• Erwan Hernot

Change Your Vision on...Vision


Idea: there are 2 different approaches on vision in leadership. The traditional one is just a monologue and doesn't resist to the need for people to be part of it.


Managing through a shared vision and in a strong organizational culture has been a very popular prescription for companies. Let’s focus on vision here. A vision is, most of the time, spelled out in a « vision statement » that outlines what the organization wants to be. It concentrates on the future. It is a source of inspiration. It provides clear decision-making criteria. The vision is a way of getting things done by developing a strongly shared understanding. If people share a common set of goals, a common perspective on what to do and how to accomplish it, and a common vocabulary that allows them to coordinate their behavior, then Command&Control management and hierarchical authority are of much less importance. People will be able to work cooperatively without waiting for orders from the upper levels of the company. Two different approaches on vision try to reach such a result.


Top down vision

Difficult to change when everything goes well. Yet the necessary anticipation of the future legitimizes change. The difficulty in undertaking and implementing it when dangers are not yet visible, propelled our fascination for the leader and his/her "vision". This first approach originated in the so-called transformational leadership where the CEO articulates a clear and appealing vision of what the company could accomplish and/or become, to guide the actions and decisions of managers. The underlying belief is : great actions come less from the existence of problems than from the feeling that we are able to make things happen. To this end, the leader has power and words. In this theory, developing and sharing the meaning of the world enables constructive collective action. It’s almost about “being a visionary” in some mystical sense—someone with a prophetic gift. Of course, the leader then explains how the vision can be attained and establish a clear link with a credible strategy for attaining it. “As a leader, your success increasingly depends less on what you do and more on your vision of the future and how effectively you motivate others to achieve it”*. This is a top-down approach and employees are asked to comply. It underestimates the human cognitive processes: a vision is ultimately a mental representation housed in the individual’s brain. This brain cannot make a goal of its own if it has not internalised it enough. Accepting a vision designed by someone else doesn’t work. It implies that each manager must carry the vision of the company in her own mental model. Changing it doesn’t simply happen with leaders’ instructions ; it is a 2 times process: first unlearn past strategies, ways of thinking and then learn new ones. The vision is therefore discussed (analysing the company context and challenges), shared, even modified. Working on it allows managers to understand these challenges from their own perspective. This is the price to pay to change mental models and humans are keen on protecting their own built on their history, beliefs and experiences rather than adopting one dropping down from the C-suite. But in the top down option, leaders are not ready to pay this price even when it is the only way to broaden a necessary understanding if the managers are to embrace the complex reality. Because they do not want to discuss topics forming the vision, leaders then try to control the process of change: no systemic vision but more technical standards to respect, less autonomy of actions and more procedures for managers making them more dependent when the objective should have been interdependence (see further). Instructions replace thinking. This appeal to the leader’s vision is opposed to the trust that this very leader could place in his/her managers. Unfortunately trust is not part of the culture of the elites and consequently not part of the troops’ culture either.


Top down vs bottom up ? A bit of both

Enters then a second approach which considers that vision is first of all what … you see. And each of us sees from his own point of view, that is to say from where we are located in the system. Leaders concerned with strategy may not see the human side of business. Managers on the other hand, are the link between employees and the system. They consume their energy into solving operational problems and lack a forward-looking vision and an understanding of strategic decisions. Employees have poor visibility of the company stakes. They may not understand the decisions of leaders. At each level, you find a different rationality and no systemic vision. Consequently, this situation generates bad interactions between them. For this second option to succeed, it needs 2 conditions:


1. Leaders give managers and employees all the information they need to work well but also to understand how the company is doing. Call it open-book management. According to Wikipedia, “The basis of open-book management is that the information received by [managers and] employees should not only help them do their jobs effectively, but help them understand how the company is doing as a whole. According to John Case [from Inc.Magazine], "a company performs best when its people see themselves as partners in the business rather than as hired hands" . The technique is to give employees all relevant financial information about the company so they can make better decisions as workers. This information includes, but is not limited to, revenue, profit, cost of goods, cash flow and expenses”.


2. Vision comes first from a clear understanding of reality. Getting a grasp on a company’s reality requires connecting with all of its key constituencies. To define reality accurately, the leader must be in touch with people from every level of the company. This will give him/her access to multiple sources of information that can shape a rich, detailed image of current reality. Since each of the company’s stakeholders can have a significant impact on its future, the leader needs to understand and respect their varying perspectives, even if he views some of their opinions as shortsighted or flawed. The leader also engage managers in a constant dialog to broaden their understanding. Those managers will do the same with employees in order to help them forge for themselves, a global vision of the company, its challenges and its future. The outcome will not necessarily be the same vision for all stakeholders. For example, between employees (who see the system from the inside) and leaders (who see the system from above). But with such a strong, realistic understanding of the nuts and bolts of the current situation, one can clearly picture what the next steps in the naturally unfolding reality are likely to be. Without an agreed-upon picture of this reality, it’s virtually impossible to formulate strategies and programs that everyone in the company can support. It means that the leader gives managers the elements needed to get out of their partial vision of reality, to understand their part thanks to an apprehension of the whole; In others words, she allows them to go beyond the anecdotes to access the facts. Obviously they acquire more power. And they will use this power, which gives rise to all fears regarding the governance of the company. Because orienting this use of their power in a positive direction for the company is not easy since the more the managers are armed and the more they will discuss what they are told to do. But somehow with that knowledge, they are almost able to change on their own and cooperate in a creative way and find new solutions. Leaders and managers recognize their interdependence : leaders are at the interface between those who decide on future developments and those who will make them happen. They need to have as many managers as possible sharing their forward-looking vision, in order to reduce the difference in perception between them and these managers. It is a model of trust.


Which approach is the most relevant? If you want quickly win a point use your hierarchical power and focus on the first approach by conducting a monologue that tries to convince others. Needless to say ; it won’t drive you to the shared understanding aforementionned. Real visionary leaders naturally focus on the second approach (understand others) because they want to learn as much possible. They consistently extend boundaries and have conversations to examine new possibilities and instinctively tap into the experience and knowledge of their people.

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