Leaders and the ‘vision thing’

Sight is a common metaphor for leadership performance. Where one CEO is criticised for “not seeing the wood for the trees”, another offers “deep insights” that mark them as perceptive and emotionally aware. Poor leaders can be “one-eyed” or “blind to reality”, just as others are praised for being “far-sighted”. Above all, if they want us to follow them, leaders must have a “vision”. This is critical as they take organisations into unknown territory, something happening increasingly in this innovation-driven era. Corporate director and columnist, Nilofer Merchant, doesn’t mince words. Vision, she says, “is utterly irreplaceable. No amount of execution or financial success can replace vision. Why? Because, vision can lead the creative work of an entire tribe.” A former senior executive, Merchant has grown businesses of all sizes, headed start-ups and advised major corporations on creativity and innovation. “Vision is the way to imagine what is needed, and then strategy becomes about being the one to deliver on it,” Merchant says. “I see executives regularly saying that they want to ‘transform the business’ or ‘win the market’, but they can’t point out an end destination. And when I ask, I usually get that, ‘just leave me alone’ look.” Roberto Verganti, a professor of innovation management at Politecnico di Milano, agrees, urging organisations to move beyond token innovation attempts – brainstorming et al – to the real thing. “To generate fresh ideas we have been told to think outside of the box and then jump back in,” Verganti says. “Vision building destroys the box and builds a new one. It does not play with the existing paradigms; it changes them.” Could this be the decade of vision-building, he asks? “I’m certainly not questioning the essential value of ideas. They will still ignite the innovation process. It is not one or the other. It is a shift in the most rare and precious asset that will drive competitive advantage: visions.”

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