The Vision Thing

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Today’s almost mythical notion of the hero-leader demands that vision be a pre-eminent executive trait. Time and time again, if a corporate leader is successful, his or her vision is cited as the cause and lauded as the foundation of the leader’s greatness. Vision, however, is only one component of the strategic management process, and a myopic focus on it has led many organizations to pursue less than ideal strategies and objectives, as evidenced by many of the recent dot-com failures whose visions were powerful, but whose strategies were suspect at best. To be sure, an organization without appropriate vision is likely to fail, but too many companies have fallen victim to the idea that managerial vision is a substitute for a complete and effective strategic examination.

At the risk of oversimplification, the process of strategic management can be reduced to three broad steps. To develop an effective strategy, executives must determine where the organization is, agree on where they want to take it, and establish a plan to get there. Too many leaders seem to think that their vision alone should set this strategic development in motion. I strongly disagree. In the strategic management process, vision isn’t the starting point — it’s a byproduct of competent analysis.

Let’s think this through. Say an old acquaintance is in town for the day and wants to come by for a visit. Do you immediately begin giving him directions? Of course not —the first logical question is, “Where are you now?” Until we determine the starting point, giving optimal direction is virtually impossible. Therefore, you can understand my consternation when working with organizations whose only interest seems to be in telling me where they want to go. What’s more, many leaders exhibit extreme anxiety when forced to really examine where the organization is at that moment. I think I’ve figured out why.

For one thing, talking about vision is definitely the most exciting part of the strategic process. Let’s face it — there’s nothing sexy about the varying levels of analysis critical to the development of an effective strategy. In fact, a true examination of the diverse levels of environment that surround an organization can be difficult and tedious. In business schools, however, students are taught to conduct environmental analysis, industry analysis, competitor analysis, company analysis and so on. Why? Because without doing so, executives can’t possibly know where to take the organization.

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