A leader's vision must connect with reality

Vision is only a powerful daydream until it matches what really matters to personnel in an organization, community or country

Updated March 7, 2016

By the time you read this, the national presidential election will be over or just about to start. The barge of political ads and non-stop ragging about "my opponent" seems to never end.

Friends, who erroneously think I support their views, keep forwarding those doomsday political e-mails.

Not only was this election the most expensive and acrimonious in history, it was also just plain uninspiring and perpetually annoying. The volume of negative attack ads was record-setting, with the Wesleyan Media Project reporting that the 2012 campaigns used seven times more negative ads than those in 2008.

The reason? Fear and negativity work. In a culture of electronic media, short attention spans and sound bites, going negative gets quick attention and action.

The same is true in organizations. Leaders can effect quick change by going negative and using fear, but at what cost?

Research on the long-term effects of going negative is mixed, but we’ve all observed that when organizations make changes using fear and negative messaging, the culture of the entire organization suffers. People lose heart—and while the change may be carried through, the cost to morale is steep.

During this year’s party conventions, I heard a telling quip: Not all fairytales begin with, "Once upon a time."

Some begin with, "When I’m elected." Both candidates promised jobs, a stronger economy, the saving of Medicare, solutions to immigration and ways to turn the war into something positive. They painted vivid pictures of how awful America would be if their opponent won, but neither seemed willing to simply tell the truth about challenges and costs. The result was little confidence in either candidate. People are hungry for leaders to speak the truth—even the hard and difficult truth. Promising a rosy future and no pain simply undermines trust.

Almost everyone I’ve talked to about the election mentions the failure of either candidate to provide a clear and compelling vision of the future. An old Biblical proverb proclaims, "Where there is no vision, the people perish."

Some translations say that without a vision, "the people will scatter" or "the people will become unrestrained."

The point is, when there’s no clear vision, there’s no juice. As the election process dragged on, pollsters began to realize that undecided voters were really uninterested voters. When there is nothing to get excited about, there is no interest.

Visions are not mission statements. In fact, I like to think of a vision as an imagined destination — a powerful daydream about some place where you would like to be in the future. When visions connect with what really matters to the people, passion soars.

When visions are conveyed in powerful and meaningful stories, people line up to do the hard work of getting to the destination. The Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy has said, "Vision will ignite the fire of our commitment to do whatever it takes." There is a direct correlation between the engagement of the people and the vision of the leader.

Sometimes the best lessons are those that teach us graphically what not to do. I’m hopeful we can learn something from this election and work toward leadership that truly inspires movement in the direction of a common good.

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