Leadership and the Vision Thing

“The vision thing” is a commonly acknowledged reason why George HW Bush lost the 1992 election to Bill Clinton.

A decorated war veteran, successful business owner, Congressman, Ambassador, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Vice President, and President of the United States, Bush certainly had a better handle on foreign and domestic issues than Bill Clinton, who at the time had only been the Attorney General and Governor of Arkansas.

Yet Clinton articulated a more compelling vision than Bush and subsequently won the 1992 Presidential election. Likewise, Barack Obama’s victory over John McCain in 2008 was partially due to his ability to articulate a more appealing future for America.

It turns out that many leaders struggle with the vision thing. They either fail to say anything about where their team or organization needs to go or suffer from Power Point overload (let me tell you everything I believe about leadership in only 63 slides). One of my colleagues, Rocky Kimball, uses the following framework to help leaders build vision statements:

  • Honor the Past: Most organizations and teams have chalked up some impressive wins since their inception; reminding the audience of these accomplishments will get them engaged.
  • Be Realistic About the Present: In the book Good to Great Jim Collins talks about the brutal facts, and leaders cannot pull any punches when describing a team or organization’s current strengths and weaknesses. The audience is well aware of the good, the bad, and the ugly; sugarcoating the bad impugns a leader’s credibility.
  • Provide Hope for the Future: People need to understand where the team or organization needs to go and how it will get there. What does the audience need to do differently, how do they benefit from these changes, and behaviors to leaders want to see (and conversely not tolerate) in the future?  

Good vision statements usually consist of four to six slides and take less than 15 minutes to deliver. The Honor the Past slide should be a chronology of highlights. One Be Realistic About the Present slide describes the team or organization’s current strengths; the second should describe current shortcomings. Leaders usually need one or two more slides to Provide Hope for the Future. Facts tell and stories sell, so speakers should use pictures, graphs, and stories rather than numbers and text. Finally, vision statements need to be delivered with conviction, as it’s awfully hard to follow someone who doesn’t believe in their own vision of the future.