How Important Is Vision in Leadership? The Question is the Answer


Next StepWhen I published my Value of Vision series, I had no idea I had done something unusual.  I am concerned about the current lack of interest around vision in leadership, and I had hoped that publishing a series of views from a variety of experts might help boost the topic back onto the radar.

I was surprised when Wally Bock told me he hadn’t seen a blog series like this before – one with so many significant thought-leaders writing on the same subject. Wally asked for an interview to identify some lessons that had made the series successful.

Wally Bock is a highly respected and accomplished business writer, ghost-writer, and editor. In addition to his popular Three Star Leadership blog, Wally writes the Zero Draft blog that provides advice on writing (e.g. books, blogs, articles, web site copy, etc.) for people in business. Here’s what Wally wrote:

Case Study: Jesse Lyn Stoner’s Value of Vision Series

Jesse Lyn Stoner writes one of my favorite blogs. I profiled it in 2012 in “Blogs I Like” where I talked about her superbly crafted posts. In June, 2013, she began a series on vision. I’ve seen many bloggers invite others to do a guest post. I’ve seen many bloggers do a series.

Jesse combined those two ideas into an effective series about an important leadership topic: vision. Like many good blog posts, Jesse’s series began with a question.

Click here to continue reading and to see the lessons Wally identified …..

The Conversation Continues

I have been pleased to notice recently others engaging in this conversation. Mike Henry, Sr., founder of the Lead Change Group, recently wrote an excellent post endorsing the value of vision, and Jon Mertz recently questioned its value in his credible post Is Vision Still Valid?

I am not wedded to the notion that everyone should believe vision is important. For one thing, there is no commonly agreed upon definition of vision, and quite often people are not even talking about the same thing.  My own definition, quoted by Zig Ziglar, is: “A vision is a clearly articulated, results-oriented picture of a future you intend to create that illuminates your underlying purpose and values.” In our book Full Steam Ahead! Unleash the Power of Vision, Ken Blanchard and I offer a similar definition: “Vision is knowing who you are, where you’re going, and what will guide your journey.” Both of these definitions show that clarity on your purpose and values are deeply rooted in a real vision.

My concern is not whether people agree on the definition. Nor is my concern whether people agree that vision is important.

My biggest concern is how little concern there is with the question itself—how little interest there is in thinking from a big picture perspective. I agree with Doug Conant’s observation that “people today are less interested in the vision and more interested in ‘how to.’” The most popular leadership blog posts are those with numbers in the title: “ 7 ways to…” “ 6 tips for…” “3 secrets of….” It seems most people are primarily concerned with how to take their next steps.

The question is more important than the answer.

How can you be concerned with your next step if you don’t know where you’re going or why you want to go there? We must elevate our most important conversations back to a big picture perspective.

What’s essential is not agreeing on the answer, but that we continue to explore these kinds of questions. It is in these conversations that we will discover what is most essential and understand how to figure out our next steps.


p.s. In case you missed any of the excellent posts in The Value of Vision Series, you can read them by clicking on the name of the author below:

  1. Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner – Co-authors of The Leadership Challenge
  2. Shilpa Jain – Executive Director of YES!
  3. Ken Blanchard – Co-author of The One Minute Manager and Full Steam Ahead! Unleash the Power of Vision.
  4. Whitney Johnson – Co-founder of Clay Christensen’s investment firm and author of Dare, Dream, Do.
  5. Daniel Burrus – Futurist
  6. Kate Emery – CEO of The Walker Group, and Founder of reSET Social Enterprise Trust
  7. Tanvi Gautam – Managing Partner, Global People Tree
  8. Mike Myatt – Author of Leadership Matters; Forbes columnist
  9. Doug Conant – Chair Avon, former CEO Campbell Soup
  10. Jesse Lyn Stoner – Co-author of Full Steam Ahead! Unleash the Power of Vision

35 comments to How Important Is Vision in Leadership? The Question is the Answer

  • Your vision series was outstanding…I agree that self-help and how-to articles are the ones that attract the most readers. These approaches work from the outside and move inward. They’re like bandages that provide limited relief for movement forward.

    Vision requires the leader to work from the inside out…and this comes from a deeper understanding of the whole self.

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      It seems that way to me, too, LaRae – the bandages are a short-term solution for short-term thinking. That’s an interesting thought about the power of energy that arises from within and moves outward. The image I get when the movement is coming at you from the outside is of being bombarded and powerless. Good points, LaRae. Thanks for sharing them here.

  • Jesse – Your work and the collective body of wisdom on vision, shared through your blog and series, is essential reading for all. Vision, like purpose, is critical to building a solid foundation for any company or initiative, though as you pointed out, people are often so focused on the ‘how’ that they forget the ‘why’ and ‘where’ they’re trying to go.

    I agree with your and LaRae’s points above. Prescriptive how-to articles, while popular, are a short-term, outside-in approach. When it comes to developing a vision or defining purpose, however, there’s no better approach than to start with the questions, provoking the reader to reflect from the inside out.

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Thanks for weighing in, Sharon. I really appreciate your commenting because I had suspected this would be one of my less read posts, given that it’s not a “how to” post and that it’s about reflection not action.

  • Gurmeet Singh Pawar

    Hi Jesse,

    Quite a relevant point you raise. But before that I would like to add that its important to understand the Power of the statement, “Questions are the Answers”. In all the conversation either one seeks or try to provide an answer, but its not the answer where the game lies, its the questions. You will only get what you seek when you ask for it, exactly it.

    I agree with your assessment & believe that 99 percent of differences are about the definition & not the idea. Whatever you name it, it boils down to three thoughts;

    1. Everything is an Assumption: He who does not realize that or thinks otherwise is trying to create a palace on water.

    2. The greatest assumption we make in our life is whether the universe(source) is friendly or hostile environment (taken from Einstein quote).

    3. With above two at core, put yourself to third question, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”- J.R.R. Tolkien

    I see vision as nothing but the way we make this decision.

    Thanks for the lovely article. Have a nice day ahead.


    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Or to paraphrase another adage – be careful what you ask for as you might get it. Our questions are our most powerful guides as we respond to your third point. Much thanks to you, Gurmeet, for your lovely thought-provoking comments and for taking this conversation deeper.

  • Jesse,

    You hosted a great series on vision and your concerns are justified. I agree that we have gotten caught up in the “how to” way and, worse, there is a sense of generating a quick value and then selling it off or letting it go. The longer term purpose, in recent times, may have taken a hit. I believe this will shift though. It is one of the reasons I am so optimistic on the Millennial Generation. I believe they understand the importance of purpose and making purpose come alive.

    Although it may be semantics, vision seems to have become worn. The definition you highlighted in your book is a solid one because it describes clarity and philosophy in how vision is empowered.

    Thanks for leading the conversation on vision!


    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Thanks, Jon. You make some excellent points and remind me that there is a tendency for words to become reified – after awhile we box up the concept, assuming we understand it, and move on. Rather than trying to take the term “vision” out of the box and reviving the language, I think it’s more important to focus on the fundamental issues. I too see the commitment to purpose and meaning echoing throughout the Millennial Generation and have strong hopes for the future. Whether or not we call it vision, the sense of purpose is strengthened when there are shared ideas of what it looks like when the purpose is fulfilled. A green planet? Food, water, shelter, education and basic healthcare available to the 2.7 million people on our planet currently living in abject poverty? These are not unrealistic dreams and there are many movements already in place to support it. Hopefully the numbers of people and groups working in concert in different ways toward this same end will continue to increase.

  • The key elements to who we are are a full understanding of who we are, values & beliefs that define the best of who we are, and a clear, powerful vision of who we are meant to become. Vision truly matters and your efforts to keep it at the fore make a difference. Thank you, Jesse, for your vision for vision.

  • Another great post, Jesse. I thought first of Peter Block’s insight that “questions bring us together; answers drive us apart.” I also thought about your observation that people right now, are seemingly not interested in the “vision thing” (quoting GHW Bush), but just on the “how do I…?” In my experience, this reflects the underlying complexity of the challenges we all face today, and the fear that many people have, about acting in uncertainty and ambiguity. There is no “best answer” or obvious best practice. Paradoxically, the imprecise and emergent path towards fulfilling a shared vision, IS the “how to…” response people need.

    Thanks, as always!

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Your raise some great points, Bruce. I love that quote from Peter Block: “questions bring us together; answers drive us apart.” I hadn’t heard that before. Although I wonder how true that is when we discover answers together. It sounds like you’ve had similar observations of where interest is these days. It does seem to be reactivity to fear and uncertainty. It seems like too many people are focused on the problems of today and getting bogged down in a fear-state instead of focusing on their desires for the future. It’s hard to do that without hope. But I am reminded that after Pandora released all of the ills, pestilence, and fear, that hope remained. I believe if we remember to look in the box, we will find it hiding, often where we least expect it. And it is hope that enables us to explore and believe in the possibilities.

      I appreciated Gurmeet’s comment to you. I’m always delighted when my blog stimulates others to talk directly with each other.

  • Gurmeet Singh Pawar

    :-) I would say, “be careful what you ask for as you WILL get exactly it”. The issue lies in people not knowing what they are actually asking.

    @ Bruce Waltuck

    Most of the time its not what people need, its what they THINK they need. Said that I understand where you are coming from & appreciate your take on “How To…”

  • There was a point in the mid-90’s, when TQM was in vogue, that getting your “vision, mission, and goals” established drove a lot of senior leadership meetings and consulting hours for the big firms. A lot of those exercises were strictly pro forma to “check the box” so to speak, and many of the visions that resulted were products of consensus, lifeless, and with little power to inspire.

    So, it’s refreshing to see that the conversation has been rejuvenated on a more solid footing. For instance, I’m a big fan of Kouzes and Posner and how they incorporate vision into their leadership model (“Create a Shared Vision”).

    Also, the leadership literature is fairly unanimous about the importance of vision, especially for entrepreneurs.

    For my part, I like Dr. Gary Yukl’s emphasis that a vision “should appeal to the values, hopes and ideals for organizational members and other stakeholders whose support is needed. The vision should emphasize distant ideological objectives rather than immediate tangible benefits” (Yukl, 2006).

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Great history lesson, Joe, and example of abuse of vision and how it’s caused so many people to see it as a meaningless activity. You raise an important point – that vision must appeal to the values, hopes and ideals of the organization’s members and stakeholders. The most powerful visions, like Martin Luther’s King, Jr.’s dream was not something he sold to people but actually was an articulation of the hopes and dreams of the people. In our book Full Steam Ahead! Unleash the Power of Vision, we say that the best way to create a shared vision is to involve people in the process of creating it. That way you tap into a knowledge base about the organization that isn’t available to those isolated at the top of the organization, the vision is better, smarter, and those involved better understand how it is aligned with what they believe is most important and are more deeply committed.
      Goals focus on immediate tangible benefits. They are the milestones that let us know we are moving in the right direction. But without a vision, setting goals doesn’t make sense because you don’t know where you’re going. The interesting thing about vision is that because it is rooted in idealogical objectives, the closer your get to it, the more clear it becomes and the better you understand it. Sometimes it might appear that the vision has changed, but actually it’s just the outer substance, the essence remains the same. Hence the importance of what Gurmeet is aluding to – being clear about what you really want.

  • Thanks Jesse…much truth in what you say, wow. The MLK example you mention is the gold standard. What I got of what you said is that if you capture the collective aspirations of the team, the power of the vision is multiplied many-fold. Awesome!

  • Jesse, thanks so much for the great post, the series and the mention. You challenge me in the area of vision and purpose and I appreciate it.

    I do believe we’re tempted to take things in small chunks. Our visions are so self-focused because we’re so busy or maybe we’re so busy because we’re so self-focused. We don’t have time to think deeply about the greatest possible future. We get distracted by things that gratify quickly. Quick becomes the new good.

    But our most-grand picture of the future pulls us to (or even calls us to) our greatest future and our best effort. Thanks for how you challenge all of us to focus on our greatest purpose and calling and stick with the big picture. I’m grateful. Mike…

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Beautifully said, Mike!
      I completely agree with you – that when we connect with a significant vision, it naturally pulls us out of a narrow self-focus and toward a greater future for us all.
      I hope that when people read this post, they click on the link to your excellent post on this topic.
      Thanks so much for sharing your insights here.

  • A lovely insight about vision. Vision is often in the heads of a few people, sometimes not the CEO.

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      You raise an important point, Alan. It’s quite frustrating when the vision is more clear to the people than to those at the top of the organization. And unfortunately it is too common, for many reasons – including the isolating nature of that position.

      But fortunately, instilling a vision in an organization does not have to be a top-down effort. I have supported many organizational initiatives that began in the “mid-space” and which then put upward pressure on the executive team to respond – especially when leaders are not ego-driven and take the view of leadership articulated by John Naisbitt, “Leadership involves finding a parade and getting in front of it.”
      I am always inspired by the thoughts of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” We don’t need to wait for the top leaders to move a vision forward.

  • Hi Jesse,

    I always get charged up and inspired by discussions about vision, and now that I am recently aware of your series on the topic, I intend to dive in and have some fun with it.

    You wrote, “My concern is not whether people agree on the definition. Nor is my concern whether people agree that vision is important. My biggest concern is how little concern there is with the question itself—how little interest there is in thinking from a big picture perspective.”

    Sometimes I wonder if one reason vision often takes a back seat to “how-to” may have to do with personality type. Probably 25% of the population are natural strategic thinkers, and probably 2-3 percent are gifted at the visionary end of that spectrum, and are at ease playing in that space. With 75% of the population more comfortable with how-to, and with this same sub-set seeing especially early-career visionaries as “pie-in-the-sky,” we have a natural suppression of vision in the culture.

    I enjoyed reading your exchange with Alan Kay (above), and all the points made about including others in the shared creation of a vision. To my mind, for a vision to cut through and then unite at any level, we need a visionary with at least good emotional intelligence and communication skills—one that can connect how-to and desired improvements with the vision, and share the vision itself in a way that is inclusive, and that appeals to diverse perceptions.

    From the executive position: when a leader sees her “subordinates” (quotes intentional, as I find that word conjures mental models that are in opposition to collaboration and leadership) as co-creators, he realizes that everyone is seeking improvement, even if they don’t know exactly what that looks like. When this leader can use her vision to guide that collective desire for improvement into an aligned focus, well, we have a vision that “takes,” and a leader that is seen as a visionary.

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Hi Mark, Glad you have discovered The Value of Vision Series. I think you’ll enjoy it because the various articles approach the topic from a variety of perspectives.

      You raise an interesting question of whether lack of interest in big picture is due to trait vs. state. Since interest has dwindled in the past decade and personality type distributions have not changed, I believe this is more likely due to current economic and political trends. Contrast the general attitude in the US now to the post WWII attitude. I think it’s hard to be forward looking when you are not hopeful.

      I appreciate your points about a vision needing to appeal to diverse perceptions and your thoughts of what is required from leadership. And I have enjoyed reading through your exchange with Gurmeet. I’m always delighted when my post inspires readers to begin their own conversation.

      • Mark Petruzzi

        Hi Jesse;

        Excellent point re: looking at trait vs. state through the lens of history. Obviously I didn’t think to go there!

        Strange, isn’t it, that the very time that we need vision most, it can prove challenging to muster it?

        “What is,” is so seductive, that we often give too much of our attention there, and not enough to where we want to go, and to a solution–based mindset.

        Thank you for your kind words.

  • Gurmeet Singh Pawar

    @ Mark Petruzzi

    I am not so sure about personality types being the reason as lack of interest(though it could be a case). I see it more as a natural reluctance on part of people towards change(any). We try to live into our comfort zones which are nothing more but our habits(mental, physical or otherwise).

    Also I am bit uncomfortable with the idea of some rare breed of visionary coming to inspire people for greater good. First vision has nothing to do with being good or better, second depending on outside force to drive us is not a sustainable idea. I see vision as purely personal & individual act which has both Individual & social outcome.

    The greatest issue with people intent to stay with “How to” is that they almost never move forward from that. They want to know what & how but shy away from the most critical question “Why”, Which does not change anything for them on ground. Since people are doing things because someone vision appealed to them at a point, they get derailed & lose interest with passage of time. The lack of ownership & Clarity coupled with ever pervading uncertainty keeps them oscillating into various “How to & what”.

    The World have not seen less of those leaders be it spiritual Buddha, philosophical Socrates, scientific Einstein, political Gandhi, or more recent Covey, the list goes on from the days we find history written. But people though inspired from such leaders failed to sustain themselves on the path, simply because it was Buddha, Gandhi or covey vision not theirs.

    The question is not about how to make people work on a collective vision of some God or near God leader, the question is about people realizing their own vision & living their life accordingly. The question is about people taking ownership of their acts & life.

    Thanks for your lovely comment, it made me think & respond. Have a nice day sir.

    • Mark Petruzzi

      @Gurmeet Singh Pawar

      Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I am in complete agreement with this bit that you wrote:

      “The question is not about how to make people work on a collective vision of some God or near God leader, the question is about people realizing their own vision & living their life accordingly. The question is about people taking ownership of their acts & life.”

      This is a perspective I encourage often to the participants in my workshops, and that I use in my coaching.

      To clarify, I wasn’t writing about simply working on a “collective vision of some God or near God leader.”

      I WAS writing of the reticence of many to participate in in a visionary perspective: the lack of comfort levels, the natural tendencies, the preferences.

      I WAS writing of the the discomfort with, and sometimes outright rejection of those who ARE comfortable in the visionary/abstract/strateg space. I notice those who are uncomfortable with merely the call, let alone the responsibility and freedom of a visionary perspective.

      I’ll add that I find that meeting folks where they are, and then walking with them to a perspective that they want to explore, is more useful and (selfishly) satisfying, than giving them 3, 5 or 10 steps, that Jesse referred to above (even if that is what they are looking for).

      Also, I don’t confuse “rare” with better or superior. One could argue “rare” is as much a curse as a gift in almost every instance, and most reasonable people can see the two sides that deal. :-) And both rare and superior are such relative perspectives in themselves, aren’t they?

      I was once on a team of 12 intuitives and one linear thinker. How we cherished that linear thinker on our team! Was he superior? No. He was cherished, though. 😉

      In general, in my discussions on leadership, I bring up the fact that way too much is made of the leader, and not enough is made of accountability, vision and autonomy on the part of those who co-create with, or “follow,” the leadership. In fact, I think that too many give their power away.

      That said, it is a rare, and perhaps cherished leader, who is not seen as superior, but who is loved for their way of inspiring through vision.

      I enjoy your writing, and appreciate what I see as an acknowledgement of spirit and the “more” of who we are, and what I feel to be your belief and hope that we will continue to grow into that more, regardless of our station. Please correct me if I am off in any of this last.

      All the best…

  • Gurmeet Singh Pawar

    Hi Mark, Thank you for you kind response & appreciating words. I would say we are on the same page & that is personally satisfying for me. you wrote a nice article & makes lot of sense in connect to what we discussed here.

    You mention three categories of people in your article, do you work with all three types of personality or mostly restrict yourself with second type in your work and what according to you is the best way to involve them to go inside despite all their reluctance.

    Thanks again.:-)

    • Mark Petruzzi

      Hi Gurmeet,

      Thank you for your curiosity, and I agree that we are on the same page with much.

      Regarding my work, the first thing is let’s agree that all models of people are useful to a point, but aren’t people. We are all too complex to describe completely with any single model.

      That part agreed, I’ll say that I allow others to choose me. I don’t aggressively market myself. Usually I get clients by referral, or because of something I wrote, or because someone takes a workshop and wants to hire me to speak somewhere else.

      Someone has to be “in the vicinity” of the perspectives I like to invite them to, for something of real value to happen for us both. Therefore, it is less likely that the third type I mentioned will show up for my work, as much as the previous two.

      What is the best way to “involve them to go inside despite their reluctance?”

      Some part of them must feel a pull and a curiosity. If that is there, then the first step is an invitation from an empathetic place in me. This is important. When I was younger, my approach was bringing a solution even if the person across from me wasn’t asking for it—almost like I wanted to fix someone.

      At one point I realized the arrogance of wanting someone else to fulfill their potential with my solution, and charging ahead in that desire. From then on my desire was to help them from wherever they were, toward where they wanted to go, and invite them a to consider a new perspective along the way.

      This I do this by literally introducing a new way of thinking about our emotional nature and new ways of thinking about desire, and how that all fits together—and by giving them the opportunity to explore their core desires, and returning them again and again to this new internal reality. I give them a way of analyzing how their desires align with values, attention, beliefs, and more.

      This is much different than offering “5 steps to a better this or that…” If the new perspectives take, they will slowly transform everything. Once you’ve seen something differently, it’s hard to pretend you haven’t. Suddenly the inner life is changed, and so the outer life begins to change, too.

      Hope it doesn’t sound too much like a commercial! Apologies to Jesse for blowing up her thread with this!

      Thank you, Gurmeet for your question…

  • Gurmeet Singh Pawar

    Hi Mark, Thank you for sharing your work, I can relate to your experience of trying to fix things & subsequently changing the strategy to choosing people who are in the stage to understand your perspectives. No point in talking to people who does not want to listen.

    Also your idea of empathetic initiation makes lot of sense. I am sure people who are touched by you appreciate the value they get from you.

    Best of luck & thanks again.

  • Jesse, as usual a topical corner of the internet. I am a fan of questions, and I am firmly in agreement with your observation. There is an obsession with “how to” with little thought applied to “the big picture” question. I think this is also a reaction to wanting to please and seem busy, rather than taking it all in and looking to add value to what you understand to be the purpose.

    It has been an interesting period for me watching this “shoot first then aim” chaos, as I can see how people can get on that hamster wheel easily and just respond with no long term plan in mind. More haste less speed really needs to come back to the minds of people in what they are doing.

    Maybe it is also a function of the parrot fashion learning agenda pushed by some learning institutions, where people are no longer being encouraged to think, but more taught how to pass a test?

    Whatever it is, it has to come full circle some time in my opinion.

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      It’s an interesting phenomenon, Thabo. I suspect the internet and technology making information and connection instantly available at all times has a lot to do with it. And of course, global economics, environmental concerns, etc. add to a fear-state which causes us to focus on short-term survival issues. We are biologically wired for fight or flight, neither of which involve seeing more than the immediate situation. I agree it is time to come full circle, Thabo, and I think the current interest in mindfulness demonstrates this need and desire.

  • Hi Jesse

    I loved the series. I commented on the series. I completely share your concern.

    I was also fascinated by some of the replies to this post. For my quick penny’s worth, I believe that there is a powerful link between a general recognition that the ‘command and control’ model of leadership is, unfortunately, still alive and thriving well; that there is a common need/plea for an alternative, which is why ‘How to …’ does so well; and my shared premise, with others like yourself and LaRae, that vision requires thought, which people don’t want to or can’t be bothered to invest in!

    Unfortunately, it is an inside out practice, as LaRae described it, and requires an investment of self! How to books can be helpful … although they indulge laziness, the ‘quick fix’ and, more importantly, they inhibit your need to think for yourself. Visioning then, in that kind of climate, becomes a step way too far out of left field!

    The trouble is this breeds ‘if you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you’ve always got’ types of outcomes … and, in a fast-paced, ambiguous and uncertain world, who is that good for? Unlike Gurmeet, I also believe that visioning is an individual and a collective activity. I know this because I have done both.

    So, let’s step off the merry-go-round and think bigger picture for a while. Who knows what might come of it?

    • Jesse Lyn Stoner Jesse Lyn Stoner

      Yes, it is a great discussion, John and I’m delighted you weighed in. I appreciate your emphasis on the importance of doing the internal work. Your invitation to step off the merry-go-round is compelling.

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