Imagine, Align, Communicate: How To Provide Vision
By Major Paul Cooper
“We need to destroy – not attack, not damage, not surround – I want you to destroy the Republican Guard. When you’re done with them, I don’t want them to be an effective fighting force anymore. I don’t want them to exist as a military organization.”
General H Norman Schwarzkopf’s infamous ‘vision statement’ before 1991 Gulf War would leave no driver, gunner, loader or commander in any doubt over exactly what he wanted them to do in the forthcoming battle. Less violent, but in no way less powerful was Bill Gate’s vision in 1980:
“A microcomputer on every desk and in every home running Microsoft software.”
This was extraordinarily audacious at a time when few people had used or even seen a computer in person. Yet it was something every Microsoft employee could remember, understand, communicate and work towards.
Having a vision is widely regarded as an essential component of leadership, and is central to many well-established leadership models, not least ‘transformational leadership’, from which the Army Leadership Doctrine and Army Leadership Code draws heavily. Most Divisional Commanders, Brigade Commanders and Commanding Officers have a vision in their directives. But do you need one too?
The quick answer is that all leaders need to have a vision. A vision provides the single cohering image of where you want your team to go. The good news is that it does not have to be your own – at least not straight away. If your chain of command already has one, then simply adopting theirs is a good place to start and guarantees that your actions will nest within their intent.
As time goes on, finding your own vision is a good way to personalise and optimise what you and your organisation are trying to achieve. Done well, it will be a lasting legacy that will endure long after you have moved on.
Why have a vision?
Having a vision is central to the very definition of leadership. There are countless definitions of what ‘leadership’ is and what it is not. In Leadership: Theory and Practice, Northouse defines leadership as a “process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal.” It is the vision that defines the “common goal”, establishes direction to get there, and clarifies the bigger picture.
Communicating the vision is the means by which influence takes place. A future desired end state is a critical component that is reflected in virtually every military and civilian planning process that exists, from tactical to strategic. A vision is closely related to the ‘Intent’ paragraph in a Concept of Operations, which gives the overall mission outcome, objectives and end state, but not the specifics of what actions will be executed to get there. At the strategic level, the desired outcome is a key component and the top level of the strategic narrative from which the rest of the strategy flows.
Management, rather than leadership, is generally concerned with order and consistency, and is an essential component of command. But leadership is about change. That change may be significant, such as re-structuring in preparation for an operational tour, or it may simply be part of routine training as a unit moves from refreshing basic skills through to complex combined arms manoeuvre.
Regardless, there will be a start state, and a (different) end state. This requires the leader to do three key things: establish a plan and direction; align people to a common goal; and then motivate and inspire everyone on the team to get there. Establishing a strong vision is essential to do this as it clarifies what is trying to be achieved, but more importantly inspires the team into action by providing a ‘why’ that they can buy into.
The British Army Leadership Code is heavily influenced by the theory of transformational leadership, which is usually described first by its antithesis: transactional leadership. Transactional leadership relies on the provision of reward or punishment to motivate a follower. A ‘transaction’ is established in exchange for desired behaviour and is generally regarded as a solid way of delivering an expected outcome.
The problem with transactional leadership is that it generally only delivers the minimum standard; loyalty to the leader, organisation or cause is transitory. Once the reward can no longer be guaranteed or the threat of punishment removed, then the motivation to continue is gone. Being led with a transactional style is also a fairly uninspiring existence, and it can easily be argued that anyone who joins the Armed Forces, with its associated commitment to service and unlimited liability, deserves significantly better.
Transformational leadership on the other hand, is concerned with helping followers become more that they thought they could be, to literally ‘transform’ them and help them fulfil their potential. The reward in transformational leadership is fulfilment, job satisfaction, a feeling of belonging, achievement and being valued. But central to this is selfless commitment and a core of moral and ethical standards, with the example set by the leader.
Transformational leadership requires more than the appearance of doing the right thing, it requires an absolute and genuine commitment to the team and the cause which it stands for. This requires a strong sense of purpose, and inspirational motivation to encourage others to also commit to a worthy cause greater than self. A vision provides this vehicle: it gives that higher purpose, communicates high expectations and unites individuals into a cohesive team.
So what should a vision be?
At its most basic level, a vision is a desirable future end state that is different and better than the present. But, it must be more than just attractive; it must inspire people to act with focussed and long-term commitment. Inspiration therefore has three characteristics: an awareness of something better; something to be inspired by; and an inspiration to do something else. It needs to be a worthy and noble target that people will want to pursue; otherwise individuals – including the leader – are unlikely to fully commit to it. It must be a cause greater than self that people will want to buy into; connecting directly to the tenets of transformational leadership. It needs to be ambitious, or else it will not provide the inspiration for change. But it must also be within grasp, or else there is a risk it will be seen as unrealistic and not worth pursuing.
Followers need to believe it can be achieved, but just not sure exactly how, thereby inspiring creativity and innovation to getting there. A vision therefore does not want to be too specific, but rather provide an overarching picture of what is trying to be achieved. Intermediate goals may help as they can lay out a path to the final destination, making the vision more believable, and therefore more likely to be embraced.
Importantly, a vision must be aligned with the vision of the leader’s higher command, or else it is more likely to have a destructive effect than a constructive one. It is no good wanting to be the best section / platoon / company if the end result is to push others down. We are, after all, ultimately on the same side and success should not be a zero-sum game.
Perhaps worse would be a vision that contradicts the higher vision: followers would be confused (more likely following the senior vision than yours), and your credibility would suffer as a result. A vision therefore must be organisationally aligned, add value and provide direction. All actions taken should lie within, and contribute to, achieving the vision. If it sits outside the vision, then either the action should be stopped, or the vision is wrong.
As well as organisational alignment, the vision must also be aligned to people’s beliefs and values. Asking someone to violate their principles or act outside their core identity is unlikely to resonate well nor inspire them to act. Knowing your people is essential, but the British Army’s values of courage, discipline, respect for others, integrity, loyalty and selfless commitment would be a good start.
How should the vision be described?
The principal factor to remember when writing a vision statement is that, as with all communication, the vision is what is understood by your audience, not necessarily what is communicated to them. Differences in background, perspective and values between you and your audience can result in sometimes significant and surprising differences between the two. Therefore, try to articulate the vision so that it will be interpreted in the same by everyone, regardless of rank, role or world view. Vivid imagery can help, describing what is seen, heard or felt, rather than vague, nebulous and abstract concepts.
In his vision for Microsoft, Bill Gates did not talk about market share and market growth; he painted a clear, unambiguous picture. A vision can be complex, but not complicated: a rich picture is more likely to inspire innovation and imaginative ways to achieve the vision. When easily understood, a vision can be processed and elaborated upon, leading to greater internalisation, commitment and flexibility of approach. A good vision should emphasise the team, not just the individual, to invoke a sense of belonging to something meaningful. It should also address why the vision is desirable, in terms of both what the follower ought to do and want to do. It should have logical and emotional appeal: something that makes sense whilst inspiring a burning desire to make it happen. Infectious emotional language linked to both ‘oughts’ and ‘wants’ will help.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
Having a vision is little use unless it is regularly and well communicated. This is more than just including it as a by line at the end of an email signature block. Communicating a vision requires constant work, but if it is a noble and honourable vision that people will want to commit to, then this should not be difficult. Tie every task, every conversation, every achievement and every setback should into the narrative of the vision.
Field Marshal Sir William Slim did exactly this in Burma when he turned the defeated British Eastern Army into the victorious 14th Army, as described in his classic Defeat into Victory. Linking everything back to the vision will create coherence in the organisation and what it does, creating a sense of order amongst chaos. Continual engagement and seeking feedback will ensure the vision is properly embedded in people’s conscious. Asking subordinates how they have contributed to the vision recently is a sure-fire way of getting them to think about it. And it is not just what is said or written, but also actions and non-verbal cues that must all contribute. This is how a vision can be communicated across even a large organisation, just as Slim did with the widely dispersed 14th Army, through constantly reinforcing the narrative at every opportunity.
Finally, a good vision should also be articulated in a way that everyone in the organisation can get behind and believe they can contribute to in a meaningful way, from newly arrived Private soldier upwards to the Commanding Officer and beyond. Pursuing a vision should not be something that is done to the team, but something that is done by the team. An infamous example of this powerful idea is when, on a tour of NASA’s headquarters in 1961, President John F Kennedy asked a janitor holding a mop why he was working so late. The janitor reportedly replied, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.” Just a few months earlier, JFK had set the vision of, “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth” before the end of the decade.
So where to start?
Probably the best place to start when writing your vision is to consider the vision of your commander, their commander and probably their commander too. It is no different to conducting effective mission analysis and working out where you fit into the bigger plan. Adopting and championing your higher commander’s vision statement is undoubtedly an excellent start, will be well-received, and will almost certainly establish the springboard for what comes next. Understanding your people is essential: what they are willing to change, but equally that which they will not – their values and principles. Alignment externally and internally is critical.
Once you have decided where you want to take your team, the next step is how to articulate and communicate it. Consider the vision process: what is said; what is heard and understood; what is believed and done; and what is achieved.
Begin with the end in mind and work backwards ensuring they are the same at every step. Test it out in conversation with trusted individuals in your organisation before going public, and gain early support. As a final cross check, your vision must add value; be inspirational; be a cause that others will believe in; be clear and coherent with the wider organisational vision; and be constantly communicated through word and deed.
If you want to know more about turning your vision into usable direction, then read Make Your Guiding Principles Useful