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  • What is a vision?

  • Why do you need to communicate a vision to others?

  • When do you need to communicate your vision?

  • How do you create a vision?

  • How do you communicate a vision to others?

In his 1961 Inaugural address, John F. Kennedy said,

"Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce."

Every leader has a vision. For Nelson Mandela, it was a South Africa without Apartheid. For Lech Walesa, it was a Poland run by workers and common people. For Susan B. Anthony, it was a United States in which women had the right to vote.

Even though these are examples of famous leaders, they are not much different from community leaders who have visions for their communities.

If you are a community leader, you probably already have some kind of vision. Perhaps you want elderly folks to be able to live decently and independently. Or maybe you want your school district to give children from all backgrounds an equal chance at academic achievement. Or perhaps you want a community that has the skills and commitment to discuss hard issues and solve tough problems cooperatively.

Whatever your vision of your community is, it is important. Why? Because nothing happens until it happens in someone's mind first.

In this section, you will learn how to take a dream and turn it into a vision. You will also learn how to use your vision to lead--to mobilize and inspire people so that others want to join you in making your vision a reality.

But first let's take a closer look at the different steps in developing and communicating a vision. There are three steps in the vision process:

  1. Developing your own vision
  2. Communicating your vision to others
  3. Developing the group's vision, within the group

This section focuses on the first two steps: How, as a leader, you develop your own vision and communicate it to others. It also focuses on how to use your vision to move people toward a common goal.

The next section focuses on step three, developing the group's vision. Included in that section is an outline of how to develop a vision statement for your group or organization.

Now, we will look at you and your vision.

What is a vision?

A vision is your big picture of the way things ought to be. It is your billboard image of what you are working towards.

For example, you may have a picture of all the different ways you want your neighborhood to be better. You may want a neighborhood that has clean streets. You may want people to watch out for each other so that crime is less likely to take place. You may want a neighborhood in which people know each other well enough to be able to solve problems together.

Everyday, as you go about your life, you may find yourself thinking about all the ways things could be better. If you put together all the pieces of how things should be, you have an overall vision.

Once you put together all those pieces, your overall vision might be: A neighborhood that is friendly, safe, and clean; one in which neighbors know, like, support each other, and work out differences together.

Your overall vision is like a billboard: It is a picture of your ideal neighborhood or community that gets your ideas across powerfully, accurately, and quickly.

Once you have a vision, you tell people about it and use it to lead people.

Why do you need to communicate your vision to others?

Why communicate your vision to others? Because no one can decide to follow you until they know what direction you're headed in.

If your vision is one that touches a chord with many people and if you can communicate it well, people will join you in reaching towards your goals.

In the words of the Syracuse Cultural Workers, "No matter what our attempts to inform, it is our ability to inspire that will turn the tides."

Sharing a vision is a central role of a leader--a vision gives people a bigger picture of what things can be like. It helps people raise their hopes and expectations; it inspires them. When people are inspired, they are more likely to work on something.

When do you need to communicate your vision?

All the time. Whenever you talk to people about your group or organization, tell people what you are working towards. The more you do it, the better you will get at it, and the more people will be willing to support you.

Even before you have formed a group or organization, it is important to talk about your vision. As you communicate it to others, you are creating a community of people who know about your idea and who potentially will support you.

How do you create a vision?

Dream big

Dreaming is the first step. Go ahead and dare to dream about what you can do and what is possible to accomplish. Don't be afraid to dream big. You can always scale down to meet the realities of the situation, but dreaming big allows you to think about ideas that may not seem likely, yet are in fact possible. Thinking big also forces you to think about the long term, always a useful thing to do.

You have nothing to lose; it doesn't cost a nickel.

Can you recall a time when you got a wild idea in your head and your heart started beating fast and you wondered what it would be like if you could make that idea happen?

Maybe you intermittently think, "Oh, that's impossible. How can I be so foolish as to think that!" However, often the ideas that feel foolish may have the most potential. They are often ideas that are new to the world. Learn to value and trust your hunches. If you get an idea that makes your heart sing, chances are good that others will come to sing along with you.

How to dream big:

We'll start with an imaginary example of how things are already in your community:

Imagine that you presently live in a neighborhood in which people are frightened of those different from themselves. Children are considered a nuisance. People come home from work and quickly run into their houses without saying hello to their neighbors. Some people struggle with alcohol and no one knows about it or helps them. In some homes there is domestic violence

Now here's a dream for how things can be different:

Imagine that you live in a neighborhood in which people from different cultures really know and like each other. In this neighborhood, people visit each other often. They eat dinner at each other's houses and know each other's children. People communicate often enough to know when one family is in trouble or need. When someone is in trouble, others come to their aid, sometimes without being asked.

If you have such a dream, don't let it go! Turn it into a vision and make it happen!

Lili Fini Zanuck, a film director and producer, said, "Nothing happens without a dream. The daydreaming mind will wander to something greater than the conscious mind could ever have imagined... The more you visualize your dream, the more you understand it. That's how you begin. Soon you're on the road to realizing your dream."

Develop your personal vision

How do you start developing a vision? Let's start with ourselves for practice.

Everyone has a personal vision. Everyone has a picture in their minds of what they want for themselves in the future. Perhaps you would like a better job, would like to have enough time in your life to think about what you want to do next, or become more influential in your community.

Exercise:

What do you envision for yourself in the next five years?

  • How do you want to grow?
  • What do you envision for your work?
  • What do you envision for your family life or friendships?
  • What do you envision for where you live?
  • What do you envision for fun and recreation?
  • What do you envision for yourself as a leader?

A vision for your own life is simply a picture of where you want to be in the future. And a vision for your community, group, or organization is simply your picture of where you want that group to be in the future.

Develop a vision for your community, group, or organization

So now that you've had some practice creating a vision for yourself, try creating and articulating a vision for your community, group, or organization.

How do you articulate your vision of how things should be? Jump in and try.

And remember, the way you see things is what matters in this first stage of developing a vision. Don't try to think like anyone else. Trust your vision of the way things should be. Even though you may be creating a vision for your community, a vision is your personal view.

The more a vision reflects what you really think and care about, the more powerful it will be. People will be more likely to respond to your message if they see you care about an issue, rather than seeing you as a political figure talking about an abstract issue.

So go ahead and picture what you would like your neighborhood, community, or group to be like in the future.

Exercise:

Imagine your community the way you would like it to be. Write out your ideas. Don't worry about how they sound. This is sort of like a personal brainstorming session--get everything in your head out on paper without judging it. You can clarify and focus later. Use some of the questions below to help you think or make up your own questions:

  • What does your community look like physically? What kind of buildings are there? What kind of public spaces? Is it safe to walk around it during the day and at night?
  • What kind of work do people do? Who has what kind of jobs? Do people like their work? Why?
  • How do people get along with each other? Do people from different groups communicate and get along? Do younger and older people have contact and good relationships with each other?
  • How do decisions get made? Are things fair for different groups? Does every group have a fair say? Are many people involved in sharing their ideas and solving problems?
  • What do families look like? Do people within families get along? Are there places where women and men can get help if they need it? Is there child care available? Do neighbors help each other? Do single people feel there is a place for them in the community?
  • Where do people play? Do people in the community go to recreational events together? What possibilities are there for young people, old people, and everybody in between?

Clarify your vision

Once you have lots of ideas down on paper you have a good start. Now, sift through everything you wrote down and pick out what is most important to you. (Don't throw away the details, though--they are important for later when you are communicating your vision.) Now, are there some general statements that express your most important ideas? Are there some powerful or compelling phrases or words that get to the heart of what you care about?

Let's go back to a previous example:

"Imagine a neighborhood in which people from different cultures really know and like each other. In this neighborhood, people visit each other often. They eat dinner at each other's houses and know each other's children. People communicate often enough to know when one family is in trouble or need. When someone is in trouble, others come to their aid, sometimes without being asked."

How can you boil this vision down to a few powerful phrases?

Here are some examples:

  • A caring neighborhood where people from many cultures know their way around each other's kitchens.
  • In this neighborhood, "a friend in need is a friend indeed."
  • An extended family neighborhood--people talk, eat, and celebrate together. People help each other out when times are hard.
  • A "guardian angel" neighborhood--people care and watch out for each other.
  • Of course, everyone's vision for their community will be different. What phrases or words get to the core of what you care about?
  • Do you want a neighborhood in which each person is secure, welcome, and involved?
  • Do you want a child-friendly community?
  • Do you want economic justice for all?
  • The more you put your own heart into your words, the more other people will be able to relate to what you have to say. Then they will be more likely to follow your lead.

How do you communicate a vision to others?

Get feedback on your vision

Talk to people about your vision as much as you can. Tell them what you are thinking. Give them your big picture of things. Then listen. See if other people are concerned about the same things you are concerned about. See if people are interested in your picture of how things could be.

The more you talk to people and listen to them, the clearer your vision will become. First of all, you will get some practice speaking. Whenever a person talks, they have a chance to hear their thoughts out loud; as they listen to themselves, they get clearer on what they are trying to say.

Secondly, after listening to people respond to your ideas, your vision will probably change somewhat. You may want to incorporate some of their thinking into your own. Other people's ideas will help you make your vision stronger.

After talking to people about your vision for a period of time, you will get an idea of how strong your vision is. You will have a sense of whether other people get excited when you speak. Everyone doesn't necessarily have to agree with your vision for it to be a good one--but if people get animated and interested in talking with you about your vision, that is a sign that you are onto something.

Develop and communicate the details

After you test and reshape your big-picture vision, you should develop the details. You need to give people some specifics as to what your big picture will mean on a day-to-day level. You also have to tell people what steps you will take to get there, i.e., develop a plan. People may think your big picture is a meaningless mirage if you don't give them some ideas as to how you think things will actually change.

You don't have to have all the answers, but you need to have some ideas. If you have a vision of your neighborhood as one in which people from different cultural and racial backgrounds work together to prevent crime, what has to happen to get there? Do you need different church groups to set up a task force first? Do you need to set up some cultural sharing events? Do you, at some point, need to build a neighborhood group that can challenge city hall to provide better police protection for your neighborhood?

Write up some tentative ideas for how to get things done. The better your plan for reaching your vision, the more likely people will take you seriously and be willing to follow your lead.

Once you have some confidence that your vision is sound, begin to put it out as a way to gather support for your leadership and what you and your organization want to accomplish. Use your vision as a way to inspire people to act.

Help people take ownership of a vision

As a leader, you have to help people take your vision and make it their own. This is an important step in bringing people together to work toward a common goal. Members of a group need to have a shared vision and a sense of ownership in order to be committed to the group. That is key in helping people stay with a group for the long haul.

People don't need to agree with all the details of your vision in order to follow your lead. They will have different ideas about how to put a vision to use. That is fine and healthy. But in order to work together, people need to share an overall vision and some basic goals.

To help people take your vision and make it their own, you need to talk and listen. You shouldn't talk too much. You should mostly listen to people's thinking. If you really sit back and listen to people, they will tell you what is most important to them.

It may take people a long time to get to the point of telling you what is really important to them. They may have to tell you first about their children or a crummy experience they had with a politician. However, if you can listen long enough, people will tell you their thinking about how things should change.

A balancing act: Meet people where they are and challenge them at the same time

At times people may not be ready to hear your vision of how things can be. Some people may disagree. Some may have so much of their attention taken by surviving day-to-day that it is difficult for them to listen to how things can be better. Also, people sometimes feel mistrustful, hopeless, discouraged, and cynical. Some people depend on a narrow picture of the world in order to feel secure.

Communicating a vision to people through that obstacle course can be tough. You often have to meet people where they are in order to establish some trust. As we talked about earlier, listening is an important tool in doing that.

But you also have to communicate the parts of your vision that people can relate to. They may not be ready to think about an overall plan for transforming your neighborhood. However, they may be able to think about doing something about the potholes in the streets. If so, talk about potholes. Talk to people "where they're at." Speak to their conditions and their personal needs. This will help you build some trusting relationships. Later you can do more.

On the other hand, it is sometimes important to say things that people are not quite ready to hear. People need to think about new ideas over a period of time before they can make sense of them. New ideas are important to introduce, even if they engender initial resistance. Often the strongest and most important ideas meet with resistance.

A leader has to lead. And the most important aspect of leadership is winning over the thinking of people to a vision of what things can be like.

This can take time. You may need to be gentle, but also persistent.

Be courageous

In order to create and communicate a vision, you must be courageous. People who communicate a vision of what things should be like are often the people who are courageous enough to state what is obviously wrong and unjust. It can be difficult to say out loud that the prince has no clothes. However, once you say it, people will see that it is true.

If, for example, you see some clear problems in your community, be courageous and start talking about them to others. Ask people how they think things should be. You may find that you have more in common with people than you had thought.

You should also be prepared for people to attack you for what you are trying to do. Ideas that lead to fundamental changes are frightening to people. People may actively campaign against you. Often, these campaigns can get quite personal. People may try to make your personal problems or shortcomings the issue, rather than the issue you are trying to put forward.

If this happens, gather your close friends and allies around you. Together, come up with a plan to handle the attack and direct the discussion back to the real issues. Don't try to handle an attack by yourself. When an attack is being directed at you, you will need the perspective of friends. It will help if you can anticipate and plan for such attacks before they happen, but sometimes that is not possible.

Modify your vision

As you lead, you will modify your vision. The more you lead, the more you will learn about what needs to change. You will also learn from the people you lead.

Your vision should be flexible enough so that you can change it as circumstances change. That doesn't mean you give up your principles or your hopes about what is possible. But as you collect information and advance your thinking you should adjust your vision to keep it up to date.

Use your vision to act

Developing and communicating a vision is just the beginning. Once you have a workable vision, you need to use it to get where you want to go. You need to organize, draw up an action plan, and go!

In Summary

As you lead, you should be communicating your vision all the time. People look to leaders to inspire them and keep them on the right track. The more you are enthusiastic and clear about where you are going, the more likely it will be that people follow your lead.

Don't underestimate the power of your ideas and words. You, as much as anyone, have what is takes to lead others and to help them envision a better neighborhood, community, country, and world.

Contributor 
Marya Axner

Online Resources

How Leaders Develop and Communicate a Vision by Bates Communications breaks down the process of articulating a vision into four steps.

Leadership in Systems of Care: Creating and Communicating a Shared Vision, by the Child Welfare Information Gateway, includes a series of action briefs on key leadership topics for administrators and program managers responsible for systems change initiatives.

Print Resources

Bennis, W. (1989). On becoming a leader. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.

DePree, M. (1989). Leadership is an art. New York, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

Gardner, J. (1990). On leadership. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Hancock, T. (1994). Guide for vision workshops. Indianapolis, IN: Institute of Action Research for Community Health/Indiana University.

Heifitz, R. A. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Hesselbein, F.,Goldsmith, M., & Beckhard, R. (eds.). (1996). The leader of the future: New visions, strategies, and practices for the next era. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Jackins, H. (1987). The enjoyment of leadership. Seattle, WA: Rational Island Publishers.

Karnes, F. A. & Bean, S. (1993). Girls and young women leading the way. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing Inc.

Nanus, B. (1992). Visionary leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Organizations

The Institute of Action Research for Community Health

1111 Middle Drive, NU 236

Indianapolis, Indiana 46202

Phone: (317) 274-2285

E-Mail: citynet@indyvax.iupui.edu