K&P leadership series: Inspiring a shared vision

Aug 31, 2021

This is the second article of our seven-part K&P leadership series. Missed the introductory article? Read it here.

What could be more rewarding than creating a strategic vision and leading a unified group into the future? The answer is walking with your group into a future that you designed together. That's what is possible when you “Inspire a Shared Vision,” which is one of the five behaviors in the Kouzes and Posner (K&P) Leadership Challenge.

All five K&P behaviors are important, but inspiring a shared vision is especially critical for leaders at the top of an organization. While executives who have “strategic planning” in their job description have the most to gain from learning how to inspire a shared vision, the lessons of this leadership behavior are also applicable to anyone who dreams of being an executive. After all, practice today hones your skills for that future role.

As an executive, your strategic planning skills helped you achieve your current position. However, personal vision is not enough to build a high-performing organization. You need followers who both understand the vision and are committed to helping you achieve it. Including your followers in creating that vision is key. Here are five steps to help you achieve that goal:

  1. Identify the people you want on your side. Listen and watch during meetings and problem solving sessions; the people you are looking for will emerge. They speak up while staying respectful of others' opinions. They give honest feedback about your ideas, and they provide their own professional and constructive comments. It's crucial to know who the team sees as its leader — the colleague the team will follow anywhere.
  2. Listen at the highest level possible. Filter what you hear into three categories: alignment with your personal vision, logical opposition to your plans, and the red-herrings that divert attention away from the strategic focus. Respectfully answer the red-herrings, and help the group move on. Focus your energy on the opposition, because it converts your personal vision into one that's shared. Identifying opposing critics early helps you minimize future barriers and problems. Team members who respectfully oppose your plans are your early warning system, and they are the future partners who help you reshape your vision into one with more followers and a better chance for sustainable success. However, at the same time, don't ignore those who have been aligned with you from the beginning. Nurture their involvement, because they will assure the reshaped plan doesn't discard your original vision's core meaning.
  3. Seek to understand your critics' intentions. Critics without a clear “why” are actually distractors. As the leader, you should strive to understand the purpose or cause behind their opposing voice. What is different about the world they see? What small change in your strategic direction might align their vision with yours, and ultimately, turn them into a follower? Find common ground and test your reshaped strategy again. Have the critics become followers, and are your original followers still on-board? Don't expect 100 percent alignment, but look for the boundaries that define what is inside and outside of the new vision. Your challenge is finding the right time to stop negotiating your strategic vision statement.
  4. Prepare to engage stakeholders. The people your strategic plan will affect and the partners you need to implement the plan are important stakeholders. Long before engaging them, you need to develop a clear message and communication plan that is easy to understand and captures hearts in the audience. People love enthusiastic leaders who paint an enticing picture about a better future. Use powerful language and descriptive stories to draw people to you and develop the connections you will need in the future.
  5. Commit to your purpose. This is the final step, because no matter how much you prepare and no matter how many followers advocate for you, you will always have to face the unexpected. For example, followers can lose faith and become roadblocks. Key employees can leave for different jobs and disrupt your team's stable environment. Or you could find yourself in a situation where everything is on track at work, but you have disruptors in your personal life. Whatever you face, you need to remain levelheaded and disciplined to stay committed to your dream.

Those are the five steps to help you inspire a shared vision with your team. And remember to always set the example for your team; your team will believe actions they see much more than words they hear. If you want the truth from others, you must be truthful yourself. If you want trust from your followers, you need to trust they are trying to help, and you must seek to understand their intentions. And if you want a successful, sustainable, and shared future vision, you need to include other voices and other possible futures that align with and support your strategic vision.

Be on the lookout for next article in the K&P series, which will address how to “Challenge the Process.”