The Why Behind Your Company: The Importance of Vision in Executive Leadership

When you think about leadership, what comes to mind? 

For some of you, it may be the loud-mouthed, hard-nosed sports coach who always finds a way to win. For others, leadership connotes great heads of state: Reagan, Roosevelt, Churchill—or even stretching further back into history to leaders like Julius Cesar or Alexander the Great.

When it comes to leadership in business, I believe the most important aspect of being an effective leader is defining and carrying out your vision. Initially, our vision is the inspiration needed to undertake the challenge of building our business. Daily, it drives our team to work hard to make our businesses better. And eventually, it's our vision that interests customers and drives them to become involved with our brand. However, it amazes me how many business owners stump at the following question:

What is your vision?

The Reasoning vs. The Road Map

I often hear vision compared with a road map. When business owners begin answering the question of what their vision is, they dive into breakdowns of employee roles, budget targets and complex development plans all aligned at a certain big goal—a bit like they're driving a car on a road trip. While long-term maps like these are great and often a sign of proper planning, they don't actually indicate that the leader understands his or her vision. 

Too often, we mistake our vision for a destination, an end point of some kind. However, I tend to believe this is too narrow and simple of imagining what our vision should be. In an article in Forbes, Eric Basu, a serial entrepreneur and host of Cybernation, uses a similar metaphor to explain this notion of a vision:

“The vision is less tangible but also more important than the strategic goal.  The vision is the reason for being in the car and driving in the first place.”

Our vision resonates from what we're passionate about. It doesn't necessarily equate to a specific goal or company milestone, but it's more the reason why the company exists in the first place. Our vision involves certain milestones, countless months (sometimes years) of planning, and true grit and determination—a bit like a road map. However, as Basu argues, the vision is not the map or the city at its end, but the reason that inspires us to craft the map in the first place. 

Determine the Why 

Defining our vision in its most basic form can often be the hardest part. So, where's the best place to begin?

Begin with what you love. What inspires you and drives you? What makes the hairs on your arms stand up? If your vision is based around these roots, no matter how extreme the change or severe the road, we are more likely to persevere if our vision is rooted in fundamentals in which we believe. 

Take Wendy Kopp, founder and former CEO of Teach For AmericaWhen Kopp graduated from Princeton in 1989, she could have pursued a variety of careers and likely been successful in any of them. Instead, she decided to follow her passions. Her strong desire for equality and her connection to education guided her toward a vision: a national teaching corps designed to help students in impoverished and under-served schools.

So many challenges stood in her way with an idea like this (Kopp herself is the first to admit this), but she let none of these stop her. With her core beliefs at heart, she has watched her vision grow from 500 initial corps members in 1990 to more than 50,000 current members and alumni in 2015. Kopp had a vision rooted in ideals she believed in, which helped her follow it through to reality.

Communicate Clearly

Understanding a vision is just the beginning. Communicating it clearly to all those around you – whether they be employees, investors or customers – is just as crucial. To clearly communicate your vision, you'll need to do three things: simplify, question and listen. 

1. Simplify 

Keep it simple. A complex vision usually just means we're confused. Remember, your vision isn't some complex road map for a trip through the jungle but, more important, the reason(s) behind the trip itself . Keep it clear.

2. Question

While this may seem counterintuitive, I often think this is the most important step. Good leaders are known for more than providing great direction and giving enthused speeches. Great leaders, like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, are known for their ability to ask the right questions. When Jobs founded Apple in 1976, his vision wasn't to create computers. He envisioned a world flooded with technology within its every aspect. In order to realize this vision, he constantly questioned both his accomplishments and his team's understanding of his initial vision. Eventually, this approach would lead him to the Apple that exists today.

3. Listen

This step is too often forgotten. We can only provide direction and assign tasks so often. One of the reasons we bring others on board to help us execute our vision is so they can contribute to refining and acting upon it. To be successful, we'll need the contributions of those around us. Knowledge is gained through dialogue – not monologue – and the sooner you realize and embrace this, the more successful your vision will be. 

A Collective Vision 

Sharing your vision is vital to your company's success. Your vision communicates to your team internally why they show up and externally the values and mission your company follows. When you're ready to communicate your vision, make sure you understand the how and the why. How will your vision become a reality? Why is your vision important? Beginning with these questions and using these above steps will get your team headed in the right direction. 

Al Eidson is the owner of Eidson & Partners, a business and marketing strategy consultancy, and a founder of SparkLabKC, an early-stage startup accelerator program in Kansas City. He's an expert in taking products to market and has launched more than 220 new products and ventures through his career. He's also proud of killing off a great many problematic products before they hit the market. His vision involves meaningful and lasting products through innovation. 

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