November 22, 2021

Come Down From the Mountain… Your “Vision” Is Right In Front of You

by Lee Coate in Covid, culture, Leadership, Momentum

The image is exhilarating and intimidating.  It’s Russell Crowe inspiring the gladiators, Mel Gibson galloping among his men leading the charge into battle.  It’s Alexander Hamilton passionately proclaiming, “This is not a moment, it’s a movement”. As leaders, those images are often the ideal we strive to reach as we take on the expectation that great leaders will ALWAYS have a clear and compelling vision. 

But what if you are currently feeling VERY uninspired? 

And what if that is currently is making you lead from an uninspired place? 

You would not be alone.

I have had endless recent conversations with leaders who, when pushed, will readily admit, “My team, my church, my organization is looking for me to cast vision… and I have no idea what it is. I’m completely lost. Maybe I should just make something up”.  

Perhaps you are nodding in agreement right now.  If we constantly define vision as a “picture of a preferred future”, then we also have defined “the leader” as being ultimately responsible to champion and guide toward that better future. 

But what if the leader doesn’t see or can’t see it? What if the leader looks into the future, prayerfully scanning that horizon and yet comes up empty?  Where does that then leave the organization and those who are part of it?  Are they lost? Treading water? Perhaps.

But only if this is how we see the role of vision discovery in leadership.

The truth is we are overcomplicating it.  A healthy vision should never begin with what tomorrow looks like.  That’s where many leaders get lost. The expectation that every leader has some prophetic lens through which they can accurately predict the future it ridiculous.  More than that, it’s actually dangerous.  Let me suggest something more helpful and productive. 

Healthy, definable vision always begins with a clear and accurate understanding of the present that then leads to the pursuit of our preferred future.

Steve Jobs was an incredible visionary. But just how far did his vision extend? If you ACTUALLY examine the history of the iPhone, it turns out his vision didn’t extend as far as we might think.

Much of what we credit Jobs for was more the result of “seeing” where society was and then tackling the issue with an innovative approach. He used this clarity to discover the appropriate direction toward what “would be”.  For example, Jobs did not begin with a vision of the iPhone you may be actually be reading this on.  

In his book, Digital Minimalism computer science professor Cal Newport reveals that the original vision Jobs had for the iPhone was an iPod that had the ability to make calls. With the iPhone, you would now no longer need to carry two devices—a phone and an iPod.  

If we buy into the vision myth, the narrative of Jobs looks something like this. He finds his own “mountain” and isolates himself from the world for days on end. When he emerges, he has a sketch of the I-Phone, proclaiming it as the new future. 

That’s ridiculous.   And actually not true. 

In his 2007 keynote introducing the iPhone, Jobs began by saying, “Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything.” Apple aimed to make the iPhone “way smarter than any mobile device has ever been and stupid easy to use.” Listening to his talk, it’s clear that Jobs had only a partial view of all that would change.

As Newport observes, Jobs thought he had built a better iPod. Accordingly, when Jobs demonstrated an iPhone onstage during his keynote address, he spent the first eight minutes of the demo walking through its media features, concluding: “It’s the best iPod we’ve ever made!”

His vision was only just barely emerging. 

Jobs vision was instead formed over days, months and years of conversation, observation and posing questions.  And his original “vision” (if we can even call it that) actually fell way short of the eventual realities that would emerge. The vision picture that Jobs forged came into view incrementally over time. 

Vision is always emerging, every changing, and appropriately fluid.

F.A. Hayek has some great guidance for us when he said, “If we are to advance, we must leave room for a continuous revision of our present conceptions and ideals which will be necessitated by further experience.”

Jobs probably never read Hayek, but his life reflects this ongoing reality of vision that is ever evolving.

So as a leader in the midst of multiple disruptive events at the moment, you may find yourself struggling to find your footing in regards to vision. Be encouraged.  

Your vision is most likely right in front of you. 

So begin by asking the “WHAT IS” questions:

  • Where are we presently?
  • What are those we are impacting or potentially impacting feeling? experiencing? worrying about? caring about? Needing?
  • As we deeply evaluate and clarify our current context, how are we uniquely and powerfully positioned to impact our community?

Navigating the nuisances of finding vision in disruptive times demands not only contextual clarity, but also the ability to REFRAME the routine questions. Reframing is “an ability to think about things in more than one way”. As leaders, we have to move through our own emotional connection to the default answers that emerge from the default questions and allow ourselves to ask the abnormally hard, but crucial questions our current context presents.

“In the search for the solution to any problem, questions are always more important than answers because the WAY one frames the question, or the problem, already predetermines the range of answer one can conceive in response.”   – Friedman (Failure of Nerve)

Vision demands that. But we will get gridlocked if we find ourselves on a continual search for new answers to the same old questions rather than making an effort to reframe the questions themselves. (For more on this, do not pass go, order and absorb “Canoeing the Mountains” by Tod Bolsinger.

Vision is simply discovering tomorrows answers to today’s looming questions.

It is at this point the “What Can Be” will then emerge based on a clear understanding of “WHAT IS”.  As you  begin to  explore “WHAT CAN BE” questions, here are some helpful lenses to filter those thoughts through.  Please notice the filter begins from the perspective of understanding current context to then open up the possibilities moving forward.

  • Invites: Where are the wide open opportunities in front of us?
  • Demands: What is unavoidable and absolutely necessary ?
  • Allows: Where do we now have permission go?
  • Compels: Where is God leading us that we must go?

One final thought: 

As you do this work of framing vision, keep in mind that the timeline of vision casting has shrunk dramatically. A five year vision is impressive, but largely irrelevant in the fast moving and pivot-filled times that we are leading through.  Your efforts are better spent evaluating the now and forging vision forward within a 12-18 month time frame. This approach with constant reevaluation as part of your leadership rhythm will provide the best opportunity to be aware of the strategy while being led of the Spirit.  

You got this.  So come on down and discover the vision right in front of you.

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