Tips on developing and communicating vision

by Nelson Searcy

Vision is a pre-requisite for leadership. One cannot lead without a vision of the future. Choosing to cast your vision is the first critical leadership choice. Vision is the essential ingredient for a leader, both personally and for the organization you lead.

You cannot lead without a vision of the future. Show me a person with vision and I'll show you a future leader. (I say a future leader because vision must be cultivated, defined, and cast.) As Paul Thorton reminds us, "A vision expresses a desired future state that is better in some important way than what exists. It describes where you will be in the future and what it will be like." For more, see Thorton's Be the Leader: Make the Difference (Griffin Publishing Group, 2001).

The myth of leadership as a position
Because vision is a requirement of leadership, you cannot lead based on position alone. Recently someone told me, "I just received my first leadership position." While on paper that may be true, the position will not become one of leadership until that person develops, cultivates, or produces a vision. With vision comes leadership. In fact, great organizations give positional promotions only to those who already have vision.

Cultivating a vision
Where does vision come from? Vision can flow from a number of sources:

  • Experience: Because of what I have learned from the past, I have a vision for the future.
  • Inspiration: Because of an imaginative or spiritual spark, I have a vision for the future.
  • Analysis: Because of my analytical study, I have a vision for the future.

The key point on vision is that it is unique to every leader. My vision must be cultivated out of experience, inspiration, or analysis. If you borrow a vision, you are simply managing another person's vision, you are not leading. To borrow a vision is to fail to lead.

Vision often arises at just the right time. Therefore there are environmental factors related to vision. These environmental factors may include a conflict, an opportunity, a crisis, or a need. When confronted with one of these factors, a leader steps forth to offer vision and direction. In fact, the leader knows that such circumstances are ripe for vision, because people have a more urgent need for clear direction, guidance, and purpose during such trying times. The manager squelches trying times because she sees such times as interruptions in "business as usual." Leaders value trying times because such interruptions are opportunities to get below business as usual and chart a new and better course.

Defining a vision: vision and values
Your vision is defined by your values. Your values are those ideals that you cling to deeply - your core. The best vision is derived from a core of integrity, where inner values are given expression through the vision. Vision without values is chaotic. Values without vision is monastic. When values and vision match, a leader is set in motion. Be careful in determining your values! Don't mistake surface concerns with underlying values.

Vision waits on you
Once a person cultivates a vision there are only two options: containment or casting. A person who cultivates a vision but then contains that vision has failed to step into the leadership arena. Because his vision will affect only himself, he has chosen to accept mediocrity (and most likely will never be able to cultivate future visions). A person who cultivates a vision and then casts that vision has started a leadership journey into the unknown. The leadership journey promises not only growth and fulfillment but most likely the accomplishment of the vision.

Casting your vision
Choosing to cast your vision is your first critical leadership choice. Casting vision is work! In order to cast vision you must:

Verbalize clearly: If you can't say it clearly, you don't know it completely. You may think that the vision makes sense, but your mind will fill in the holes of the vision without you being aware. When you verbalize the vision, you've taken the important step of examining the holes and resolving them – for yourself and for others.

Incubate carefully: Once your learned how to say it, let it sit. Let it stew. Let it incubate. Incubation happens when you warm the vision. You warm the vision by holding it next to the heat of your values, ideas, other readings, research, etc.

Share conspicuously: Talk to your trusted friends. Internal thoughts allow us to see only so far. We must make use of others' eyes. This kind of sharing is different than casting the vision so that others buy into it.

Implement cautiously: Look before you leap, but make sure you do some leaping! Casting your vision requires an element of risk, but don't waste your vision by implementing haphazardly.

Observe carefully: Who and what are around me are available to help me fulfill this vision? Also, who in the organization will oppose the vision and why? Observation helps you think through the strategies for implementation.

Never give up!: If you have cultivated a vision, never, never, never, never give up! The number one strategy for casting vision is to be persistent. Most visions are worthy of manifestation, but many go unrealized because leaders give up too early. Remember, the road is never crowded on the second mile.

Work on your vision
Vision is the essential ingredient for a leader, both personally and for the organization you lead. As James Kouzes and Barry Posner put it in The Leadership Challenge: "Visions are like lenses. They focus unrefracted rays of light. They enable everyone concerned with an enterprise to see more clearly what is ahead of them." Many potential leaders miss out on the rewards of becoming a leader because they lack vision. Their lives are unfocused. But this lack of focus hurts not only them, but those around them. Again, Kouzes and Posner put it well: "The vision of an organization acts as its magnetic north." Smart leaders do not waste their lives on directionless activity; rather they invest in a vision with purpose - providing the vision for their families, teams, groups, and companies.

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