
- Achievable: Powerful visions are like big “stretch goals” – their achievement may be well out of our comfort zone, it may call for great acts of courage and perseverance – but it is actually possible to get there. They are, in the words of Ari Weinsweig, “strategically sound.”
- Positive: Effective visions are stated in the positive – what we are FOR, not what we’re AGAINST. That’s easier said than done for many social change organizations whose orientation has been focused on stopping oppression or negative environmental and economic development.
- “Spreadable”: Like any good, ‘sticky’ story, effective visions can be repeated, spread like a happy virus from one team member to another, and beyond. If they are too long, boring, or conceptual (versus vivid and grounded in tangible imagery and action), we can be pretty certain they will sit on shelves gathering dust. John Kotter, author of “Leading Change”, suggests that it should be possible to convey a great vision in no more than 5 minutes. That way, they can be communicated as a regular, cherished practice across all levels of the organization. His research suggests that most companies under-communicate their visions by a factor of 10.
Everyone gets triggered. Effective leaders need to know how to shift from those reactive states to access their true wisdom and skills. Still, sometimes it’s good not to take it all too seriously….
Simon Sinek, author of the 2009 book “Start With Why”, describes the essential element of inspiring leadership in this meaty little TED Talk. He encapsulates beautifully the approach that Rockwood Leadership Institute and master leadership trainer Robert Gass have used for years in their approach to “inside-out” leadership, using the metaphor of what he calls the “Golden Circle”.
Imagine a dart board with three rings. The outer ring represents the “what” of leadership and action. This is comfortable terrain for the vast majority of leaders, who are readily able to articulate what they do. The middle rings speaks to “how” – and indeed, a smaller subset of people are able to articulate how they accomplish what they do. But the key to transformative, powerful leadership, Sinek argues, lies in the smallest, center circle – which is all about “why” a leader does what s/he does – their deepest purpose. From Martin Luther King to Apple computers, Sinek asserts that great leaders are driven from this core place of purpose-driven leadership.
And these three rings, he says, correspond to the layers of the human brain. The outer layer of the brain, the neocortex or “homo sapiens brain”, is the latest development in our species’ evolution – it’s the fancy neurological wrapping that is responsible for language, the processing of facts and data, and rational thought. The middle two sections of the brain are the limbic brain – the far more ancient components of our neurobiology. The limbic brain is responsible for feelings such as trust and loyalty, fear and desire. It is also limbic brain is also responsible for all decision-making. It has no capacity for language. As Sinek (as well as Drew Weston and a host of others) articulates so well, when we communicate from the outside in – that is, starting from facts and analysis – we are not communicating to the place where people actually make decisions. But when we communicate – and lead – from the inside out, we are speaking directly to the parts of the human brain that control decision-making. The neo-cortex will then follow, rationalizing that behaviour.
Sinek also talks about the Theory of Social Innovation, including the elusive “tipping point”, beyond which a new idea or innovation attains enough momentum to continue moving through a community. (For a brief overview of this concept, see my 2007 post, “the trajectory of social change”). Whether describing King as the leader of the Civil Rights movement or the Wright Brothers as leaders and creators of modern aviation, Sinek briefly maps out the kind of purpose-driven leadership that was essential to the eventual success of these great leaders.