My all-time favorite book on the topic of leadership is called the Leadership Challenge, written by Kouzes and Posner.  Through years of research, they have summarized the key behaviors of leaders into 5 distinct practices.

Kouzes and Posner identified five common concepts in their survey of leaders internationally, and derived from them these five practices of Leadership:

  • Model the Way
  • Inspire a Shared Vision
  • Challenge the Process
  • Enable Others to Act
  • Encourage the Heart

The Leadership Challenge used case studies to examine the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership.  Their first surveys for the five practices started in 1983, by asking people “What do you do as a leader when you’re performing at your personal best?”  Over 30 years, they have done thousands of interviews and collected approximately 75,000 written responses.  Time and time again, these 5 practices rise to the surface as the key behaviors in their success stories.

Today, I’d like to explore the concept of vision, and specifically how leaders form an enduring and inspiring vision for their organizations.

As I’ve developed as a leader over the years, I’ve come to recognize that some leadership behaviors are easier for me than others—this is one of the tough ones!  I don’t feel like a very visionary person—I’m more of a pessimistic realist at heart.  I see first and foremost what is or is not working and try to fix it.  I see the world through a sensate lenses, collecting data with my senses and process it logically, rather than intuitively.  I don’t spend much time dreaming ordinarily; I’m extraordinarily concrete, practical and pragmatic.  I love data and metrics and facts, even if they point me to negative realities, or harsh prospects.  If you by nature are a dreamer, and optimistic, able to come up with visions of future realities, then I hope I have something to say for your benefit.

However, if you do struggle as I do, then you too can benefit from the some of the ideas from the Leadership Challenge.

You will never achieve anything great or extraordinary in life unless you first dream it up!

To be successful as a leader, you need to be future-oriented.  Leaders must imagine a positive future and have the energy and drive to bring their people along with them into that future positive reality.  How do you go about crafting that reality?  You dream it up first.

Leaders develop an internal vision, first inside themselves, by asking “what if” questions.  According to Kouzes and Posner, only 3% of business people think about the future.  That means we spend most of our time thinking about the past or what is literally right in front of us.  That kind of thinking creates stagnation, boredom, and ultimately no growth.

Before you can develop a vision for your teams and your organizations, you first need to know who you are, what you value, and what drives you.

I recommend that you take some time alone, find some quiet, and ask yourself these questions:

  • What are my hopes, dreams, and desires for my organization and the people who work with me?
  • What would a great future look like?
  • What would we be doing?
  • What would we be achieving?
  • What would distinguish us from others?
  • How could we be great?

Doing this kind of reflective work takes time and space away from the noises of the normal workday.  For me, vacation time or conferences out of the area are the ideal opportunities to ruminate on possibilities.

In the Leadership Challenge, the fuller process of reflection is called “conscious introspection.”  Once you have a sense inside your own self of what you stand for, you add a few additional practices to form your vision.  It is described in four stages:

  1. Reflect on the past—Even though leaders are future-oriented, the old saying is never truer than today. “Those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it.”  We don’t stay in the past, but we journey there briefly to ensure we don’t repeat our failures and gather up our learning experiences to apply to the future.
  2. Attend to the present—In this stage of vision-building, we collect data and we observe what our status is. How excellent are we really?  How do we know?  How does the team function right now?  What are our competitors doing?
  3. Prospect the future—this is when we take our values and thoughts about who we are and who we want to be, and applying steps 1 and 2, we craft a vision, our future plan. We scan the environment and imagine how we can impact it.
  4. Feel your passion—get in touch with your deepest feelings, your heartfelt drive, and let it be your guide into the future. Let that passion bleed into your communication with your team.

Developing a vision is not a “one and done” kind of practice.  You are never done refining your vision or communicating it to your team.  You are never done dreaming and thinking about what is around the next corner. It’s a cycle you repeat, not a line you follow to the end.

“He who thinks he leads, but has no followers, is only taking a walk.”― John Maxwell

In our next blog, we will discuss how you go about inspiring others with the vision you form.  How do you get others onboard?  How do you get your team to join you?  How and when do you communicate it?


To read “Leadership by the Book”: The Leadership Challenge Part 2 Blog click here.

To read “Leadership by the Book”: The Leadership Challenge Part 1 Blog click here.