If You Want to Lead, Start With a Vision

Working toward a clearly defined one creates educational opportunities that benefit your students and your institution, writes Cheryl Norton.

October 22, 2019
 
 
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Every successful leadership position -- regardless of whether it’s a department chair, director, dean, vice president or president -- requires the leader to articulate an organizational vision. While that may seem obvious, the failure of leaders to identify, communicate or strategically define a vision can result in organizational stagnation and institutional confusion. In contrast, working toward a clearly defined vision can create educational opportunities that not only benefit students but can also give the institution a leadership position in higher education.

Ann Murphy recognized that in 2011 when she became dean of the College of Business at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Her vision for the college was to become the business school of choice for students and employers. To achieve that goal, she focused on three important initiatives that raised the profile of the college in the Denver area. The first was achieving accreditation by AACSB, the international accrediting agency for schools of business. Only a small percent of business programs globally have attained it, so the accreditation recognized and promoted the college’s educational quality. Her other two initiatives focused on the development of the college’s first two graduate programs: professional accountancy and business administration. Their success set the college firmly on a path to becoming a top choice among potential students.

As you develop your organizational vision, you too will be developing a path toward future success. I offer the following thoughts as guidance.

The opportunity to lead is a privilege, not a personal entitlement. A leader’s vision should never reflect a personal agenda but rather address the institution’s collective needs. The most effective higher education leader identifies as a servant leader, someone who believes that leadership is never about elevating themselves but who instead works to promote others and the institution. How will your vision advance the organization you serve?

Never be afraid to march to the beat of a drum that differs from your colleagues, but always know why you are deliberately marching out of step. When Alice, in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, came to a fork in the road, she found the Cheshire cat sitting in a tree and asked, “Which road do I take?” The Cheshire cat replied, “Where do you want to go?” Alice responded, “I don’t know.” And the Cheshire cat said, “Then it doesn’t matter.”

As a leader, it does matter! Your vision must have a purpose -- a direction and a goal that guides the institution into the future. Know what you are working to achieve and develop a plan to get there. Keeping that focus in mind will allow you to make choices that support your vision and reject those projects that are out of sync with it. In essence, your vision will give you the criteria upon which to make decisions about the actions needed.

You should develop a vision that doesn’t just sound good but also identifies the right road to travel. Does your vision allow you to choose among options, or is it so broad that any action will fit?

Recognize that the higher the aim, the more support you’ll need to be successful. It is said that if you shoot for the moon and miss, you will end up in the stars. Don’t underestimate what is possible. Just because a goal has not been achieved does not mean it can’t be done.

That said, the correct planning, resource allocation and assistance will be essential. Certainly, President John Kennedy believed that when he challenged the country to land a man on the moon. The key to the lunar landing success was the support of the country embracing this vision. In a similar manner, lofty organizational visions require institutional support and teamwork.

The keys to developing this support require you to communicate clearly, justify your objectives and create a transparent process for implementing your vision. Without those things, you’ll have to depend on your colleagues to blindly follow you rather than work collaboratively toward a common purpose.

Do you have the necessary support to make your vision a reality? And, if not, how can you better articulate the value of this vision for everyone involved?

Make your vision practical, possible and sustainable. While aspirational goals are often admired, they may not be consistent with your priorities for the institution. If you put your effort into a vision with goals that are measurable and create a solid foundation upon which to build, it will hopefully result in sustainable and continuous institutional progress. In this era of financial shortages, available resources cannot be wasted on glamour projects: those that draw attention but are short-lived and fail to stimulate further institutional advances. In addition, visions that place an unrealistic resource burden on the institution can often compromise more promising activities.

Remember, you are building for the future. Consequently, any vision should support the development of the institution’s identity and long-term brand. Initiatives that constantly change or are not consistent with the institution’s purpose can confuse constituents. In fact, that is often why leaders lose the trust and support of their followers.

Does your vision reflect the institution’s purpose, and is it sustainable? Can you support this focus as a persistent institutional direction, not just a short-lived interest?

Challenge yourself with the question “Why not?” Do so even if it means being the first to follow a new direction. We often avoid progress by worrying that it has never been done before. That argument is presented as if the past should define the future.

The real question should be why hasn’t a goal previously been achieved, especially if this direction follows the mission of the institution, the strengths of the department or the interests of the faculty and staff members. But being first is only important if the answer to “Why not?” is more compelling than the answer to “Why now?”

Asking such questions can open our minds to the possibilities that exist, while challenging our assumptions of what our boundaries are or should be. Otherwise, we often constrain ourselves with choosing the same ideas, activities and goals, which means we end up in the same place. Innovation occurs because we are willing to apply new solutions to current problems or embrace new opportunities.

I give this advice, however, with a word of caution. Unless you have a plan for where you want to go, don’t change your focus simply to be the first. Being the first to jump off a bridge into the unknown may not be advantageous to the institution, while being the first to build bridges to address issues in a new and unusual way may open up a future of possibilities. Is your vision restricted by what has been done before or by barriers that no longer exist?

You can’t create a vision that addresses everyone’s concerns and needs, so don’t try! Your organizational vision should advance your department, unit or institution. It should also give your colleagues an opportunity to grow professionally in support of the institution’s progress. To be fully embraced, a successful vision must have a broad-based focus that is possible, target what is needed and prioritize what is important for everyone. Then your role as a leader is not only to collaboratively develop and articulate that vision but also to implement it. Using a servant-leader model, your focus should be to inspire your colleagues to achieve their success by acting in ways that complement and support the vision.

Ultimately, that will be your most important responsibility as a leader. Strong institutional visions encourage people to contribute their best expertise and skills to advance it. As General Colin Powell has stated, “Organization doesn’t really accomplish anything. Plans don’t accomplish anything, either. Theories of management don’t much matter. Endeavors succeed or fail because of the people involved. Only by attracting the best people will you accomplish great deeds.”

In summary, to lead, start with a vision. Make it about the institution, not yourself. March to a beat that’s consistent with the needs of the organization. Aim high, but provide a vision that is practical, possible and establishes a solid foundation upon which to build. Never be afraid to ask “Why not?” Finally, inspire the best professionals to follow your vision. Then move forward and lead.

Bio

Cheryl Norton is the former president of Slippery Rock University and Southern Connecticut State University.

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