When people talk about leadership, they often use the v-word. Vision: the idea that the best leaders see things that others don’t or can’t. But vision alone isn’t enough. Leaders also need to enable their teams and organizations to embrace and enact that vision.
Visionary leadership requires three core capabilities.
1. See potential. The first step to becoming an effective visionary leader is learning to see potential – both in individuals and organizations. To do that, you need to free yourself to imagine how the world in which you work could be better. Then you need to imagine how your team or organization would need to act differently in order to make that change happen.
For example, over the last six years, I’ve had a front row seat as a board director for Abbott Laboratories. From there, I’ve watched a masterful CEO develop and enact vision at a more than $20-billion scale. Each time Miles White has set a vision, it has completely transformed the organization. Through a combination of acquisition and investment, Abbott has created and spun off Hospira (2004) and AbbVie (2013), and created a medical diagnostics and devices powerhouse with the recent acquisitions of St. Jude Medical and Alere. Since becoming CEO of Abbott in 1999, Miles has delivered more than 360 percent total shareholder return and, more importantly, has helped patients by getting hundreds of breakthrough drugs and medical technologies into the market.
To enact this type of vision, it isn’t just about engaging your brain. You also have to have the “stomach” for making real change happen – for challenging and reshaping the status quo. Many people can envision needed change. Fewer have the guts and the fortitude to see those changes through – the public accountability, the very visible risk of failure, and the many, many, many conversations needed to bring employees and external stakeholders on board.
2. Identify the pathways. Once you have a vision you’ve decided to take on, you need to build a team and a stakeholder strategy for enacting it. To achieve something big, you’ll need the right talent by your side. And you’ll need to cultivate key supporters and isolate or neutralize powerful opponents. To do this, you need to map out who your allies and blockers are and develop strategies for shifting them to where you need them to be. Sometimes you may need to reorient a department or function. Sometimes you may need to reframe the thinking of your whole senior team. That’s what happened when Ulta CEO Mary Dillon realized her senior leaders needed to spend less time in their corporate offices and more time in stores listening to their front-line managers.
3. Harness the conversations. Once you identify the human pathways, you and your team need to work them. You need to get in the right rooms with the right people, saying the right things. Whether it’s changing people’s understanding of how your business works, changing people’s beliefs and behaviors to align with a new understanding or getting people to work really hard to make significant change happen – each conversation matters. Often it means overcoming the cynicism that can accumulate in organizations from prior failed change efforts. Sometimes it may mean convincing external stakeholders why change is needed. This is what we did at Kellogg in 2010 to get both Northwestern University and our local city council to approve a lakefront site, that hadn’t been under consideration, for the construction of a new 415,000-square-foot building we opened in March.
Each conversation requires planning and intention. Persuasion doesn’t just happen on the fly or by accident, and it rarely happens through e-mail or text. Persuasion requires leaders to be fully present. It requires knowing what to say, when to say it, and whom to say it to. It doesn’t matter whether the conversation is a 500-person town hall presentation, a small team meeting or a one-on-one coaching conversation.
Bottom-line: The job of leadership is, at its core, about leading and managing change. The best leaders see potential all around them and decide that they want to take on the gritty task of turning some of that potential into reality. They map out the human pathways needed to achieve their vision, and they leverage each meeting and conversation to bring people along with them. In the end, the only real tool any leader has is people and his or her ability to engage them in the task of human progress.
The views of the author of this article do not necessarily represent the views of Gradifi.