Truths and Lies About Leadership

The top of an aircraft carrier is the world’s most unforgiving, dangerous industrial worksite. When you’re launching planes at close to 200 miles per hour from a steel flight deck seven stories above the waterline, having a clear vision matters. With an average age of 19 — mostly fresh out of high school — my carrier’s crew had a complex and risky set of tasks to perform, so our vision had to be vivid and compelling enough to unify and motivate us. \

And that it did. Our vision of success was simple: We wanted to safely launch and recover airplanes — 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. We wanted to bring every pilot who left the deck back in one piece and to bring everyone on that aircraft carrier home.

On the carrier, with clarity of vision and purpose, we all knew what success looked like and understood the role we each played in making it a reality. 

Whether your team is launching planes, installing routers, or selling toothpaste, it’s imperative that you, as a leader, step up and provide the vision that empowers the team to achieve high performance. 

Our inspiring vision is the fuel that allows common people like us to attain uncommon results. In aviation, just as in business, we may not have chosen one another as teammates, but we can all get focused on doing one thing and doing it well.

I’ve worked with many corporate clients, and I’ve seen a lot of confusion among the concepts of vision, mission, and purpose. Before we get on with more ideas for how you can create and implement a vision for your team, let’s get specific on our terminology. For me, the essence of vision is the picture of the desired future. It’s the dream, the big goal. It’s specific and motivating. It inspires action.

Mission, on the other hand, hits on the same ideas but is more focused on action. It’s what you’re doing to get there. For our purposes here, mission is part of the vision. Even so, keep in mind that you don’t want to cram strategies and tactics into the vision, as this confuses your people and waters down the message. 

Finally, purpose refers to the “why” part of what your team is doing. This is absolutely critical. If your people don’t have a great and personally resonant reason for doing what they’re doing, the whole team will flounder. For me, purpose is the byproduct of a great vision and why that’s so important in a high-performing team.

Own Your Role as the Catalyst

The first thing to realize is that vision starts with you, the leader. You are the catalyst — the person who steps up with a bold vision that changes everything for the team. You have to put it out there and be personally responsible for championing it. 

That doesn’t mean you don’t listen to others’ ideas or take constructive criticism on where the team is going. But you have to realize that you are the catalyst for getting your team moving toward the vision. You are the one who can move the performance needle and help your team break through the noise, chaos, and competing priorities of today’s challenging environment. You can’t get bogged down in the day-to-day and hope that the vision magically comes together or coalesces out of the ether. You can’t wait for an invitation to put forth your bold vision. You have to hammer it out, present it proudly, and be the spark that gets people excited about it.

Everybody has visions of the future, but not many are able to clearly articulate to others what they see — or to explain why it is important and exciting. One of the greatest challenges in the complex and ambiguous environment of leadership is to get clarity on what you want your team to accomplish. A fuzzy idea that comes from the top will not get any clearer further down the line.

Thinking big about the future and sharing your vision with the team can be scary, but fearless leaders do it every day. They do it because they know that without a vision, their team’s efforts will be scattershot and uncoordinated. People will grow frustrated and distracted. They’ll spin their wheels without getting anywhere. They may even work at cross-purposes to one another. But if your people have a great vision in front of them, they’ll actually be excited about showing up to work.

As the catalyst, you need to spark people’s dreams and desires. You’re the person who can come into a room and get the team aligned and excited so you can all get where you want to go. 

The vision isn’t a plan, a strategy, or a series of steps — it’s the inspiration behind those things.Your vision should resonate with the team emotionally, and it should get them pumped about what lies ahead. It doesn’t have to say how you’re going to get there; it just has to say what it’ll look like when you do.

Help People Focus

The No. 1 benefit of a vision is that it gives everyone focus. And the clearer the vision, the greater the focus you’ll create among the team — and the more momentum you’ll have behind you. Your challenge as a leader is to cast a vision so clear that everybody on your team — everybody in management, every individual contributor — is able to see the future the way you see the future and is able to home in on precisely what it will take to get there.

If you are going to succeed as a leader and as a team, creating a focal point is crucial. Distractions today are abundant. We get pulled in a thousand different directions constantly.

There is an enormous amount of competition vying for your team’s attention. To remain relevant, you need to cut through the noise to gain and hold your teammates’ attention. As a leader, you must think about those things that do not contribute to the end state. If it doesn’t support your goals, get rid of it! As we say in fighter aviation, “If you lose sight, you lose the fight.”

The clearer the vision, the easier it is to say no to those things that don’t help you achieve your goals. That vision decides for you. It cuts out the unnecessary and imposes beneficial limitations. It helps you and the team focus on what matters.

Your Vision Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect

So you’re the catalyst — the one with sole responsibility for creating a vision that lights your people up; but what if you aren’t sure the vision you have in mind is the perfect one? What if you aren’t sure how to make that vision a reality?

It doesn’t matter. Setting any vision is going to be far more valuable than leaving it nebulous. You don’t have to get into the details of how that success is going to come. You just have to set a vision that catalyzes your team into action.

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Remember the story of the men who got out of the Alps using a map of the Pyrenees? Of this story, Karl Weick, author of Sensemaking in Organizations, once said, “When I described the incident of using a map of the Pyrenees to find a way out of the Alps to Bob Engel, the executive vice president and treasurer of Morgan Guaranty, he said, ‘Now, that story would have been really neat if the leader out with the lost troops had known it was the wrong map and still been able to lead them back.’” 

Engel’s twist to the story pinpoints the basic situation that most leaders face: They know the general objective (whether it’s getting out of the mountains alive or keeping a division profitable), but they may not be sure where to go next. The leader in Engel’s hypothetical situation acknowledges that the map isn’t the right one, but he also knows that it nevertheless gives his people something to aim for.

The soldiers were able to produce a good outcome from a bad map because they had a vision (to get back to camp): an image of where they were and where they were going. Plus, they took action: They kept moving, noticing cues, and updating their sense of where they were. 

As a result, an imperfect map proved to be good enough. The same goes for your vision. The important thing is that you put it out there and let it catalyze people into action. You can always adapt and adjust along the way.

Use the Vision to Create Purpose

A 2013 survey by Deloitte, “Culture of Purpose: A Business Imperative,” indicates that there is a link between a sense of purpose among employees and long-term organizational success. In fact, 91% of all respondents who said their company has a strong sense of purpose also cited its history of strong financial performance. However, 68% of employees and 66% of executives believe businesses neither do enough to create a sense of purpose nor deliver meaningful impact.

When employees lack clarity on your organization’s mission, they don’t see themselves as part of the solution. They start to withdraw and disengage from your team and from the company. This can be devastating to both the employee and your organization. Your job as a fearless leader is to clarify that mission and then bridge the gap from the possible to the impossible — to help your team go beyond what they currently think is possible and to believe they can do the impossible. 

Having a fully developed, fully articulated vision will give your team a sense of purpose. It will allow them to overcome the extraordinary obstacles they face and break through the barriers that keep them from achieving their personal and professional dreams.

Ask yourself and your team, “What is the problem we are here to solve? What are our goals?” Drill down on this, and it will energize your team. You can also turn it around this way: “What won’t happen if we don’t do ______?” 

These simple questions give the team a shared reason to exist — a clear, compelling purpose that is important to each of the individual team members. A sense of purpose creates both context and a feeling of urgency. It is the single most important factor in a team’s success.

Go Big, Be Bold

Oftentimes we hear people talking about Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs) — the truly aspirational goals leaders say they want to achieve. The problem is, these objectives are not even remotely achievable or believable. And when the gap between the goal and your current situation is too big, it can actually be a demotivating factor instead of a motivating and inspiring target for your organization.

Fearless leadership takes guts, and history shows us this is not easy. 

So what should you do? Stop setting big goals? Won’t that lead to average results and mediocrity? Not necessarily. The key is to set a big goal with a very clear, step-by-step path for your team to achieve that vision. Gaining little wins along the way will increase confidence and keep your team engaged. High-performing teams and peak performers are able to see value in the small wins en route to the big win. They are able to break BHAGs down into a series of smaller goals that mark the path to the ultimate victory.

Adapted from Fearless Leadership: High-Performance Lessons from the Flight Deck by Carey Lohrenz. Copyright 2014 Carey Lohrenz Enterprises, LLC.

Carey Lohrenz is a speaker, business consultant, military aviation pioneer, and author of the book Fearless Leadership: High-Performance Lessons from the Flight Deck

She is the first female F-14 Tomcat fighter pilot in the U.S. Navy, and now shares what she learned about making effective, lightning-fast decisions under extreme pressure to help business leaders, from Fortune 500 executives to middle managers, gain the courage to make bold decisions and lead fearlessly. Visit careylohrenz.com for more information. 

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