In the Leading Through Others module we looked at the practices of an exemplary, Christ-centred servant leader and the needs that must be fulfilled for a team to be highly effective. Teams need to be aligned behind a common and shared purpose. It’s what gives them a unified direction. This purpose describes the goal of the team and it is the embodiment of the vision which defined the team’s destination.
Without a purpose, a vision of the future, the team cannot achieve because it is the thing that defines what “success” means for the team. It is what gives the team its point, its rationale for existence, for expending effort.
We observed that it is the leader’s responsibility to ensure that the there is a vision and purpose. They do not have to be the originator of the vision and purpose but they must make sure that there is one. They must also help the team members to adopt that vision and align to the purpose; to each own the common and shared vision and so embark upon the journey to the destination it defines.
This raises the question, “How do visions come about?”
We’ll investigate this now by looking in two ways. One is a secular perspective set out by Kouzes and Posner which is instructive and then we will take a more Kingdom perspective which includes God.
The definitions of vision use phrases like “a different future”, which taken in their broadest sense can infer huge revolutionary outcomes with earth shattering impact. Don’t be put off by such phrases. Remember the story of the cake that my wife made. That started with a vision just like Google, VirginGalactic, the United Nations and many other globally significant things. Visions don’t have to be vast in scope they can be limited and constrained too.
In the Leading Teams with a Servant Heart lesson we looked at the leadership practices that Kouzes and Posner set out in their book “The Leadership Challenge”. One of the practices was Inspiring a Shared Vision. This required two actions: First, imagine the possibilities and second, find a common purpose. We’ll look at the second one later.
In the research work that underpins The Leadership Challenge Kouzes and Posner discovered that it’s hard to describe the process by which a vision is formed. Their interviews of people showed no consistent way by which visions come about. Kouzes and Posner set out 4 tips that can be helpful to conceiving a vision. Because the future is not here and now a vision relies upon imagination. These tips suggest ways in which we can stimulate and feed our imagination. So adding some alliteration to the titles that Kouzes and Posner use:
Perceive your passion
Visions require conviction and passion because they are about things that matter. They derive from a conviction that the world would be a better place if only such and such can happen. The conviction that this issue really matters is what drives one’s passion. That passion drives the determination to do something about it. If the issue doesn’t matter then the vision will fade away and get nowhere.
Because the most powerful visions that become realised emerge form one’s convictions, it is important to get in touch, and stay in touch, with one’s passions. This becomes a filter through which the world is viewed.
For the Christian one would expect our most significant passions to emerge from our faith, from growing in the character of Christ and the consequent transformation of our minds and our thinking.
Ponder the past
Seldom do the things that matter to someone emerge overnight. They result from lifelong themes that colour how one thinks, scope the nature of one’s preferences and concerns and define ones pleasures and enjoyments. These are fruitful and productive fields in which one’s visions of the future can germinate, be nurtured and grow to bear fruit.
Therefore, review your past, identify these lifelong themes; drawing out the things that matter and imagine the better future that could emerge. Answer the question: What would it look like?
Probe the present
As issues arise opportunities emerge; opportunities to resolve the issues. The place where these issues coincide with one’s passions and lifelong themes is fertile ground for the formulation of vision.
Keep abreast of the times so that you are alert to current issues. Reflect upon them to see if they create the opportunity for a different future. One that fits your life long themes and passions, new or old.
Another approach to probing the present is to listen to people. Organisationally, it’s good for a leader to get out amongst those whom they lead. It’s possible to learn things, especially if you listen to what people have to say. One of the practices we were introduced to in The Effective Practices of a Servant Leader was to Challenge the Process. The goal is to be better at what we do so that both we and the team can achieve our full potential. Talk with the team and understand what hinders them from achieving their goal or what would release them to achieve even more. After all it’s your goal too. This means that you need to enquire, listen and seek understanding. Put into practice what you learned from the last module: Communications: A core Competence for Servant Leaders. From what you hear and understand may emerge the seed of the vision for the next step in growth.
Prospect the future
For many years I was a product manager for a vendor in the telecommunications industry. Part of my job was to identify the features we needed in our products in the future. Without fail, there were always ‘impossible features’ on the list because they were not feasible today. They were not discarded because technology changes so fast that what is impossible today may become feasible in the very near future. Sometimes it was regulation that changed and released us to do new things. So, we kept an eye on the requirements, the potential technologies and the regulations because in the fullness of time we would be able to build the feature. This meant we had to have a vision for our products that we always worked towards.
Maintaining a broad view of what in marketing terms is called PEST is key to developing products. (PEST stands for the Political, Economic, Social and Technological environment.) Similarly watching the changes that emerge in our fast changing world in these kinds of areas can stimulate the identification of new possibilities. These possibilities may enable the resolution of previously unresolvable issues as well as opening new horizons to do new things. They are the stuff of which visions are made.
Take a Moment (make some notes)
- What are you passionate about?
- What concerns you about the world that you would like to see different?
- Briefly reflect upon your past
- What lifelong themes can you identify?
- What current issues concern you?
- How do they fit with your passions and lifelong themes?
- What emerging trends are you are aware of?
- What possibilities do they suggest?
- Do these considerations suggest a different future that you can envision?
- What would it look like if that difference was made?
We’ve just considered some steps we can take to manufacture a vision. Whilst this gives us excellent insight into the process, which should not be dismissed, it is a secular approach. Consequently the underlying principles, and likely outcomes, are contrary to the things we considered when we looked at Psalm 127:1.
Manufacturing the vision makes it ours and then we have to question if it’s aligned with God’s plans and purposes and whether he or we would be the builders?
The premise of Growing the Servant Heart is that we are working for the Kingdom of God. Therefore, we need to be aligned with God as we seek to serve him and he must be the builder. Even so, we still need that vision and purpose around which the team may be aligned. So how does it come about?
Challenge the Heart
The root of a vison is a challenge of some kind. In our Kingdom context, if we consider Abraham, Paul and Nehemiah,
we can see two broad avenues by which a vision emerges.
A call or conviction from God
We see with Abraham and Paul, amongst others, that God impressed his vision upon them through a call to service and obedience. They were convicted by God’s vision in some form of direct challenge from him.
We saw earlier two important factors for Abraham. The promise that he would become a great nation and that God would bring that about, and that he had to leave Babylon and go where God directed. This he did with faith.
Developing awareness and concern
This is somewhat similar to Kouzes and Posner’s suggestions that we look to our passions and our life-themes for inspiration. However, we see with Nehemiah that he became aware of the situation of Jerusalem. This convicted his heart due to the disgrace and dishonour that had been brought upon God because of Israel’s disobedience. Although the explicit detail is not there, it seems clear from the text that he sought God’s grace and mercy over a period of months. In prayer God wrought the vision of a repaired Jerusalem in his heart.
Nehemiah became aware of a situation and in prayer sought God for its resolution, thus his vision was forged by God. So, when we become aware of needs we can follow Nehemiah’s example and work them before God in prayer, seeking his wisdom and insight, allowing him to develop the vision in us.
Bear in mind that the challenge we see will not necessarily be an issue that must be corrected in some way, but it may be an opportunity for something new. To that end, probing the present and prospecting the future can also be done prayerfully.
Clarify the opportunity
Thinking now more along the lines of an emerging vision where we become aware of a need and God burns that into our hearts, inspiring our response. The next step must be to explore the situation; to learn more about it, to clarify our understanding of the situation and need, and wrestle it into a coherent shape before God through prayer.
Given the clear plans that Nehemiah had, it would seem that he did this between the months of Kislev & Nissan. So during a period of four to six months Nehemiah’s vision and plan was forged.
As our thoughts are clarified and the vision emerges, write it down. This will act as record and reminder. More importantly, writing the scope of the need down will test and refine the clarity of your thoughts, helping you see what you still need to understand. Refine the wording until it captures the need effectively.
This answers the question “What is the issue, need or challenge?”
Consider the outcome
Having clarified and formulated the need we must envisage the desired outcome. “What will things look like when the need is addressed?” This too needs to be developed in prayer and results in the vision: the statement of the desired, better future with regard to the need. It requires Spirit-led imagination and, in terms of Psalm 127 defines the house that God will build so that your labour is not in vain. Plainly we need to be careful to apply Godly principles to this process.
As you consider the desired outcome before God and the vision settles out, write it down. It has the same benefits as we discussed above.
This answers the question “What is the desired, preferable outcome?”
Craft the means
Having defined the vision in terms of need and desired outcome we now need to consider how to bring it about. Once more, like Nehemiah, this must be a God honouring and prayerful process.
In this step we are crafting the means by which the vision will be fulfilled. There may be a number of approaches that can be taken. Identify them all and follow God’s leading about which one to take. The chosen approach will in turn out to define the purpose of one or more teams who are assembled to bring about the desired outcome.
In the context of Christ-centred servant leadership, the vision forms the higher purpose that is to be served by all the teams. The purpose statement for each team is the point of alignment for the teams. You could say it’s their own specific vision but they will all contribute to the realisation of the full vision, the higher purpose.
To ensure that God is the builder of the house upon which we work, and thus our labours are not in vain, the vision needs to be built on sound foundations.
The way we stay in touch with God’s plans and purposes is through prayer. As the need is determined, the vision formulated and the approach developed we must remain in tune with God through listening prayer so that we might follow his directions.
God has given us minds to use but to use them well we need to be wise. That wisdom needs to be of God and not of the world. We were reminded earlier, that through James (Chapter 1), God promises to give wisdom to those who ask, provided we operate in faith.
Underlying everything we do as Christians are the principles that God has set out in the Bible. All we think and plan needs to pass the test of conformance with God’s Word. Are we living out Biblical principles with Christ’s servant heart?
Big “R” Realities
Earlier we saw the difference between two realities. The small “r” reality in which we live and the Big “R” reality of our sovereign God. As we serve God in the small “r” reality of this world we are to keep in mind God’s big “R” reality power. It’s this that underpins faith and enables us to work towards things that otherwise seem unachievable in human terms.
The end does not justify the means.
In some situations teams, especially those whose members are not necessarily diverse in nature, can fall into a disastrous trap. They feel that they are called by God to the task or perhaps that some great injustice is to be made right. This can lead to the wrong belief that the end is so vitally important that it justifies any and every means of achieving it, even the unholy ones which bring God in to disrepute. If that happens our work will be in vain.
Teams need to monitor themselves against Biblical principles and avoid justifying unrighteous and sinful practices.
As we have just observed a team’s reason for existence, its purpose, is it is vision. In Leading Teams with a Servant Heart we discussed the fact that team members need to own the purpose of the team. It needs to be their purpose and this only happens when they are fully committed to it.
We recognised that the best way to achieve this ownership was to engage the team members in the formulation of their common purpose, their shared vision.
We saw that even where the purpose was delegated it was best to have the team at least refine its wording. This promotes oenership by the team.
An existing team has head start as some of the hurdles to adopting the vision have already been addressed. The team, if it’s aspiring to be a high performance team in a Christ-centred servant leadership environment, will already have ideals, passions and convictions which are in common. They already know how to develop ideas together. Therefore, the leader can start with a less complete expression of the vision, perhaps only the problem statement. The team as a whole then formulates the vision.
Where the purpose is delegated it may only represent one step in the realisation of the vision and not the whole vision. Other teams are asked to address different aspects of the challenge. If this is the case each team still needs to be inspired by the whole vision, it becomes their collective higher purpose.
Consider again for a moment VirginGalactic’s vison of making space accessible to all. The realisation of that vision requires many things to happen. There needs to be investors, someone must design and build the spacecraft, someone else must attend to the launch aeroplane. Another team must run the company, another market the excursion into space and so on. There are many things required to fulfil the vision. Each team has its own purpose, its specific local vision. But every team has the same grand vision towards which they are working. When the first tourist goes into space in the VirginGalactic craft everyone will have contributed to the fulfilment of the vision to make space accessible. It needs multiple teams each with an individual purpose but one vision; unified by a shared higher purpose.
Where there is no team to start with people will need to be inspired to join the cause and form the team. This means that the vison must inspire them to join the team, even if the plan is to have them develop the final formulation of that vision.
When the team is established and working towards realising the vision, it’s likely that other people will need to become involved as it works out into practical reality. Many of these people will also need to be inspired by the vision.
Inspiring others mans that we must share the vision. Here are some tips to help with this process:
Convey the vision with clarity
The vision needs to provide a clear image of the desired future and the improvement that can be achieved. The recipients need to see it in their mind’s eye. A key step in achieving this is to write down the vision and have trusted people review it. Refine it until it is crystal clear. Your aim is that others will grasp this crystal clear vision and be able to imagine the benefit, the gain, the improvement that can be achieved.
A clear vision will guide and empower others to make decisions without the need to always refer back for confirmation.
The opposite of clarity is confusion. No one will sign up to a confused vision and it will impeded progress in implementing the vision.
Convey the rallying point for shared convictions
Share the underlying reasons for the vision, the heart that is behind it. These that will resonate with people of a similar convictions and will perhaps capture the imagination of others too. From these will emerge the people who desire to bring the vision into being. They will rally to the cause; to be the team members and the supporters who come along side to help.
Don’t be afraid to reveal your emotions because conviction leads to not just action but an emotional response too. Emotion conveyed by speaking from the heart demonstrates authenticity, that is “it really matters to me”. People look for authenticity in a leader. When we looked at Leadership myths and realities in Reflections on Leadership we also saw that the idea that leaders were rational and unemotional was a myth. The best leaders also interact with their people at an emotional level.
Convey concrete ideas
A vision is concrete when people can see that it is real and substantial. It’s not left in the realm of fancy but is feasible and achievable and the gain is worth the effort and the pain that may be involved it bringing into being.
This means that the vision needs to have been sufficiently thought through. Answers need to be worked out for key questions. The first stage of realising a vision may be a feasibility study to work out the details, so all the questions don’t need to be answered in the first instance, but a plan for getting the answers is required.
The goal is to enable others to grasp the substance of the vision and the fact that it could be made into a reality. Therefore, don’t over spiritualise the vision but equally don’t be afraid of using symbolic language, stories and analogies to convey the essential ideas. Build the vision in the listener’s imagination.
Convey the vision concisely
When we looked at Professor Wiio’s laws of communication in the last lesson – Communications: a Core Competence for Servant Leaders – we learned that “the more we communicate the worse our communication fails”. If we are long winded and digress we will lose people and we provide more opportunities for our communication to fail to achieve our objectives. So in this case, less really is more.
We need to be concise about what we say. This does not necessarily mean being overly brief because brevity focuses on time and not content. If we are too brief we will leave important things unsaid. The Oxford English dictionary describes concise as “giving a lot of information clearly and in a few words; brief but comprehensive”. Dr John Kotter of the Harvard Business School suggests that if you need more than 5 minutes to convey the essence of the vision then it’s too complicated it needs to be refined. Why 5 minutes? You have to convey understanding to the listener and the more we say the less likely we are to achieve that goal. Refer to Professor Wiio’s laws of communication.
You will have to go into detail at some point, just as Nehemiah did, but you don’t have to share it all at once because it will confuse. You can always take questions or have a follow up meeting with people who show interest.
Convey a compelling vision
We are not simply seeking to engage people’s heads in the vison but their hearts too. We are seeking to inspire people to embark on the journey and this requires both conviction and commitment. It is a heart driven commitment and conviction that will generate the energy needed to complete the task, especially when the going gets tough. In English we have a saying “When the going gets tough the tough get going.” It’s a good saying but I am not certain it’s true. When it gets tough it’s the people who have the heart commitment to the cause that will get going and keep going. If their heart is not in it, then even the tough will fall by the wayside.
The vision needs to be compelling enough for others to catch it, own it and enthuse about it.
Confirming God’s call through his provision
This comes last in the list, not because it’s the least important factor in envisioning others but, because it’s the foundation of the process in Kingdom work
God promises to exercise his grace and provide all that we need to do his work.
And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.
2 Corinthians 9:8
Although written in the context of the Corinthian’s collection for the Christians in Judea this is a much more general promise than just about money. God will provide “all sufficiency in all things” in order that his people “may abound in every good work”. This not only refers to money but people too, and indeed anything else we may need to complete his work.
Besides seeking to be faithful and obedient to God this is a primary reason for seeking to be in line with God’s will. If we are not, we will have to provide and it becomes hard labour carried out in vain (Ps 127:1)
A good example is when God shared his vision of the Tabernacle with Moses and instructed him to build it, he also provided the skilled workmen who had the ability to turn the vision into the practical reality.
The LORD said to Moses, “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.
God specifically provided Bezalel and Oholiab, to lead and direct, and all the craftsmen that were necessary. (Exodus 31). As we shall see later he also provide the gold, silver and jewels that would be needed for the Tabernacle (Exodus 12:33)
Therefore, when it comes to enlisting others in the vision we need to turn to the Lord to seek his provision of people. He may choose to make the connection directly, but he may choose to do it through our telling out the vision. So we must both pray and talk when we seek to envision others in a Kingdom work.
Seeking God’s provision is vitally important as it is one of the ways that we keep in line with Psalm 127:1 and allow God to build the house so our labours are not in vain. If God does not provide the resources he is not building it. If he is not building the building we should not be labouring on it. God’s provision demonstrates that it is his work.
In the next topics we will look at the strategies available to bring about change.
Achieving the outcome of the vision requires practical action. This means that the more general statements of the vision need to be broken down into the activities that will bring about the desired goals. This may mean identifying the need for a number of teams and determining their specific purposes.
How to achieve some of these steps may be obvious and easy, others may be more problematic. In the next lesson The Servant Leaders Guide to Creative Solutions we will look at approaches that can be taken to devise novel, innovative and practical solutions to challenges of all kinds.
A programme of work of some kind will also be required to bring the vision to reality. We won’t look further at this in Growing the Servant Heart but recommend that you refer to a Claybury International’s eBook “Project Management for Christian Leaders” which you can download free of charge via the following link http://christian-leadership.org/downloads-2/
Take a Moment
- Building a vision is not an everyday task.
- Review what we have been considering and develop your own “crib sheet” to remind you of the steps in the process.
- Discuss with your team the obstacles to achieving their purpose.
- Using your crib-sheet as a guide, engage with them to develop a vision focused on minimising the impact of those obstacles.
Take a Moment
- Take time to consider these two questions:
- Has God been speaking to you about a need?
- Is there a need or opportunity that you can see that could be addressed?
- Clarify the opportunity and consider the desired outcome and write it down.
- How can you move through the steps we have discussed.
- What’s your next step?