The Value of Vision Series - Kouzes and Posner

Kouzes and Posner Vision Series

 Focusing on the Future Sets Leaders Apart

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner

We’ve all had a glimpse of the future. You know, that time when you imagined running your own business… or that dream of traveling to an exotic place… or that bold idea for a game-changing new product… or that burning desire to get an advanced degree… or that sense of purpose you felt when you signed up for the sustainability campaign… or that calling to join a cause and make this a better planet… or that uplifting sense you got when picturing kids playing in a neighborhood without fear. All of us dream of what might come to pass some day. Leaders take these dreams seriously and act to make them happen.

The truth is that focusing on the future sets leaders apart. 

The capacity to imagine and articulate exciting future possibilities is the defining competence of leaders. We know this because we asked followers. For over thirty years we’ve been asking people to tell us what they most look for and admire in a leader, someone they would willingly follow.

The quality of being forward-looking is second only to honesty as the most admired leader characteristic. On average, 71 percent of respondents select it. In Asia, Europe, and Australia the preference for forward-looking is several percentage points higher than it is in America.

We’ve also been asking a similar question about what people look for in a colleague (someone they’d like on their team), and the responses to this question have revealed a telling and vital distinction between leaders and individual contributors.

Using the identical list of desirable qualities, the number one requirement of a leader, honesty, is also the top-ranking attribute of a good colleague. But, the second most desirable quality of a leader — being forward-looking is not even in the top ten attributes of a colleague. It’s selected by only 27 percent of the respondents. No other quality we’ve studied showed such a dramatic difference between leader and colleague.

Yet, in spite of the fact that being forward-looking is the quality that most separates leaders from individual contributors, it’s something that too few fully appreciate, and too many devote almost no time to developing.

If nothing is done to address this shortcoming, it will become a huge barrier to your future success. That’s because the challenge escalates with managerial level. Frontline leaders are expected to anticipate events only about three months down the road. Middle level managers often need to look three to five years into the future. Those in the executive suite must focus on a horizon that’s ten or more years distant.

Crossing the chasm from individual contributor to leader requires fully embracing the need to develop the capacity to envision the future. Making the transition from average to exemplary leader, regardless of level, requires the dedication to master it.

And how does a new leader develop the capacity to be forward-looking?

The answer is deceptively simple: spend more time in the future. You have to carve out more time each week to peer into the distance and imagining what might be out there. You have to take the time today in order to have the time tomorrow.

The trouble is, it’s not all that easy to do. The most experienced and senior executives struggle with it. Some researchers have found, for example, that top executives spend only about 3 percent of their time thinking about, and getting others on board with, the critical issues that will shape their business ten or more years down the road. That’s not nearly enough time. That’s why you have to be disciplined about this.

One of the leaders we interviewed said to us, “I’m my organization’s futures department.” All leaders should view themselves this way. Because being forward-looking is the differentiating leadership quality, you need to spend more time reading about, thinking about, and talking about the long-term view. Make it your business to study the future.

Set up a futures research committee to study potential changes and developments in areas affecting your organization. Put together a team to continually track fifty or sixty publications that represent new thoughts on trends in your domain.  Ask them to prepare abstracts of articles they think have relevance. A smaller team can then pull the abstracts into reports for use in planning and decision-making. Or simply have all the people in your organization regularly clip articles from newspapers, magazines, and Web sites.

Circulate the ideas generated and discuss the impact of trends on your products, services, technologies, and constituents. Use these discussions to help you and your organization develop the ability to think long-term.

Developing the capacity to envision the future requires you to spend more time in the future – meaning more time reflecting on the future, more time reading about the future, and more time talking to others about the future. It’s not an easy assignment, but it is an absolutely necessary one. It also requires you to reflect back on your past to discover the themes that really engage you and excite you. And it means thinking about the kind of legacy you want to leave and the contributions you want to make.

It’s your job as a leader to lift people’s sights and lift people’s spirits.

You must remind others – who are often so mired in the day-to-day of work and life that they lose their bearings – that there is a larger purpose to all this doing. You and they are working hard in order to build something different, to make something new, to create a better future. That’s why it’s important to invest the time today in tomorrow’s future.

Kouzes and PosnerJim Kouzes and Barry Posner are the coauthors of the bestselling and award-winning The Leadership Challenge, and over a dozen other books on leadership including The Truth About Leadership, Making Extraordinary Things Happen in Asia, A Leader’s Legacy, Credibility, and Encouraging the Heart. Jim is the Dean’s Executive Fellow of Leadership and Barry is the Accolti Endowed Professor of Leadership at the Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University. Follow them on Twitter @Jim_Kouzes and @TLCTalk and find them on Facebook Jim Kouzes and TLC Page.

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26 comments to The Value of Vision Series – Kouzes and Posner

  • Great article! Great leaders always have strong visions for the future. I love this idea of forward-looking. Leaders always need to envision the future and what they can do now to bring their visions to fruition. Forward-looking leaders should continually be striving to improve to bring their visions to life.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Tagrid. I especially appreciate your point that “leaders should continually be striving to improve bringing their visions to life.” Too many leaders approach visioning as an activity to accomplish, rather than an ongoing process.

  • Jesse – Thank you for instigating this series! Jim and Barry this article was interesting and helpful.

    Interesting to see the how much people value forward thinking in leaders v.s.individual contributors.
    And interesting to see the increased value of forward thinking leaders in Asia, Australia, and Europe.

    My biggest takeaway: To intentionally spend more time reflecting on the future!

  • Very interesting perspective on vision and the future. I think it can be frightening to people to try and imagine where/what their business will look like in the future. Afraid they’ll be wrong, afraid their business will be done, and for colleagues it may be that they’re busy reacting to events and situations.

  • Excellent topic, Jesse…

    It would be interesting to hear the perspective of others with regard to behavioral style / personal values and desire to focus on shaping the future. I believe some people are focused on shaping their future more purposefully than others because their behavioral style / personal values drive them to be future-focused. Is it a skill, a behavioral style “tick”, or both? I think it can be trained / reinforced – yet I believe it is more innate for some people than others.

    Keep rockin’!

  • Jesse, I like the research behind this. It’s very telling. This is valuable info and I look forward to the continuing of the series. Please post it into the #LeadWithGiants Community on Google Plus. Many members expressed interest in following the series.

  • Super article. Seems to me that the challenge to spend time in the future is because they can find little time in the present! More and more I am aware of the value of a practice in MINDFULNESS. One must learn to be still, to quiet the to-do-list and the chatter from Wall Street. Now, attempt to just be silent, and still– 20 minutes will seem like an eternity. Until you can do that in the NOW, finding the future will be a huge stretch.

  • A terrific post, and thanks, Jesse, for making this available here. What I wondered, is how our actual inability to reliably predict the future, should impact the desirability of vision on the part of colleagues. Does the data here reflect an underlying desire for the hero-leader, for example? Should colleagues/followers in fact have as much to say about intention, purpose, meaning, and vision, as the nominal leaders? I think of the more radically-organized firms such as Semco, Gore, and Patagonia, as examples.

    Thanks again!

  • Thank you all for your gracious comments about our post. And thank you Jesse for asking me and Barry to offer our thoughts on The Value of Vision. And to Eileen’s comment that “…the challenge to spend time in the future is because they can find little time in the present,” I would add that our research suggests something similar. The number one reason given by leaders for not doing better at Inspiring a Shared Vision is “I don’t have enough time now to think about the future.” What’s interesting about that comment is that we all have the same 168—the same 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week—as former Baxter CEO Harry Kramer points out. We all have the exact same amount of time. Why then are some leaders better at envisioning the future? It’s not because they lack the time. It’s in how they use their time, including being mindful about what’s going on right now—within us, around us, and between us. As paradoxical as it might sound, attending to the present one of the ways to access the future.

  • Agree: attending to the present is one way to access the future! To think that the 2-day senior management retreat I just facilitated was started with a mindfulness meditation. While I thought the team would think me crazy, all but one got into it AND for many, it was one of the practices they said they wanted to keep. There’s hope :)

  • Bruce, Thanks for your question and comment. You are always thought-provoking. First of all, the question we ask is this: “What do you look for and admire in a leader, someone whose direction you would willingly follow? And the key word is ‘willingly.'” I would guess that some people may think hero-leader, but after doing this for over 30 years it is my best judgment that that is not what respondents are thinking. They are thinking about someone much closer to them than the mythical hero-leader. Second, we certainly agree that constituents should be part of the process of “envisioning the future.” One of the stories we tell in The Leadership Challenge is from a programs manager in an aerospace company who asked his team for feedback. One of the things they said to him was, “”We want to walk with you as you create the goals and vision so that we all get to the end vision together.” All too often leaders assume that it is solely their responsibility to be the visionaries—and leadership myth promotes that notion. Constituents expect leaders to be forward-looking, but they don’t expect leaders to impose their vision on them or sell their vision to them. They want to be part of envisioning the future. They want their aspirations, hopes and dreams represented. That’s why we call it Inspire a SHARED Vision. The best leaders exemplify this principle.

    • Jim, thank you for your kind words, and for your further reply. I love the phrasing of the aerospace person… “we want to walk with you…” In a Federal agency where I served as Senior Advisor for Process Improvement, survey data showed very high levels of employee commitment to the mission, but very low levels of morale. Prior to my arrival, the #3 in the org started an initiative called “People First,” which addressed issues from leadership development to workplace bullying. The problem was that the #3 frequently sat in and overruled the dialogue at the table. Behind the scenes, the majority referred to the program as “#3 First” and she knew this was happening. I worked diligently to build relationships of engagement and trust as my foundation for influencing change. When the #3 won a prestigious department award for her “People First” initiative, no other employees were invited to the presentation ceremony with the Secretary. When the award was announced at a senior staff meeting I attended, not a single congratulatory remark was offered. That afternoon, in a meeting with me and her assistant, the #3 lost it. She literally started yelling about how “they” (the other managers) “couldn’t do it… But I did it, I made change..I moved the needle…”

      Well, some leaders, no matter the opportunity to lead authentically and openly, can’t overcome the limits of their own egos and fears. Much better to “walk together” creating the vision and results that empower and satisfy all.

  • From the word go, the series whips up the appetite to yearn for the next, and with an underlying confidence, that appetite shall be more than fulfilled!

  • Jesse,

    Thank you so much for bringing Jim and Barry’s timeless wisdom back into focus with this blog series. Eileen has keyed into such an important insight – mindfulness is indeed a gateway to the future – and it can only happen here in the present.

    I look forward to the remainder of the blog posts in this series.

    • Jennifer, Thank you for encouraging my heart! It’s such an honor to contribute to Jesse’s blog. I find it fascinating that by being more in the present we also improve our capacity to see into the future.

  • Great piece. I’d like to add that it’s important to get people in the organization a) engaged in thinking purposefully about the future (i.e., not scared of it), b) that they have to think assertively about making it happen, and c) that it will keep changing no matter how much you plan.

    • Alan, Thank you for your comment. Your point is critically important. Our research shows that the practice of Inspire a Shared Vision is the most difficult for people to learn, and even harder to master. As one leader we interviewed said, “I am my organization’s futures department.” I love that attitude. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone would get on board with that notion? How about asking everyone on our team each month to clip one article, news story, blog, etc., about a future trend that has implications for the work we do. Each month they could write a half-lage summary of what they read and half-page comment about the implications they see. Then we’d all bring the one-page document to a team meeting, talk about all of them, and then ask ourselves: “What does all this tell us? Based on what we’ve heard, what should we do that we’re not now doing? What new products and services could we create that would respond to these possibilities?” There are lots of ways we could support purposely thinking about and assertively making the future happen. And, of course, getting comfortable with the reality that not everything works out as planned.

  • A recent article by Andre van Heerdeen entitled Quo Vadis? is a must read — and it’s directly related to Jesse’s Value of Vision Series. You’ll find it in Rhodes Business School’s online journal, Critical Thought. Here is the link: . Quo Vadis is the Latin phrase for “Where are you going?” and Andre offers some very useful guidelines on answering it for yourself.

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