This article by Finn Jackson is the third in a series examining the future of leadership in a changing world. It considers how future leaders can create inspiring visions of the future they want to create for their organisations.
To accelerate the first stage of these transitions, Separation, future leaders will need to build an inspiring vision of the future they want to create. This article describes how to do that.
Vision Matters – It Makes Us Feel Alive
“If you are working on something exciting that you really care about,” Steve Jobs said, “you don’t have to be pushed. The vision pulls you.”
“If you want to build a ship,” poet and pioneering aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, “don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
In a time of rapid change, a leader’s ability to create an inspiring vision enables them to meet any challenge.
It transforms their results three times over:
- First, in times of change, people are likely to be experiencing uncertainty, confusion, and loss. Getting them to switch to a new way forward means overcoming their inertia, doubt, and even fear. The best way to do this is by inspiring them
- Once people have joined a new project or initiative, difficulties are bound to arise. The more inspiration a leader has created with their vision, the more people will be able to work around those difficulties without needing further input. The more inspiration customers, employees, and investors gain from participating in the project, the more committed they will be to continue engaging with it, no matter what happens. A 2016 survey of tech companies showed that employees at Tesla and SpaceX had the most stressful and the lowest paying jobs, but also the most meaningful and inspiring. The meaning and inspiration they felt outweighed the stress and lower pay.
- Third, the inspiration felt by a leader and their team will show up in the results they produce together over time. Research by Gallup found that companies with highly engaged workforces “outperform their peers by 147% in earnings per share… A highly engaged work-force,” Gallup says, “means the difference between a company that outperforms its competitors and one that fails to grow.”
Creating inspiration will spur people to join a project, motivate them to stick with it, and generate higher levels of contribution. It is also more enjoyable to be around.
So how can we create this inspiration?
Seven Building Blocks
Future leaders will describe their chosen way forward in an inspiring, visionary way by using seven building blocks.
The first three blocks describe three elements that research has shown are essential to achieving any successful strategic change:
- clear definition of the problem
- clear definition of the future they want to create
- clearly defined first steps to get there – not the entire journey, just the first steps
These building blocks will have more power if leaders communicate them in ways that resonate with their audiences, so the fourth building block is to create that meaning for those audiences, both rationally and emotionally.
The fifth block is to describe the underlying values, principles, or ideals that the chosen way forward upholds.
The sixth is to ask people to make a choice: will they support the project?
And finally, future leaders will achieve all this best when they communicate it authentically. This is the seventh building block.
The seven ingredients for creating an inspiring vision are:
- clear definition of the problem
- clear definition of the future you want to create
- clear first steps
- together with the higher principles or values your vision supports
- delivered authentically by you
- in language that is meaningful for your audience
- in a way that spurs your audience to decide whether or not to join you
Individually, these blocks can be boring, dull, and lifeless. The best way to make them inspiring is to turn them into a story.
Human beings are hard-wired for stories. We connect with them, engage with them, and remember them in ways that simply don’t happen when we receive the same information in other forms.
Princeton neuroscientist Uri Hasson has found that, “Story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience.” Screenwriting guru Robert McKee explains, “When an idea wraps itself around an emotional charge… a story well told gives you the very thing you cannot get from life: meaningful emotional experience.”
A story can deliver a vision so meaningful and inspiring that your audience not only understands the vision but internalises it as their own.
As a simple example, let’s invent one deliberately bland sentence for each of the seven blocks, then combine them into a story:
“We are facing a difficult situation, unlike anything we have experienced before. But we come from a long line of people who have faced difficult situations and overcome them. We can’t stay as we are, or go back to where we were: we have to move forward. And if we move in the direction I am suggesting then we have the opportunity to build something very special. It will uphold the very principles we stand for. We have all the tools and resources we need to begin. The only question is, are you willing to step up and play your part for those who will come after?”
Each building block alone is a single, unexciting ingredient. But, like your mother’s cooking or the recipe for gunpowder, combined in the right order and proportions they can become a whole that is more powerful than its parts.
Story is the best way to combine facts and emotion so that you and others want to make your chosen way forward happen. Future leaders will use this ‘vision-story’, together with purpose and values, to build organisations that use change to become stronger
But before they can create an inspiring vision those leaders will first will to choose a direction to move forward in: the future they want to create. Before they can do that, they need to know what their options are.
The next article looks at how to identify more opportunities in a time of change.
This is the third in a series of articles examining the future of leadership in a changing world. Click here to view all of the articles in this series.
Finn Jackson is a consultant and coach who helps clients generate lasting solutions to issues of strategy, leadership, and change.
His first book, The Escher Cycle , was called “A unified theory of business” and “A blueprint for winning any game your business chooses to play.”
His second book, The Churning, Inner Leadership, has been called “The inspiring manual to improve our VUCAbility,” “A book which should be on every change-maker’s bookshelf,” and “an ethical framework for business decision makers, based on emotional maturity.”