When a leader’s appeal rests on a vision alone, leadership is not whole. And the limitations of such visionary leadership become painfully obvious in times of crisis, uncertainty, or radical change.
When I ask groups of managers what makes a good leader, I seldom have to wait long before someone says, “Vision!” and everyone nods. I have asked that question countless times for the past 20 years, to cohorts of senior executives, middle managers, and young students from many different sectors, industries, backgrounds, and countries. The answer is always the same: A vision inspires and moves people. Expansion, domination, freedom, equality, salvation — whatever it is, if a leader’s vision gives us direction and hope, we will follow. If you don’t have one, you can’t call yourself a leader.
This enchantment with vision, I believe, is the manifestation of a bigger problem: a disembodied conception of leadership. Visions hold our imagination captive, but they rarely have a positive effect on our bodies. In fact, we often end up sacrificing our bodies in the pursuit of different kinds of visions, and celebrating that fact — whether it is by dying for our countries or working ourselves to exhaustion for our companies. Visions work the same way whether mystics or leaders have them: They promise a future and demand our life. In some cases, that sacrifice is worth it. In others, it is not. Just as it can ignite us, a vision can burn us out.
When a leader’s appeal rests on a vision alone, leadership is not whole. And the limitations of such visionary leadership become painfully obvious in times of crisis, uncertainty, or radical change. Take the coronavirus pandemic. No one had anything like it in their “Vision 2020.” Crises always test visions, and most don’t survive. Because when there’s a fire in a factory, a sudden drop in revenues, a natural disaster, we don’t need a call to action. We are already motivated to move, but we often flail. What we need is a type of holding, so that we can move purposefully.
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