Honest Leadership: The End of “Vision”

The End of Vision

Vision is terribly over-rated as a valuable attribute of leadership.

There… I’ve said it. The elephant is now present in the room.

Being Counterproductive

Elephant in the RoomMore than being over-rated, I would suggest that vision is counter-productive to providing appropriate leadership in a world that has become unfathomably complex and rife with intractable problems.

Now, before you fill the comment stream with rebuttals along the lines of this:

“If you don’t have a vision, you won’t know where your organization is headed…”

let me suggest that knowing where your organization is heading may be of less value to society and the world-at-large than realizing the direct and indirect effects your organization is creating along the way.

Gaining Perspective on Vision

Think about this:

Vision is our only sense that operates at a distance.

In fact,

  • One needs distance, separation, and linearity for vision to work
  • With vision, we can see to the stars and beyond!
  • Indeed, when your nose is pressed up against something, you cannot see much at all

Vision means that we have to somewhat remove ourselves from our object of attention  to gain perspective on what we are really seeing.

Gaining perspective means that we deliberately remove and detach ourselves from a situation in a way that artificially enhances the “space” of that situation. Removing one’s self from a situation is not a sustainable or even useful strategy for a contemporary leader!

Feelings, Nothing More than Feelings…

tac·tili·ty (-t l -te) n.

1: the capability of being felt or touched

In a world that is not only complex (non-linear, unpredictable, and non-deterministic), but more importantly, ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate, I would suggest instead that leaders can obtain better guidance by appealing to our most proximate of senses:

The sense of touch.

Instead of asserting the organization’s vision statement, contemporary leaders might better serve their various constituencies by reflecting on the organization’s tactility question:

Whom do we want to touch, and how do we want to touch them, today?

On Seeing and Feeling

When I work with organizational leaders (CEOs, vice-presidents, directors, senior managers, operations-level managers, and supervisors,) I might ask them about their vision. When I do, invariably they take on a rather expansive and lofty affect.

They recite either their personal vision statement or recite the one that is typically laminated or engraved and posted in the lobby.

Then, I ask them about the answer to the tactility question—whom they want to touch and how they want to touch them. Almost instantly, they become focused, intent, activated, engaged.

Staying Close to Home

There is an immediacy to tactility.

The effects that we create and enable are visceral.

We experience them in our bodies and through our emotions, rather than being separated from our most basic of human experiences by casting decisions in the service of an idealized vision that may (or may not) come about in an unknowable future.

Think about decisions – tough decisions – that you’ve made as a leader that perhaps didn’t work out quite as well as you might have hoped.

Then, ask yourself these questions:

  • Were those decisions made in the service of your organization’s vision?
  • Did the unanticipated consequences that “snuck up and bit you” have to do with the unforeseen effects of that decision?

Especially if we reflect on some of the major “unfortunate” decisions made by business and political leaders. These are decisions that now, in retrospect, can be seen to have had devastating effects on people, on our planet, and indeed on economies both at home and around the world.

These decisions were made in the service of singular visions of the world and their respective organization’s place in that envisioned world.

Sensory Perceptions

Now consider how different some of those decisions might have been if they were carefully considered according to the sensory metaphor of tactility:

  • What effects do we want to create in our world?
  • What might the effects of this decision be on all of the constituencies that we touch (customers, suppliers, community, employees, employers, the natural world, other organizations in the same (or different) industries)?
  • Are these the effects that we would intend if we were acting true to our espoused and deeply held values?

In today’s world, it’s time for tactility to guide our contemporary leaders.

In other words, who are we going to touch? How are we going to touch them? And do we really intend to touch them these in ways? I would love to hear your thoughts!


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Dr. Mark Federman is Dean of Leadership & OD, Adler Graduate Professional School
He creates engagement among students, leaders, and organizations
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10 responses to “Honest Leadership: The End of “Vision”

  1. Maybe instead of vision, we need to create our “sentence.” Clare Booth Luce reportedly told JFK, he needed a sentence, every great man has a sentence. A sentence would be a look back at how the organization performed in the end, rather the road ahead. Do we need to move to creating a more personal, tactile sentence or is this the same in semantics clothing? Good article.


  2. Great article, Mark. I couldn’t agree more. I think there’s another element to tactility that involves keeping a pulse on what is emerging so that leaders and their organizations respond appropriately. I actually did some research in this vein; if you’d like to know more, let me know.

    Again, thanks for providing a provocative and fresh pespective!


  3. Thanks Rosaria and Robert for your comments.

    @Rosaria: I agree that tactility is both a starting point and a way of framing values (and moving to action with respect to values); AND that there needs to be what you call “keeping a pulse” and what I call (in other work) “environmental sensing” for emergent effects of our actions. (More on this stuff in future posts.)

    @Robert: I think the idea of looking backwards at how an organization performed “in the end” is only useful when an organization winds up and the people all go their separate ways, that is, when there is a true ending. The tactility question of “whom are we going to touch, and how are we going to touch them, today?” keeps us focused on the effects of present actions, AND how the consequential effects of actions (and decisions, of course) play out relative to our intentions with respect to those actions. We could, for example, accomplish all of our stated objectives, with all sorts of so-called unintended consequences if we were ends-focused (similarly, means-focused). By redirecting our attention to ever emerging effects – what Rosaria refers to as “keeping a pulse” but somewhat more attentive and aware – organizations are better able to navigate complexity in human systems.


  4. Hello Mark.
    I do not agree with you.

    Why? “More than being over-rated, I would suggest that vision is counter-productive.” IMHO vision in fact help to focus all organisation member and help take decisions (especially tough ones). Knowing where organisation is heading is as much important as as what effect is creating at present.

    As an example you can have a look at energy sector. Heading towards green/sustainable energy sources is the message which is more important to society than short term effects.

    I do not agree with statement that vision is a way to detach ourselves from current problems. In fact, it help us to prioritize problems and keep focus on the things which are moving business forward. In fact having vision can be treated like a guidance for managing organisation. Good vision is based on accepted values and believes.

    And this is the most important thing. To get acceptance and get people which share these values.

    I think that problem with vision lies somewhere else. For many companies, vision and vision are only empty words.

    Why? Because management (starting from CEO) was not able to get these values be integral part of the business. In this case vision will be nothing else like empty words. It is like with Ten Commandments. For somebody who believes, this is much more than words written few thousands year ago. This is lifetime guidance.

    Looking forward to read your future articles.


  5. Thanks for engaging with the conversation, Robert, and thanks for challenging my ideas. Everything you say is true: good vision and clarity of vision relative to values helps prioritize, helps focus, helps create alignment. As well, singular vision – especially linear, deterministic, “goal-oriented” vision – helps organizations deliberately ignore the often deleterious (if unintentional) effects of the decisions that vision spawns. I could cite countless examples relative to ecological initiatives (e.g. CFP light “bulbs”), political initiatives (e.g., the war in Iraq), social policy initiatives (e.g., the war on drugs), economic initiatives (e.g. the sub-prime mortgage crisis), education policy (e.g., “no child left behind”)… shall I go on?… all of which, arguably, stemmed from vision and values with no regard for tactility.

    When I write about tactility and effects, I’m by no means limiting myself to short-term effects. Rather, I’m ALWAYS referring to human systems in complexity terms, which means emergence over time and consideration of secondary, tertiary, quaternary, and higher order effects. In practical, strategic-planning work with organizations at the C-level, and in organization development efforts on the factory floor, it’s been my experience that tactility exercises and complexity thinking trump vision and linearity every time in creating more resilient and more engaged workplaces.

    The reason is relatively straight-forward to explain. With vision comes deterministic plans, and objectives that are predetermined in the absence of complete information (i.e., the future is unknowable; hence the viability and usefulness of any plan is, by definition, contingent at best). With tactility and navigating for effects, one develops environmental sensing and agility – the capacity to adjust to changing circumstances quickly without compromising one’s intent (relative to effects, although outcomes are often changed in progress with better information).

    Many organizations that have engaged me in tactility work and effects-oriented navigation as part of their strategic undertakings might also choose to develop a vision – in fact many have. However, their visions are more robust and grounded in *contested* values and beliefs, not *accepted* (i.e., handed-down from on-high by the elite management, but disconnected from the majority of organizational members) values and beliefs. The process of contesting values through healthy conversations around tactility creates true commitment among organizational members (that include and surpass those we often call “stakeholders”).


  6. Mark, your points are compelling and I like the addition of tactility or other senses in developing a strategy. Tactility adds definition and depth to a strategy plan. However, vision is important. In fact I would suggest that strategy is static without vision. Another way to say it is “Strategy is static and vision is viral.” Consider that a strategy that includes tactility may be symbolized by a fast car and the fuel that makes the car go is “vision.” Without vision the car goes nowhere. I plan to expound on this in an article I am writing.


  7. Pingback: VISION IS VIRAL BUT STRATEGY IS STATIC « Simple Discipleship @ Wordpress·

  8. Vision certainly connects with the “what” of what needs to be achieved, which is certainly beneficial- however tactility as you describe it connects us with the “why” which is what gives “vision” its passion and energy and ultimately what engages and motivates others.


  9. I don’t disagree that vision often enables passion, inspiration, and motivation. More often then not, however, it falls far short and still brings with it the dysfunctions of lineal vision, mostly of the blinkered and tunnel variety. My longer response to your contributions to this conversation is here: http://goo.gl/uEuu0



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