21- The Premodern Leader: Style Three. I. Articulating the Vision at the Right Time and Place

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I. Articulating the Vision at the Right Time and Place

In my previous two blogs I identified premodern versions of Style One and Style Two Leadership. These are ways of leading that are based on the assumption that leaders are sources of great wisdom (Style One) or sources of great courage (Style Two). In this blog I will a describe a third leadership style that operates in a premodern social system.

This third premodern leadership style focuses on VISION. A person is assigned this third form of leadership because he or she can articulate a vision of the future that is persuasive and motivating. This person is assigned a leadership role not only because he or she is articulate and persuasive, but also because the people he or she is leading “hunger” for a dream or image of an alternative reality that will either help them build a game plan for getting out of the current reality or will enable them to be distracted from their current reality (a variation on the Style Two strategy of flight).

In both of the previous blogs, I mentioned that Alexander the Great is a vivid personification of premodern leadership. In this blog I would propose that he also exemplifies the third style—he had everything going for him. He was truly a “visionary” and coupled this vision with the wisdom he had acquired as a student of Aristotle and as the son of Phillip of Macedonia with the courage and competence he displayed as a great warrior. His vision was to conquer and “civilize” the Mideast and Asia. Like many of his fellow-citizens in the Grecian world, Alexander was apparently quite arrogant about the “advanced” state of Greece (when compared to the rest of the world) and quite patronizing with regard to his “responsibility” to make the rest of the world more like Greece. As is the case with many contemporary leaders in the Western World, Alexander offered a vision that was quite biased and xenophobic: “we are the best and will bring all other people, even if by force, to our state of advancement.” Visions are not always beneficial to the world—Hitler being a prime example of a premodern visionary leader who was articulate and compelling in offering his people a vision of genocide and world dominance.

Leadership at the Right Time and Place

While premodern leadership that builds on wisdom usually comes with a prestigious education, and courageous leaders receive training that prepares them to fight against the enemy, the visionary leader is someone who may not have much of an education or much training—but who is in the right place at the right time to offer a vision of the future. In fact, the visionary leader often comes to leadership with minimal preparation. His or her compelling vision often comes with a story of personal triumph over adversity and discrimination. Visionary leaders like Abraham Lincoln often were born in poverty and are self-taught. Other visionary leaders such as Susan B. Anthony (and the other Seneca Falls advocates for women’s rights) and Martin Luther King (and the other civil rights leaders of the 1960s) grew up in a world that discriminated against them (or at least against other people “of their kind”). Visionary leaders such as Frederick Douglass offer even more compelling story of being born into slavery and escaping to freedom.

The visionary stories often contain moments of personal doubt and spiritual despair. We see this in the inspiring stories of Joan-of-Arc and Mother Teresa. Visionary stories often contains elements not only of doubt and despair, but also of wisdom (combining Style One and Style Three leadership) and of courage (combining Style Two and Style Three leadership).  Visionary leaders convey stories of sacrifice, tribulation and triumph—having parted the Red Sea or dwelled in the desert so that they might enter into a land of milk and honey. Tragically, in many instances they have led their people to a land of milk and honey but have not been able to enter this land themselves (Moses, Lincoln, Gandhi, John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King). This is a key point in understanding the premodern dynamics of Style Three leadership: the vision can never be realized (just as the enemy can never be defeated if Style Two leadership is to be sustained and the followers can never become too wise if Style One leadership is to prevail). One way to insure that the vision remains intact is to kill the visionary leader (figuratively or literally). We can sustain the vision of a new Camelot because John Kennedy never had a chance to enact his dream and can be moved by King’s “I have a dream” speech in part because he was not alive to realize this dream.   

It is very hard to teach anyone how to be charismatic or to provide anyone with a story that is compelling to other people. The visionary leader is typically someone who has gained their “education” and “training” through their own distinctive life experiences. They may have received a prestigious education—but this usually happens “in spite of” their background. They often are the poster-boy (or poster-girl) for affirmative action. They may also have been trained as warriors (Colin Powell comes to mind), but the vision they now offer is typically one of peace: they “know” war and wish to have no further part of it.

Articulating the Vision

The key to wholehearted acceptance of and sustained support for a visionary leader resides in the identification of a compelling story from the past that bridges to the future. While this story often involves something about the visionary leader’s own life and struggles, it must also resonate with and align with the stories and personal aspirations of those hearing or reading this story. There is a phrase which usually reads: “think globally, but act locally.” This same sentiment, slightly revised, can apply to visionary stories: “make them personal and local, but be sure that they speak to a much larger constituency.”)

Given that visionary leadership is dependent on the right place and the right time, it is also important that the vision is articulated at the right time and in the right place. While Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address still appeals to us today, it is profound in large part because it was given at a commemoration ceremony for those soldiers who died during the bloody battle at Gettysburg. Lincoln is literally “consecrating” the ground where these young men were buried. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech was similarly given on a particularly auspicious occasion (a major civil rights march on Washington D.C.) and at a very “holy” or “patriotic” location (facing the Lincoln Memorial). The visionary leader must pick the special time and place when offering a visionary statement. This statement is not meant for the everyday—for the secular or the “profane” (to use Eliade’s term). It is meant for the special day and place–the “sacred” (Eliade’s term).

Where and when does the visionary leader find this special place and time? This is a critical decision. Unfortunately, the visionary statement is often offered during a time when immediate, profane matters need to be addressed. The vision is being offered as a distraction from the immediate problems facing the leader and his or her followers. Thus the criticality of place and time. I would suggest that there are five primary criteria with regard to the nature of an effective statement of vision. These five criteria tell us something about when and where we should offer a vision. I will first briefly identify these criteria and then suggest how these criteria help us identify an appropriate time and place for vision.

First, any statement of vision must be created and sustained by an entire social system—not just its leader(s). We will see this even more clearly when identifying the modern and postmodern versions of the visionary leader. Collaboration is just as important when formulating a vision, as it is when assembling an army as a courageous (style two) leader.

Second, the vision statement must be offered within a context of appreciation for past accomplishments and present day contributions. All too often the visionary leader (especially if new to this role) will ignore or offer a critical perspective on past achievements rather than honoring these achievements and seeking to learn from them. We must always remember that some day in the near future, we will be the relics of the past and may be overlooked by the next generation. It is not just the wise leader who often feels devalued by the next generation—it is also the visionary leader who holds a vision that is now out-of-date and whose accomplishments on behalf of this vision are no longer fully appreciated.

Third, the statement of vision must be coupled with a statement of mission. Whenever a leaders creates a vision of the future, it must be coupled with a clear commitment to something that is not about the future, or even exclusively about the present—it must be coupled with an enduring sense of mission. What do we do as a family, clan, organization, or social system that remains fundamental and unchanged—that is key to our survival? We must always look toward the future and toward change through the lens of foundations and continuity. What is our “business” and how does our vision for the future relate to this business.

The fourth criterion concerns the relationship between vision and values. How does our vision of the future relate to the fundamental values of this family, clan, organization or social system? What will and what won’t we do in order to realize our dream for the future? Martin Luther King not only offered us a dream, he also insisted that this dream be realized through a set of values based on nonviolence. Similarly, Lincoln’s statement of gratitude for the sacrifice made at Gettysburg is based on his firm commitment to preservation of the union. The “ends” (vision) never justify the use of inappropriate or unethical “means” (values).

Fifth, the vision statement should relate to some formally identified sense of purpose: what difference does our family, clan, organization or social system in the life of people living in this community, country or world. What social purpose are we serving and how does this purpose relate to our vision of the future? Our vision can be self-serving or even profoundly destructive with regard to social purpose (as in the case of Hitler’s vision). It is important that vision be aligned with a fundamental social purpose.

Thus, while a vision statement will change over time (and, as we shall see later, must change over time), the mission, values and social purposes tend not to change or to change very slowly. While the vision is the wind in the sails that propels a vessel, the mission, values and social purposes provide the anchor and keel that keep the ship afloat and properly aligned. Furthermore, even though a compelling vision statement may come out of the mouth of a premodern visionary leader, it ultimately requires collaboration and appreciation if the vision is to be truly owned by those who must enact this vision.

Several conclusions regarding appropriate time and place can be extracted from these five criteria. First, the vision statement should be offered alongside clearly articulated statements regarding mission, values and purposes. These four dimensions of what I label the “intentions” of an organization are tightly interwoven and modifications in one will inevitably impact on the other three. So, one must have his or her “ducks-in-order” with regard to an overall statement of intentions (a “charter” if you will), when articulating a compelling vision. The vision itself should build on many conversations, the sharing of stories (not just the visionary leader’s stories) and the identification of moments of “greatness” in the past history and present realities of the organization. Visions come alive and help guide an organization when they are generated and articulated under these conditions (place and time).


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