Vision 101

Leaders prompt alignment. With alignment comes a flow of human energy and creativity that advances whatever cause is underway. Through this flow endeavors deemed important are initiated, actions are taken, and change occurs within a proposed framework.

Alignment is produced in three ways: integrity, vision, and fear – greed (see previous posting). Leaders lead because of their ability to draw upon at least one of these three dimensions “…in the exercise of power within a social system to produce alignment.” Of course, the greater the skills leaders have in more than one dimension, the more fluid their movement from one dimension to another as circumstances warrant, and ultimately, the more effective they will be.

Leaders who can exercise more than one dimension possess the wherewithal to use “vision” as a way to both inspire and motivate. While somewhat synonymous, the terms “inspire” and “motivate” represent a critical duality that is central to the importance of vision in the repertoire of tools used by effective leaders. Inspiration originates when there is sufficient detachment from what is or a future extrapolated from what was to see possibilities otherwise missed. Motivation is fueled by an expectation of comfort when that which is feared is dismissed and the stress of achievement is diminished. Leaders are able to use inspiration and motivation at the right time and in the correct context to build momentum and keep the flow going.

The diagram below illustrates the dual nature of vision. As an organizatio – represented by the green triangle – moves through time toward an endpoint on the horizon, it passes through its “vision” – illustrated by the yellow circle – of what it anticipates it will become or what will influence it. Philosophical ideals and spiritual values pre-date and eclipse the organization and provide a guiding moral framework that is timeless in its relevance and significance.

While the pursuit of abstractions such as peace, justice, love, and freedom is a source of inspiration, it lacks the type of structured approach required to convert the obtuse into the actionable. At some point people benefit from a clear picture of what can be reasonably expected after a finite period during which people invest their time, energy, and resources to have the intended results. Vision in this practical sense relates to the mission of a project, goals and objectives of an organization, and the “nuts and bolts” details of strategies and tactics required to complete the mission. But it is not the simple restatement of these elements a la Dilbert. Instead, it is a story told that depicts what reality might look like if the mission is completed successfully.

Just as leadership is about alignment, vision is about change – seeing it, relating to it, describing it and making it happen. Leaders who are in command of the tools of vision tell stories that inspire people at their higher levels of functioning and motivate them to take necessary action in giving practicality to that which is dreamed. Great leaders are involved; they embody the changes they are attempting to influence rather than remaining aloof and attempting to control them remotely.

A significant part of the story a powerful leader tells is not only in words but by example in deed. The leader espouses the principle in clear wording, such as the following extract from Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech delivered to more than 250,000 on August 28, 1963 in Washington, DC:

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”

It’s no wonder Dr. King could lead thousands – he posited the principles as a dream worth striving for, outlined the very trying and difficult steps that would have to be taken to make the dream reality, walked the talk hand-in-hand with others, and put his life on the line to stand tall in what he believed possible for his country and its people.

Of course, Dr. King was a “student” of another great leader in this respect, Mahatma Gandhi. The following extract from a brief biography on Gandhi’s life by B.R. Nanda sums up the compelling nature of a leader who strikes a dynamic balance between the philosophical and the practical:

His genius, so to speak, was an infinite capacity for taking pains in fulfillment of a restless moral urge. His life was one continuous striving, an unremitting sadhana, a relentless search for truth, not abstract or metaphysical truth, but such truth as can be realized in human relations. He climbed step by step, each step no bigger than a man’s, till when we saw him at the height he seemed more than a man. ‘Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe’, wrote Einstein, ‘that such a one as this, ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.’ If at the end he seemed like no other man, it is good to remember that when he began he was like any other man.”

The result of his strong stands on principle and living the life of change – being the change – was a key factor in India gaining independence. His strict adherence to the concept of non-violence and non-resistance sets a stellar example for others to follow in their struggles with freedom and justice. And the lessons of his life continue to inform and influence generations of Indians as they build on the foundation of self-determination he laid and propel his beloved country into prominence as an economic and political global powerhouse.

The Dalai Lama, political leader of the Tibetan government in exile and spiritual guide for thousands of people around the world, offers yet another powerful example of vision in the ethereal married with the practical. Below is a extract from his commentary entitled, “A Human Approach to World Peace“:

Science and technology, though capable of creating immeasurable material comfort, cannot replace the age-old spiritual and humanitarian values that have largely shaped world civilization, in all its national forms, as we know it today. No one can deny the unprecedented material benefit of science and technology, but our basic human problems remain; we are still faced with the same, if not more, suffering, fear, and tension. Thus it is only logical to try to strike a balance between material developments on the one hand and the development of spiritual, human values on the other. In order to bring about this great adjustment, we need to revive our humanitarian values.”

Again, overarching philosophical ideals and spiritual principles are associated with the conundrum of daily issues that plague humanity. The Tibet issue is one of three commitments made by the Dalai Lama wherein he gives unwavering focus. It is in this arena on the world stage that principle is carried into action for all to see and learn. This is vision in its purest form. No one can ask more of a leader than that!

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Monday, February 13, 2006

Leadership 101

Last week was spent on the road checking in with clients and helping them manage changes within their organizations. Oftentimes, the causes for such changes are presented to me as breakdowns in communication, unrealized opportunities, performance problems, inadequate adaptation, and gaps in the flow of resources. The clients’ default reactions are hierarchical: someone needs to be contracted or hired, someone else is opting to retire, others need to be reassigned, and others still, let go. However, the reality is bigger and more complex than having a few people go and bringing in fresh blood. Change, in a flurry of what’s working, what’s not, and what could work better, first requires that these disparate conditions be placed within a framework. This is followed by convening people whose interactions have the potential to make a positive difference for their organization within that framework. Their interactions lead to more appropriate and measured actions through goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics.

As explored more fully in an earlier posting, organizations consist of sustained conversations – the basis of all human social behavior. If one wants to change an organization, change the conversations its members are having. On one level this is simple and straightforward. Matching forums with meaningful agendas is at the heart of what strategic framing and organization design are all about. People draw upon their power to convene within a social system to setup a wide range of conversations and sustain those that are deemed the most important. Of course, the point of these conversations when establishing or sustaining an organization is to gain alignment – the energy source for growth, progress, and success of any organization.

There is a clear association between those who have the power to convene for alignment and leadership. In fact, while there are hundreds of definitions for leadership, the one I use is “the exercising of power by an individual within a social system to produce alignment.” Productive, collective effort within a social system requires people to be pulling on the rope in the same direction. And through that alignment, motivation is stimulated.

Alignment occurs in three ways:

  1. Integrity. Just as an organization has integrity, so do people. Purpose: why am I here; principles: what do I stand for; intentions: what am I up to, constitute the foundation of institutional and personal integrity. When I feel that my integrity is held in the integrity expressed by others and, ultimately, their organization, I am motivated to participate in what they are doing to see how our collective efforts can be leveraged.
  2. Vision. Imagining a world where one’s purpose, principles, and intentions play out so that others can see it, too, and want to be part of making it happen is a powerful act of vision. Any vision is based first in personal experience. When it is presented to others such that they can shape it with their own dreams and create a shared view of what is possible, the vision becomes an engaging, motivating force.
  3. Fear – Greed. Visions cannot become reality without drawing upon the talents and skills of those who do not necessarily align with the values of integrity or share the same vision. Their motivation comes from a combination of “what’s in it for me” and “what will happen to me if I don’t participate.” The fear – greed continuum appeals to the baser instincts of people in areas where their absence of detachment affects their decisions. For the vast majority, it is easier to do what one is told, to do one’s job, to follow the rules. Alignment means playing along to enjoy the benefits and avoid the pitfalls. But it is a route that is susceptible to the corruptive forces of the hierarchy as explored in a previous posting.

Depending on the circumstances, leaders draw upon the energies available within each of the three types of alignment to advance the organizations they lead. Some have integrity so unquestionably solid it compels others to follow despite not having a clear picture of what the world would look like if everyone behaved according to these values or a hierarchical structure upon which to calculate the cost, risk, and benefit of participation. The most notable of such leaders represent particular spiritual or philosophical belief systems that became the cornerstones for the most persistent social systems in human history. Certainly the evidence is strong that there is much to be gained from fronting one’s core values as a key element in leadership. But, not everyone is ready to cast their lot with someone solely on values alone. This may garner alignment at the outset, but they need more to stay aligned.

Some leaders are able to describe through words and graphics how the world could look if a particular set of core values were adopted such that many others are immediately engaged by it, resonate with it, take it as their own, and start down the path toward making it reality; the vision of one becomes the vision of many. However, the more likely scenario is that one person’s vision matches the visions of others to one degree or another, but not completely. In this case, the effective leader introduces a process by which multiple visions are brought together into one shared vision that holds critical elements for all who want to pursue it. While a shared vision produces alignment, it commands the strongest buy-in only by those who were there when it was created. The leader must stay vigilant in continually representing the vision to those who are new to the organization and in some instances prompt further adaptation of the vision to hold others who come in later.

With both integrity and vision, the virtual or physical presence of and interaction with the leader is essential to maintain alignment. Collective efforts that have dependency on one leader are at risk to go astray unless a formal system is setup to manage the behavior of people in the organization. Formal systems provide boundaries that determine who is in and who is out of an organization, enable the formation of hierarchies, enact rules, regulations, policies, and procedures, and establish processes that manage the work of organizations. Within a formal system, the vision of the organization is translated into sets of actionable goals, objectives, strategies, and tactics. Alignment is achieved when people work these plans. Some leaders are effective enforcing this type of alignment within the formal systems by encouraging them through the promise of reward should they accomplish what they are responsible to do and threatening them with undesirable consequences should they fail. It is the classic case of “carrot and stick” motivation. In other words, the fear – greed continuum is alive and well.

As mentioned earlier, my work with people in client organizations is about framing their circumstances so that an appropriate set of conversations are convened and the participants can make a positive difference in helping their organization adapt. The evolving design of the organization is based on the results of certain conversations that need to happen: does the organization need to recall its integrity – get back to its roots, so to speak; does it need to renew its vision – see itself in an entirely different way filled with more possibilities; does it need to redirect its formal system – become more consequent and disciplined. These questions require different conversations and depending on whether the organizational alignment is better derived from integrity, vision, or fear – greed determines the leadership skills required to make the conversations happen.

Therein lays the challenge of doing my work well – matching the skills of leaders with the circumstances where they will prompt alignment. And if there are no immediate leaders available with the requisite skills, I coach those who show talent and interest so they strengthen their “toolkits,” gain confidence in their capabilities, and embark upon leading in new ways under unfamiliar situations. And helping those people become more evolved, well-rounded, and flexible leaders is what makes doing this work worthwhile!

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Keeping the Beat with Jump Rhythm Jazz Project

My association with Jump Rhythm Jazz Project (JRJP) extends to early 1998 when Billy Siegenfeld and a cadre of JRJP dancers performed in Lakeway, TX at a Leadership for INstitutional Change (LINC) workshop sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation1. The purpose of their performance was three-fold. First, make rhythm and dance integral in the design of the leadership workshop as an appeal to the auditory-musical and bodily-kinesthetic intelligences of attendees, à la Howard Gardner and his theory of multiple intelligences. Second, act as a disruptive force among attendees and prompt them to consider a different line of thinking about leadership – followership and changing roles and responsibilities within a dynamic community. Third, provide a divertissement that would be engaging and entertaining.

The JRJP performance and subsequent question and answer period exceeded all expectations. Those who were intellectually (and physically!) asleep came to life. Those who had difficulties crossing the boundary separating their realities and the views of reality imposed by the dominant culture found a bridge. Those who believed that the most effective leadership was one that exercised control and focused choices were introduced to an open, participatory alternative that obviously worked. To this day, attendees at this workshop comment on the powerful effect JRJP had on them – it was transformational.

At the heart of JRJP is rhythm – the beat. Organized human endeavor is a pattern of communication or sustained conversation through which people give voice to what is important to them, achieve understanding, reach agreement, and garner commitment. Patterns, even conversational ones, have rhythm and voice – who is in what conversation about which topic. Changing an individual or an organization means changing conversations. Effective leaders change rhythm patterns to change conversations; over time, the people within the organization, and eventually the organization itself, change.

Because dance plays heavily on certain dimensions of human intelligence, it is a medium through which societal problems are addressed and different responses considered. A great dance presents a problem or situation for the audience to consider that is within their realm of experience and influence – a type of Theater for the Oppressed as conceived by Augusto Boal only in the form of dance and music. Through these the audience is invited to join the dancers in deliberating on social issues and exploring alternative approaches (recent examples in the JRJP repertoire include “Sorrows of Unison Dancing” and “The New from Poems”).

Building on rhythm and voice, JRJP displays a choreographic technique and musical score that is approachable and familiar. The dancers and the dance are engaging and invite participation by the audience. It is democratic in its purest sense. Democracy, though, carries certain responsibilities. As an organization, JRJP was forced to learn about these democratic principles in the context of its own behavior so that what was demonstrated in the performances was a true reflection of its own experience. The more that JRJP has found this touch point in itself the more engaging it has become with audiences worldwide. But getting there was not simple!

In July 2003, JRJP board members, staff, dancers, and close friends participated in a series of moderated conversations at a planning retreat. The intention was to drill down into what it meant to be members of JRJP and what JRJP needed to do to sustain itself into the future. The outcome of the retreat was the realization of three key points: first, JRJP was a great experience for most, but not all – surprisingly, Billy being the one experiencing the least joy; second, participating in the good things that JRJP had to offer was not associated with a commensurate level of shared responsibility – some, like Billy, had far more to do than others causing him to feel overwhelmed and living a life out of balance; and third, JRJP was heavily dependent on Billy; if he stopped doing what he did JRJP was at grave risk – sustainability was in question. This realization led to several actions including seating an Executive Director so that Billy could focus on being the Artistic Director, expanding the board membership to get more outreach to funders and supporters, defining and strengthening staff positions for distribution of operations among qualified personnel who were adequately paid for their work, and locating a home for JRJP somewhere other than Billy’s condo. These are done. And the level of performance for JRJP reflects this success!

But JRJP is not done. On June 4, 2006 there will be a second retreat. The purpose of this retreat is to make explicit what the company has accomplished, why it was able to do that, how it does what it does, and what that learning means for future activities. While many have experienced the recent changes in JRJP, several are not aware of why those changes happened and their significance for the future. The exercise of participatory democracy as a governing principle rather than hierarchical dictatorship speaks to an effective leadership – followership model. Showing others how to do this through the medium of rhythm, dance, and music is a significant deliverable JRJP can add to its repertoire.

To do this will require touching these past experiences, giving them voice, and building a confidence in moving them forward for others to learn. A different language will need to be developed that recasts what seems to be the same in the eyes of the uninitiated so that they have a very different understanding of what is going on. It is storytelling of the highest order. Between now and the retreat time and energy will be devoted to telling the JRJP story – both what has happened and the dreams for the future. By the time the retreat draws nigh, there will be a lexicon of terms and phrases incorporated into stories of vision and mission and proposals to funders that broaden the sense of what JRJP is up to for the next 5 years. It is a process of bringing the future into the present and giving it voice. JRJP will persist but will not be the same!

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Monday, December 5, 2005

  1. Susan Fugate, “Kellogg Foundation Initiative Seeks to Catalyze Change at Land-Grant Institutions,” Journal of Extension 34, no. 5 (1996):