Let’s Talk About Vision

The subject of vision has always intrigued me. What is vision? What makes someone a visionary? What makes ordinary people raise themselves to extraordinary heights when they are shown the right vision? The word has its origin in the Latin word, video, that means ‘I see’. But at a deeper level, it refers to an "unusual competence in discernment or perception, intelligent foresight". It is how one sees or conceives of something. It is also, as the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language puts it, a mental image produced by imagination and a mystical experience of seeing as if with the eyes of the supernatural.

Whether it is an unusual competence or a mystical experience, vision is invariably associated with great leadership. Noted futurologist Joel Barker defines a leader as someone we opt to follow to go to a place we would not go by ourselves. She is someone who takes us from our current state of existence to a future state – on the power of her vision. What are the characteristics of such people who lead us from our state of inertia into decisive action, and to the creation of a new state of things?

To start with, they have comfort in departing from the past. When we study great leaders, we find that many started by moving out of a place which would have provided them with the kind of safety that most people seek. Take Gandhi. His turning point came when he left for South Africa. Mother Teresa’s first great step was in leaving her homeland. Someone has said: "The safest place for a ship is the harbour. Yet, it was not built to stay there."

Departure from the past is also a deeply mental concept. Many of us cling to our past in our mind, in the same way others cannot physically dislocate themselves from their zones of comfort. The Swedes are a great example of departing from the past. Two centuries ago, they started their own East India Company to trade with India and China. In the last century, they vacated the position of trading and became one of the greatest ship builders of the world. Today, if you go to the city of Gothenburg, the locals will show you a massive ship that has been converted into a car park! The erstwhile nation of seafarers boasts of great companies like Ikea, Volvo, Scania, SKF, ABB and Astra Zeneca. In the world of business, examples of significant departures from the past are many.

GE Chairman Jack Welch exhorted a whole generation of people to move from product orientation to services, from national mindset to a global mindset. When such leaders ask their people to move from the past, it is not as if they have the fullest picture of how the desired future would unfold. Consequently, a visionary must have a high degree of comfort in times of poor clarity. Visionary leaders are path creators who are willing to act and execute with only a speck of an apparition. Just the thought of a higher state of being for their people is enough for them to articulate their thoughts and begin the process of the journey.

When one sets sail for such a future state, most people get paralysed by the thought of resources. Where will the money come from? Where will we get the right people? You propose the smallest of things, and the typical manager first thinks of the resources. Only a person with a sense of vision will start from the opportunity. Such people do not feel fazed with the paucity of resources. Resources have followed every great idea – it is seldom the other way round.

People with great vision do not see failure as an option. They are committed to a beneficial outcome for their people, whom they carry along. At a personal level, they are not fazed by failure. They are able to go against popular wisdom. They seek data and question it, even when it comes from their own mind. They know that sometimes facts can be the enemy of truth. They have deep respect for intuition while seeking data. Finally, these are people who do not conjure a vision of the future around the constraints of personal survival.

More about the visionaries, next time.

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