In recent years, the concept of “vision” has come to be seen as the magic elixir for leaders and organizations, the holy grail for leadership and organizational renewal.

Well, that may be a bit strong, but there are countless articles and books about the importance of vision for leaders and for organizations – and make no mistake about it, vision is vitally important. The words of the writer of Proverbs ring with truth – where there is no vision, the people perish (29:18, KJV). But what is vision all about as related to organizations and leadership? I have not always found discussions of vision and leadership fully adequate. As I have read and pondered, I have pulled together some thoughts to come up with what I consider a more adequate sense of the meaning of “vision.” You may not find this one fully adequate, either, but I find it helpful.

One of the most helpful pieces I have read on vision, leadership and organizations was written by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras and included in the paperback edition of their book Built to Last. Collins and Porras argue that vision for an organization or group consists of two major components: core ideology and an envision future. The core ideology of an organization is comprised of its core purpose, some might call this the mission statement, and core values. An envisioned future is just what it says it is, a vision of where you want to be down the road. It is often this envisioned future that people talk about when they speak about “vision,” but I think Collins and Porras are more helpful to include the core purpose and core values in an understanding of vision. For Collins and Porras, an envision future should be comprised of goals – big, hairy, audacious goals vividly described.

What I find lacking in this extremely helpful understanding of the concept of vision is a sense that a certain part of a vision should be beyond reach. Goals are target to aim for and hopefully accomplish. Disappointment is the typical response when one fails to accomplish one’s goals, even big, hairy, audacious goals. Is there room in the concept of vision for the even larger horizon, the hoped for future that may be beyond long-range goals? To my mind the concept of vision should include that slightly ethereal “out there” that calls us into the future.

Not long ago, I came across someone who agrees with me on this. Max DePree, in his book Leading Without Power writes: Part of an organization’s vision can be an ideal toward which we always strive without ever reaching it. Part of a vision must be attainable, lest the group lose hope. A good idea does not a vision make. Without some risk, with some promise of change, with a touch of the unattainable, a good idea may just become the vision for a group. Visions are liable to fail. A vision can never be guaranteed, no matter what the price or source. (117) DePree argues that even though visions can fail, they are critical. Organizations without a view of reality may stumble along for a while but will never succeed. Organizations with vision remain mere organizations, surviving but not living, hitting temporary targets but not moving toward potential…. We can teach ourselves to see things the way they are. Only with vision can we begin to see things the way they can be. (116-117)

So maybe vision needs to include what theologians might call “an eschatological dimension,” that larger horizon which informs our core values, core purpose, and our envisioned future, but which remains a long-term yearning of the soul for a better world.

Such talk risks cutting vision loose from a mooring in reality, and that makes me think that we need one further dimension of vision, sight. DePree contrasts “sight” and “vision,” but he is also the person who wrote in an earlier book, the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality (Leadership is an Art, 11). A comprehensive vision for an organization needs to include some sense of the world in which it functions – how its core purpose matters, how its core values add something to the culture, even as they provide a critique of some part of the surrounding culture, how its goals would change the current state of the world. If we want to get from here to there, we need to have both a sense of here and of there – and I think both can be included in a vision.

To my mind, then, vision for an organization includes: (1) core purpose/mission and core values; (2) an envisioned future; (3) a larger horizon which calls the group forward even beyond its goals; and (4) a sense of the context in which the organization strives to live out its purpose, values and goals, a sense of the way the world is and of what will be needed to get from the present to the envisioned future.

Visionary leadership has primary responsibility for articulating vision, and especially for painting the picture of the envisioned future which is consistent with the core purpose and values, with the larger horizon, and which is sufficiently grounded in a sense of the present reality so as not to appear “impossible.” Depending on where an organization is in its life, visionary leaders may have different foci – sometimes they need to work to articulate core purpose and values, and sometimes they need to paint the vivid picture of the envisioned future (I am convinced that leaders can’t take people places they don’t want to go, but they can help people imagine a place they had never dreamed about going and help them get there). Sometimes visionary leaders need to remind people of the “way the world is” and sometime they need to remind them of the larger horizon which calls us into the future. Visionary leaders paint pictures and work with others to build the road that gets a group from here to there. Visionary leaders need to be able to lay some bricks for the road as well. Visionary leaders work cooperatively with others in all their endeavors.

Trying To Create Beauty,