Today’s leaders face a more chaotic business environment than ever before. To survive, businesses must be agile while still moving toward a long-term vision. They must compete while adjusting to ever-changing technologies and increasing customer and employee expectations. How do visionary leaders succeed and help their employees move forward in this state of constant uncertainty?
To get more insight on this, I talked with Bonnie Hagemann, CEO of Executive Development Associates, a boutique consulting firm that creates custom designed executive development strategies, systems and programs. In her book Leading with Vision: The Leader’s Blueprint for Creating Compelling Vision and Engaging the Workforce, Bonnie and her co-authors researched over 400 companies to learn the core principles demonstrated by visionary leaders.
DM: Leadership can be defined in a lot of different ways, i.e. by role, authority, etc. With individuals being able to create culture and have impact even from the ground level, how would you best define leadership?
BH: When you think about the difference between leaders and managers, leaders lay the track; managers keep the train on the tracks. If you think of leadership in general, it means to step out in front, to say “Come on! Let’s go this way!”
When I’m coaching leaders I tell them if you feel a leadership gap—and we’ve all felt that vortex—in a company or a group, that’s the perfect place for you to step in and say, “I know what to do.”
In truth, you may not always know what the best course of action is, but someone needs to step up and say this looks like the best option or rally the group to come up with an idea. Someone needs to step into the leadership gap because if you don’t have a visionary leader, people will make decisions based on minutiae. They will lose focus of where they’re going and instead focus on smaller tasks that don’t align with the greater company objectives. Or worse—they’ll focus on where the water cooler is.
DM: Companies want to establish leadership as early as possible to avoid siloes or multiple visions. How should they do that?
BH: Top level leaders have to set a clear and compelling vision for the organization, and their job is to make sure everyone buys into it and remains focused and aligned.
Another piece is putting enough anxiety into the vision—not in a negative context, but enough tension that everyone is moving forward as a company. You’re a leader. Maybe you’re a general in the military, looking at a mountain and saying, “We’re going to take it and we’re going to do that by sundown.” In a business, this means the leader clearly articulates the company objectives, giving employees a direction and timeline to create a sense of urgency and employee accountability.
DM: Many companies are moving into a more autonomous dynamic where leaders say, here’s what you need to do; how you get there isn’t as important. Going back to your military analogy, if you need to take the mountain, is there space for autonomy?
BH: The way progress should work and the way it is working are two different stories. Successful companies set a vision, say here’s what we need you to do and then give employees the space to do it. The ones that micromanage and say here’s $100 and here’s how I want you to spend it, are not going to get the best of their employees.
What we’re trying to do is educate executives and leaders on the way to lead so that it captures the heart of the employee, doesn’t take away their decision-making power and doesn’t take away the impact they could have. When we micromanage, we’re taking away an employee’s ability to be their best.
Here’s an example: If I go shopping for a purse, I might go into a store and ask the clerk for a discount because I found a lower price online. If the clerk doesn’t have the authority to approve that discount, I will buy that purse, from my phone, while in that store. That’s what technology allows us to do, and that’s why empowering employees to meet customers’ needs is so important.
DM: In your book, Leading with Vision, you talk about VUCA and the fog of war. Can you go into that more?
BH: We research trends in executive development, and have been doing this every two to three years since the 1980s. We go to major companies and talk with executives and those who work in executive development, asking them what they see coming in the next two or three years that executives will have to lead through. We do that so we can know what to educate executives on. This last time, the number one trend was leading in the VUCA environment.
VUCA is a military term, meaning volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. It is a tumultuous environment. It refers to the fog of war because you’re uncertain of what’s going on around you, your own capabilities and your adversary’s intent—but you still have to move forward.
It’s the same thing for leaders in organizations—it’s like a fog but they have to move forward. What we see is that leaders seem to be freezing. It’s like they’re waiting until the fog lifts, because they feel they’ll know what to do then. But we don’t know how long the fog will last, and we can’t wait for it to lift before we lead. You have to lead right through uncertainty, and that means visionary leaders have to put their beacon out in the distance and say, “See that light? That’s where we’re going.”
DM: Leaders today are very data-focused, and often hope data can help them get through the fog. But can there be an over-reliance on data?
BH: Data is great. We can get more of it than ever before, but ultimately we still have to make decisions. And even though we have all of this data, our decisions can still be wrong.
The higher the position leaders have, it’s likely there will be more than one right decision. More commonly, you’ll get one part right and one part wrong, or competing priorities make the decision more complicated.
Visionary leaders have to look at the data and analyze it, but then pull from their experiences to determine which way to go. They need to be thinking about their thinking—we call it metacognition—and asking, am I looking at this the right way? Is there another way to think about it? Do I have bias? The next step is to gather employee feedback, pull in lots of information from experts, and make the best decision with the information available.
DM: Leaders serve stakeholders above and below them. If they make the wrong decision, they can lose their jobs. How do leaders deal with this constant pressure?
BH: You’re not always going to get every decision right. Boards of directors are often made up of past CEOs because they know what it’s like to be in the trenches, and they can help the current CEO think through some of the challenges they’ll be facing.
Leaders may still make decisions that will cost them their jobs. The best way to deal with that is to recognize the possibility, do the best you can and don’t over-identify with the job. That creates a perceived personal risk.
As far as leading down, a good leader leads through chaos. There will be days when the stock is down and everyone feels like crap. A good leader is reassuring and shifts the mindset to lift employee morale, while reaffirming the direction and purpose.
DM: How can visionary leaders enroll others in the vision?
BH: Find a way to get the voice of your employee in the vision. One example is you could put out a half-baked vision—get the gist of where you’re going and let employees help hone it. Or start a strategic discussion with: here’s the vision; now every department leader can gather employee feedback and start a conversation about how each person is going to contribute.
One piece of advice I’d give to leaders: stop asking employees what we as leaders can do to increase employee engagement. Start asking employees what have they done to be more engaged. The onus shouldn’t always be on the company and leader.
DM: With the cultural mindset shifting from command and control to listening and empowering, is there a way that is best for executives to empower leaders at all levels?
BH: First, leaders need to decide that they want to empower those who report to them, then they have to decide what decisions they want made at each level and give the person closest to the work as much decision making power as possible.
We’re still seeing a lot of command and control. Maybe employees don’t have the ability to be empowered, and that means they’re probably the wrong hire. If they do have the ability, they need to have the authority, training, and the vision and strategy to align to. Then with each decision, that’s their map. Does this help our vision? Our strategy? If they don’t know the profit margin, they can’t make good, informed decisions.
We have to give people the authority to mess up. They’re going to make some wrong decisions. But they have to be learning—if they’re not learning or getting better, the leader has to ask:
“What have I not done that I need to do? What training do they need? Do they need more information? Do I have the right person in this job?”
Our VUCA environment is not going to become any less challenging, so leaders have to recognize and adjust to this new normal. An essential part of that is developing and sharing a vision, and making sure employees have what they need to be enthusiastic participants in making that vision become real.
David Mizne is Marketing Communications Manager at 15Five, continuous performance management software that includes weekly check-ins, objectives (OKR) tracking, peer recognition, 1-on-1s, and reviews. David’s articles have also appeared on The Next Web & The Economist. Follow him @davidmizne.