The following is a guest piece by Jeremey Donovan.
Of the array of skills that comprise leadership, the ability to craft and communicate strategic vision is simultaneously the most valuable and least well-practiced. The value part is obvious; leaders adept at inspiring their teams achieve high-impact business results faster, more easily, and more compassionately. But, why do so many leaders struggle with building shared vision? In this article, I’ll outline three root causes and suggest ways to address them based on best practices from TED Talks.
The first reason leaders struggle with building shared vision is the misconception that vision must spring forth magically from one’s own mind. I held that belief for most of my career, afraid that asking others for help crafting vision was a sign of intellectual weakness. That changed when I met retired Sensormatic CEO Bob Vanourek at the Leadership Forum at Sliver Bay.
When he said, “vision is crowd-sourced,” a number of TED Talks rushed through my mind. Each idea worth spreading, TED’s stated mission, presents a vision. Though many TED speakers share ideas hatched through their own scientific research, experience, or introspection, many brilliant speakers synthesized the work of others.
For instance, Malcolm Gladwell explored the ties between choice and happiness by recounting the spectacular career of food scientist Howard Moscowitz. Similarly, Susan Cain’s liberating embrace of introverts stemmed from many sources including academics Brian Little and Adam Grant.
The second reason leaders struggle with building shared vision is the misconception that showing emotion is unbecoming of a leader. As leaders progress in their careers, they face increasing political and performance pressure. The vast majority of leaders who thrive develop calm-under-fire. The upside of calm is respect and added responsibility.
The downside is losing the ability to show emotion, even when passionate about an idea. Social entrepreneur Dan Pallotta, who delivered one of my favorite talks of TED2013, demonstrated controlled, professional passion.
For the majority of his talk, Dan’s tone was one of a thoughtful and concerned humanitarian. At 14:45, his tone intensified to outraged activist when he said, “On one day, all 350 of our great employees lost their jobs (pause to compose himself) because they were labelled as overhead.”
At 17:20, he made one more tone shift to hopeful visionary when he said, “The next time you are looking at a charity, don’t ask about the rate of their overhead. Ask about the scale of their dreams, their Apple, Google, Amazon scale dreams, how they measure their progress toward those dreams, and what resources they need to make them come true regardless of what the overhead is…”
The third reason that leaders struggle with building shared vision is that they forgot how to tell a compelling story. (I’m careful to say ‘forget’ since we are born storytellers and simply need to rediscover story patterns.)
Often leaders simply state a vision such as “Our goal is to be the premier math and science eLearning site for K-12 students.” They add, with logical precision, how they will achieve that goal through technology, content partnerships, and educational videos. That amounts to a violation of the “show, don’t tell” principle of writing which has direct application to leadership. To “show,” leaders must tell stories.
In his TED Talk, Salman Khan shared the story of how Khan Academy came into being. Here, I use the labels of the indispensable ‘Pixar Pitch’ to summarize Salman’s story:
ACT I: Once upon a time, I was an analyst at a Boston-based hedge fund. And every day, I remotely tutored my cousins who were living in New Orleans. Until one day, I put some videos up on YouTube for them as a supplement so they could learn at their own pace.
ACT II: And because of that, people around the world started stumbling on the videos and sending me comments. And because of that, I was inspired to post even more videos. Until finally, I quit my job to take Khan Academy, a not-for-profit, to the next level.
ACT III: And after that, learners of every age and socio-economic background have been able to take advantage of self-directed learning both inside and outside of classrooms. And the moral of the story is, to build an online, global classroom so that everyone can increase their math and science aptitude.
Synthesizing insights from others, expressing emotion, and using the power of story are necessary but not sufficient ingredients in inspiring teams. The critical binding agent is authenticity. Vision is the voice whispering in a person’s ear that inspires initiative in the face of uncertainty.
To be that voice, you need only follow your own path with audacious passion and infectious enthusiasm. If you believe, they will believe. And if they believe, your position as a strategic, high-impact leader will emerge as a natural side-effect.
Jeremey Donovan is Group Vice President of Marketing at Gartner Inc., the world’s leading information technology research and advisory company with $1.6 billion in annual revenue. He is the author of 3 books including the public speaking best-seller “How to Deliver a TED Talk“. You can read more of his writings at SpeakingSherpa.com.