The Creeping Cult of the Corporate Vision – How to Avoid the Pitfalls

Anyone who works in the corporate world, or a smaller organisation with managers who have been on leadership courses, will be aware of the cult of The Vision. The guiding light to which our great leaders will lead us and behind which we must unite with all our hearts. For those of you who haven’t been exposed to this phenomenon, this post could give you an insight into what you’re missing.

2016 saw the announcement of Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s $3 billion vision to cure all disease by the end of the century. Scratch below the surface and the initiative is actually a plan to enable funding of more risky research projects in a world where progress can be slowed or skewed by the difficulty of getting backing for projects where success is uncertain. Is this vision attainable? In my (fairly educated in this sector) opinion, absolutely not.

To be fair, in this case the extraordinary vision attached to the initiative was likely designed for publicity as much as inspiration and who am I to question such successful people trying to make such a huge difference.

The phenomenon of the inflated corporate vision and the creep of vision setting in teams great and small is worth some critical thought though.

A vision statement is supposed to describe what the company or team wants to achieve in the future; where it wants to be. It should be motivating, differentiating, give direction that can guide strategy and give a hint at the values of the organisation from which employee competencies can be derived. I’m not going to argue that most organisations don’t need a well thought through vision; they can be the difference between a good and a great organisation.

I’d say that Oxfam’s vision statement is a good and fitting vision: A just world without poverty

However, somehow in the not too distant past the cult of the vision started to spread. No longer the preserve of the organisation founder planting the strategic stake for the company to grow around; the vision has spread to business units and teams within business units and they have become inflated in the race for leaders and organisations to appear visionary and create a legacy.

I have been subject to several misplaced or poorly conceived visions which have failed for one or more of the following reasons:

  • Unrealistic – “We will make jellied eels the most popular food in the world” It’s simply not going to happen.
  • Self indulgent – I’ve seen visions which reflect the interests of the leaders who set them but mean absolutely nothing the the team they are trying to lead.
  • Vision by committee – wordy visions created by more several people that involve so much compromise and reliance on business speak that they are unintelligible.
  • Just not required – this is the error that I find the most pervasive at the moment; not all teams need a vision. If the overall organisation has a vision, that might be all that is needed. A sub-team of five in the IT department probably doesn’t need its own vision.

The next rungs down the strategic ladder from the vision are the mission and goals – things we can tangibly achieve on our way to a vision; more prosaic, measurable, achievable in our lifetimes. For a lot of teams this is at most what is needed, along with some values/behaviours to guide how people should work together.

Having the wrong vision or trying to force a contrived vision onto a team where it just isn’t appropriate can be damaging. The team will lose respect for the leader and lose sight of the real purpose of the organisation. I have seen this happen.

Where did this cult originate? Leadership and management consultants have been peddling the cult of the vision like snake oil merchants. They encourage all leaders to have a vision for their teams and facilitate team based (i.e. expensive) visioning workshops. As with most laws of business, the basis of this isn’t well researched but being visionary appeals to most ambitious leaders who want to be the next Zuckerberg, Musk or Jobs.

Don’t believe all you are told by the leadership coaches. To be a real leader you need to be critical and make the right decisions for your team or your organisation.

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