The first part of a new series on leadership looks at the importance of a shared vision for a firm

An organisation without vision and values is like a house built with sand. A vision provides shape and direction to the organisation’s future and its values describe the underlying ethos of how the organisation intends to operate, as it pursues its vision.

Setting a vision is indeed at the very heart of leadership. “The genius of the leader is to articulate a vision simple enough to be understood, appealing enough to evoke commitment, and credible enough to be accepted as realistic and attainable,” said Gary Yukl, author of Leadership in Organizations.

Who and what we are, what we need to do, and how we need to go about it, are questions a leader is expected to have answers to. “For I dipt into the future, Far as human eye could see, Saw the vision of the world, And all the wonder that would be,” wrote Lord Alfred Tennyson, perhaps aptly summing up the endeavour to envision the road ahead.

Leadership needs to go beyond having a vision, compelling as it may be. It involves the ability to enable a shared vision that can translate intent into reality to create sustainable outcomes. The power of nurturing the vision requires articulating a compelling purpose and enabling commitment all the way down the pyramid, touching the lowest common denominator, through collective belief, meaning and trust.

Georges Braque, the French artist who is known to have developed Cubism along with Picasso, had observed that “the only thing that matters in art is the part that cannot be explained”. This is indeed true for leadership and vision, too, and it is the very essence of converting intellectual capital into social capital. David Putnam, the Harvard political scientist, described social capital of the bonding and/or bridging kind as the collective value of social networks and the inclinations from these networks to do things for each other, which can be measured by the extent of trust and reciprocity in a community between individuals, in both homogeneous and heterogeneous settings.

Spartacus, many centuries ago, had led the revolution of slaves against the Roman Empire and was vanquished. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who came down to see the conquered slaves who had survived the war, had never met the leader responsible for this uprising. On asking the imprisoned slaves to reveal which one of them was Spartacus, and eliciting no response, Aurelius threatened to behead every one of the slaves till he discovered the culprit-in-chief. On hearing this, Spartacus stood up and declared, “I am Spartacus. Leave them alone.” Within seconds, the man next to Spartacus also stood up to declare that he was Spartacus. Before long all the slaves were calling themselves as Spartacus. Amazing as it was, each slave was willing to give up his life for the cause of freedom, and the vision was no longer Spartacus’ alone. A fine example of what shared vision is all about, a collective commitment that echoes the words “all for one, and one for all” of Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers. A leader is a steward who envisions, generates new strategies, illuminates the road ahead and inspires the team to rally for the cause.

In 1980, Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet, proposed that the value of a network=n squared, where n is the number of people. Thus, a ten member network is worth a hundred, but a twenty member network is worth 400; you double the network and quadruple its value. A vision, when it translates to a shared vision assumes the power of Metcalfe’s Law, and the resultant value could be exponential. More often than not, vision statements adorn the walls but are rarely embedded into the souls of the employees. When the articulated vision is detached from reality it may become an illusion. To sustain a shared vision, a leader must invest time in listening to people, understanding their needs, unravelling their fears, anticipating their hopes and co-creating and communicating an image of the envisioned future that mirrors their aspirations. Shared vision, indeed, is the shorthand of authentic leadership.

The author is Partner and Global Leader (People and Organisation), Ernst & Young .

(This article was published on July 20, 2012)
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