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Leadership and the ‘vision thing’

Ralph Stacey Posted by Ralph Stacey.

Ralph Stacey is a professor of management at the Business School of the University Hertfordshire and also a visiting lecturer at universities in Sweden, the Netherlands, and Malta. He is an active consultant to top management teams in major companies and the author of a several books on management and organization.

Roberto Martinez, manager of Everton football club which did very well in the Premier League in the UK this season, says that he always had a vision that the team would play i....

Roberto Martinez, manager of Everton football club which did very well in the Premier League in the UK this season, says that he always had a vision that the team would play in the European Champions League, for which his team has now qualified. Meanwhile political pundits, and sometimes members of his own party, are critical of the fact that the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, Ed Miliband, doesn’t have a sufficiently clear vision. In contrast, President George Bush (père) once said that he didn’t do ‘the vision thang’.

If you search on the terms ‘leadership vision’ in any search engine it will turn up thousands of hits, consultancies, business schools, books, which claim that having leadership vision is probably the most important quality a leader can have. There are any number of proprietary tools, techniques, grids and frameworks for generating such a vision. The idea is now virtually unchallengeable.

How would I square the idea that vision is something an individual leader ‘has’ with some previous posts where I argued that leadership is an improvisational and ensemble performance? If vision really is the exceptional and innate characteristic of an individual leader, then maybe the leaders of banks and corporations really do deserve the fantastic salaries that they command. Is it really the case that some are born with visions, and the rest of us are born to be led by them.

Whenever I attend, or lead, a seminar on leadership , which are ubiquitous these days, it is only a matter of time before someone mentions Martin Luther King as an example of a visionary leader (it might of course be Gandhi, Richard Branson or Steve Jobs). This is a consistent pattern and tells us something about  the nature of the heroic/transformational discourse that one is inevitably drawn into when discussing leaders and leadership, even if the leadership role under discussion is relatively junior and the organisation is involved in something quite mundane. Let us take this seriously, however, and see what we might glean nonetheless from the stories told about the preparation for and delivery of perhaps the most famous speech of all time, ‘I have a dream’, in terms of what it might tell us about leadership and vision.

In article in the Washington Post, Clarence B Jones, colleague and friend of Martin Luther King, described how he, King and other advisers kicked ideas around for the speech the night before a civil rights rally in Birmingham Alabama, which has subsequently become world famous. There was disagreement amongst King and his advisers, and between the advisers about whether the speech should tend towards a sermon to appeal to the religious groups in attendance, or whether it should stick more closely to questions of policy and legal reform. It became clear that it would be hard to straddle both.

The next day when he started his speech, King began exactly as it had been drafted between him and his colleagues. The words “I have a dream’ were nowhere in it. He began with the image that black Americans had been passed a dud cheque by the American government, and then he paused. Jones continues:

‘And in that breach, something unexpected, historic and largely unheralded happened. Martin’s favorite gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, who had performed earlier in the day, called to him from nearby: “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin, tell ‘em about the dream!”

Martin clutched the speaker’s lectern and seemed to reset. I watched him push the text of his prepared remarks to one side. I knew this performance had just been given over to the spirit of the moment.’

So Martin Luther King abandoned the prepared speech he had started and responded to a gesture from someone he knew in the crowd. In doing so he collapsed the ambiguity between the two principal choices he was faced with, sermon or lecture, and went with the sermon. He was thus able to call on his long experience of being a Baptist Minister, which sits in a tradition of preaching which both calls out and responds to the reactions of the congregation in a continuous and amplifying improvisation between what the preacher has prepared and what ignites them as congregation. Over his lifetime his sensitivity to the improvisation of gesture and response had made him both the exceptional preacher and politician which he was.

One way of understanding what Martin Luther King was doing is that he was responding to the potentialities of the present moment in a way which brought disparate communities into a surprising relation with each other. A wide variety of people recognised themselves in what he said, those who were present on the occasion as well as those watching at a distance. In recognising themselves, paradoxically and at the same time, they recognised him as leading. Leadership, then, was a co-created, moment by moment in an emerging improvisation, drawing on a rich history of previous experiences of mutual improvisation. Equally there were also communities who recognised themselves negatively in what he was saying, and of course that led eventually to his assassination.

I would argue that King did not use the occasion simply to ‘set out his vision’, partly because it was not a vision that he already had in full. Rather it was a creative response to the uncertainty in the moment which allowed many people in the audience to sense the potential for their own creativity, to be part of an as-yet-unrealised future. The moment was co-created and could have turned out differently, but on the day King and his audience improvised into their future. Together they participated in imagining an idealised and unrealisable future, but which nonetheless offered the potential for creating what had seemed unachievable. Together they experienced hope.

Such pivotal political occasions are the exception rather than the rule and for me the constant linking of great political and social leaders with the largely humdrum demands of contemporary organisational life is an inflationary tendency which certainly needs puncturing. However, even in the routine everyday of organizational life there are still opportunities for leaders to notice and respond to the potential in the relations between themselves and others in ways which create the potential for everyone to understand themselves and what they are doing anew. Whatever we mean by ‘vision’, it is created and recreated between us, moment by moment as we respond to the uncertainty into which we are obliged to act together.