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F R O M H B R .O R G
Selected content from our website dictable results. The irrationality we see in the
1920s and again in the internet-crazed 1990s
demonstrates vision that is not grounded in
reality. Great business leaders need to walk a
fine line between capitalizing on the opportu-
nities that are ripe in their present context and
planning for a possible future state. Because
although context is very important for laying
the foundation for success, leaders are not
mere pawns. Leaders like Neuharth can and

The Importance
do shape the parameters for success through
their vision for a future. And, just as important,
they possess the ability to oversee that vision’s

of Vision

Anthony J. Mayo is the Thomas S. Murphy

Distinguished Research Fellow, a lecturer in the
by Tony Mayo organizational behavior unit, and the director
of the leadership initiative at Harvard Business
School. He is a coauthor, with Nitin Nohria, of

In Their Time: The Greatest Business Leaders
of the Twentieth Century (Harvard Business
Review Press, 2005).
When he launched USA Today nearly 30 years ago, Allen Neuharth, the
CEO of Gannett from 1973 to 1986, was derided by both Wall Street analysts
R e a d e r C omm e n t
and the newspaper establishment. Having built a very successful chain of
regional newspapers and having been named the newspaper-publishing Most observers and commentators argue
Chief Executive of the Year by the Wall Street Transcript in 1979, why would that leadership is a rare commodity because true
Neuharth want to start a national newspaper—a bold and seemingly foolish leaders possess unusual characteristics that
risk? Who would buy “bite-size” news? The answer today is clear—millions are innate and present in a only small fraction
would buy it and continue to buy it. But that was certainly not clear in of the population. Some even suggest that
1982 when the paper was launched. Neuharth saw a future for his family’s leadership arises through genetic mutation
newspaper empire that others could not see. He also saw a time-starved and that mankind’s default psychology is
consumer base that was thirsty for news in manageable chunks. Capitalizing to follow.
on his regional network of newspaper organizations, Neuharth created an The opposing view is that leadership may
elaborate logistical process to produce and deliver a national newspaper require innate components but they’re insuf-
to supplement, not replace, regional carriers. What was it about Neuharth ficient, and leadership attributes are developed
that enabled him to see the vast possibilities of a national newspaper? He mainly through experience.
clearly possessed a vision of what could be; and, more important, the ability Could it be argued that many of the business
to make it a reality. leaders you identify are more appropriately
The ability to visualize and articulate the possible future state of an orga- classified as competent managers, since they
nization or company has always been a vital component of successful leader- practice systematic control through the formu-
ship. And when initially describing someone as a “great business leader,” the lation of structure and rules?
knee-jerk reaction is often to cite something about his or her strategic ability My position is that true leaders tend to be
or vision. We often hear stories of exalted CEOs and their strategic prowess. individuals who behave in a radically different
The downfall of many a failed CEO has also been attributed to his or her lack manner than successful managers—often in
of vision. And in many cases, with 20/20 hindsight, it is easy to understand counterintuitive ways.
and sympathize with a leader’s vision. In the heat of the moment, however, –Anthony Holmes, Chairman, British Consulting
it is not so easy. Neuharth’s vision of a national newspaper seems very plau-
sible today, but that was far from the reality of 1982. Mayo responds: In our analysis of 1,000 busi-
Nitin Nohria and I found, through our research for In Their Time, that ness leaders in the 20th century, we found that
vision can be both directly affected by and conceived through the context of there were indeed many classic managers—
the times. Vision divorced from context can produce very erratic and unpre- individuals who focused on efficiency, stan-

8 Harvard Business Review OnPoint | Winter 2010 |

dardization, and processes to either Could the next decade be the decade
sustain a position of dominance within of vision building? If so, we will witness
an industry or to maximize the growth a significant shift in the way we think
potential of a company. Though these about innovation, creativity, and leader-
individuals focused on more process- ship. Popular studies of creativity have
related tasks, their focus was appropriate equated it with the fast generation of
for the life cycle stage of their company numerous ideas (the more, the better);
or industry. Their vision for the business in contrast, visionary leadership requires
may not have been radical, but it was a relentless exploration of one direction
appropriately aligned with the context of (the deeper and more robust, the better).
the situation. To me, that alignment is a Idea generation values a neophyte per-
sign of a great business leader. spective; vision building is based on re-
search and deep understanding. To gen-
erate fresh ideas, we have been told to
think outside of the box and then jump
back in; vision building destroys the box

Having Ideas and builds a new one. It does not play

with the existing paradigms; it changes

Versus Having them. Studies of idea generation have

lingered on variety and divergence, but

a Vision vision building is based on convergence,

on bringing others onboard. Ideas are blank for
by Roberto Verganti culturally neutral as long as they help
solve problems; visions are intrinsically 1/3-page
In the past decade, firms have ideological and biased toward a clear
been praised for ideas. Experts have cel- aspiration of how the world should be: vertical ad
ebrated the power of brainstorming and They strongly reflect the personal culture
idea-generation techniques. Eureka light of the thinker.
bulbs have populated the covers of many I’m certainly not questioning the es-
books. Businessmen have been asked to sential value of ideas. They still ignite
improve their creative attitudes. And the innovation process. Tossing around
2009 was named the Year of Creativity a large number of ideas is still impor- page # 9
and Innovation by the European Union. tant, especially for incremental improve-
One consequence of a decade focused ments. It is not one or the other. It is
on idea generation is that ideas are now
more easily accessible, which has also
made idea generation less of a differen-
tiator in competition than it has tradi- Vision building
tionally been. When more than 30% of
the population belongs to the creative is based on
class, as Richard Florida suggested in
his 2002 book The Rise of the Creative
Class, ideas are not in short supply. And
with the diffusion of open innovation
on bringing others
processes, ideas competitions, and the onboard.
like, executives are increasingly exposed
to a wealth of ideas.
What is in short supply, I’m afraid,
are visionary thinkers who are capable a shift in the most rare and precious
of making sense of this abundance of asset that will drive competitive advan-
stimuli—visionaries who will build the tage: vision. It’s time for thought leaders
arenas to unleash the power of ideas to move beyond Post-its and embrace
and transform them into actions. a more advanced form of creativity. A
R .O
.O R

radical form of think-action that some- out), and since corporate life is usually glasses. But Dr. Kassalow also realized
what resembles that of researchers and about getting along with everyone else that if a member of a community had
entrepreneurs fighting to implement and subjugating yourself to the boss the right tools and skills as well as ac-
their vision. above you, having a company with lots cess to inexpensive glasses in a range of
of visionaries would be socially messy in standard prescriptions, he or she could
Roberto Verganti is a professor of in- the absence of leaders who are capable become that community’s optometrist.
novation management at the Polytechnic of managing the inevitable chaos. That’s a classic win-win: motivated
University of Milan, a visiting professor at Orchestral composer-conductors are workers gain access to a promising en-
the Copenhagen Business School in Den- good examples of people who are highly trepreneurial opportunity (paying twice
mark, and the founder of the consulting visionary, capable leaders of opinionated the wages of typical local jobs), and
institute Project Science. He is the author people. The structure is set up so that their customers get inexpensive, yet
of Design-Driven Innovation: Changing the conductor is in charge and everyone potentially life-transforming eyeglasses.
the Rules of Competition by Radically knows it. And if the conductor fails, the Dr. Kassalow saw the problem, under-
Innovating What Things Mean (Har- concert master (the first violinist) can stood the context, and connected the
vard Business Review Press, 2009). lead instead. dots. He founded the Scojo Foundation,
–Neil Uchitel, Creative Director, now called VisionSpring; its mission is
Slappo Music and Sound Design to “reduce poverty and generate oppor-
R e a d e r C omm e n t s
tunity in the developing world through
although “What is in short sup- the sale of affordable eyeglasses.”
ply, I’m afraid, are visionary thinkers” With seed capital from George Soros’s
is certainly the correct answer on a Open Society Institute, VisionSpring
multiple-choice test, the everyday busi-
ness reality is not the short supply of
Vision(ary) launched a pilot program in India. Ad-
ditional support came from a high-end
visionary thinkers. Rather, I have found
that managers at all levels consistently
Entrepreneur reading glasses company that Kassalow
and his business partner, Scott Bernie,
reject ideas offered to them. by Christopher Gergen started, which donated 5% of its pre-tax
Of course, some managers (us, right?)
and Gregg Vanourek profits to the endeavor. As the for-profit
solicit and accept good ideas, no matter organization grew, so did the nonprofit.
their origin, but my personal experience Here’s the basic formula for en- Today, VisionSpring operates in 13
is that it is a complete waste of time to trepreneurship: Understand a problem, countries and has trained over 1,200 “vi-
offer ideas to managers. Most ignore grasp its full context, connect previously sion entrepreneurs” who have in turn
you, and others spend their intellectual unconnected dots, and have the vision, sold over 100,000 pairs of glasses in com-
capital devising reasons why new ideas courage, resourcefulness, and persistence munities with an average daily income
won’t work, won’t fit here, and so on. to see the solution through to fruition. between $1 and $4. In 2007, the group
Over the very long term, good ideas also committed to tripling its impact in
will triumph. Sadly, due to hubris, most Case in Point... three years as part of the Clinton Global
managers won’t assist in the transition. Today, over 400 million people world­ Initiative. But how?
–Daniel J. O’Shea wide live in poverty. Most depend on the One of Kassalow’s strategies for
use of their hands and their eyesight to growth involves an innovative franchise
Businesses need to learn how artists, provide for themselves and their families. operation in which more than 30 non-
composers, improvisational musicians, As they age, nearsightedness threatens governmental partners are plugging
and filmmakers think. Though not every their livelihoods. For more than 40% of the Vision Entrepreneur program into
one of them always has the best ideas, these people, a pair of over-the-counter their existing economic development
they are extremely practiced at creating glasses sold in any Western drugstore activities, reducing VisionSpring’s need
and implementing visions, more so than would substantially increase their produc­­ to build out costly infrastructure.
most other professions and disciplines. tivity and quality of life. But many people VisionSpring also launched a five-
They engage daily in leaps of logic that don’t have access to these eyeglasses. year, $5 million initiative to build a fully
most people in the business world During dozens of medical missions to sustainable enterprise, dramatically re-
are uncomfortable with because they the developing world, Dr. Jordan Kassa- ducing its ongoing fund-raising burdens.
involve great risk. Also, vision building is low, a practicing optometrist and public (Incidentally, this strategy is becoming
socially very messy. People with vision health expert, saw the problem firsthand. increasingly popular among rapidly
are usually very opinionated (and not It was obvious that scores of nearsighted scaling social enterprises such as College
always practiced at hearing other people people languishing in poverty needed Summit.)

10 Harvard Business Review OnPoint | Winter 2010 |

In retrospect, it all seems so obvious Keep in mind that vision is different
and elegantly simple. If one man armed from purpose (a.k.a. “mission”) and goals.
only with eyeglasses and an innovative Our purpose is our reason for being, and
plan can change so many lives, what other we should think of it as timeless. Our
exciting opportunities are out there— goals are the objectives we want to ac-
and who’s next? complish, and they are best conceived in
one- to three-year increments. By con-
trast, vision is a vivid description of what
we will do with our lives. It’s best thought
of over a decade, or even a lifetime. Our

What’s Your life vision should take our breath away

with its audacity. It should roar with pas-

Vision of the sion and set markers for what we plan to

do with our days on the planet.

Good Life? As we craft a vision for our lives, we

should ensure that it is
by Christopher Gergen ■ ■ vivid enough to capture our (and

and Gregg Vanourek others’) imagination,

■ ■ unbounded by the status quo,

While world-class organizations ■ ■ aligned with our authentic essence,

craft banner vision statements to in- ■ ■ distant enough that we have to work

spire their efforts toward success, most toward it, blank for
people haven’t thought to do so for ■ ■ clear enough that we can measure

themselves. As we watch the Olympic our progress against it, and 1/3-page
Games in Beijing, we are reminded in ■ ■ broad enough to encompass all the

interview after interview with champion major aspects of our lives (includ- vertical ad
athletes about the importance of envi- ing personal, professional, and
sioning their success, of visualizing their relationships).
performance flowing perfectly, leading Note, though, that a good vision will
to the medal ceremony and their dreams evolve over time. Having a vision can
coming true. Aristotle observed that “the be a catalyzing force in our lives, but we
soul never thinks without a picture.” page # 11
Creating a compelling vision for our
lives—one that includes not just a vision
of our professional accomplishments
but also a vision of family life, educa- What do I want
tion, health, community engagements,
travel, and adventures—can point us to be, do, and
in new directions and provide the drive
we need to get there. A personal vision
contribute in
statement asks: What do I want to be,
do, and contribute in life—and who do I
life—and who
want to share it with? do I want to share
Some people struggle with the no-
tion of having a vision of the good life it with?
because it sounds abstract and distant.
Fortunately, authors Richard Leider and
David Shapiro have come to the rescue
with an elegantly simple definition of shouldn’t expect that we will travel a
the good life in their book, Repacking linear path from point A to point B to
Your Bags: “Living in the place you be- realize it. Sometimes “stuff” happens.
long, with the people you love, doing the Most important, our vision needs
right work, on purpose.” to be grounded in who we are. Many
F R O M H B R .O R G

people stumble here, neglecting to look When Juana sat down, one of her close revise it to ensure that it’s both really
inward before projecting outward. Carl colleagues said, “I’ve known you so long, true and truly inspiring. Think about
Jung said, “Your vision will become clear yet I never knew about this part of who the impact of your doing so on yourself
only when you look into your heart. you are. Wow!” I couldn’t help but ask and the important people in your life.
Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks Juana how I could support her pursuit
inside, awakens.” In essence, our vision of her vision. All of us were moved and Take It Further
statement is an authentic rendering of felt inclined to contribute. Ask your colleagues at work to do the
how our purpose and values can play The time flew as one speaker followed same and then share your personal
out in the world. another in this exercise undertaken by leadership visions among yourselves.
So, as you watch the Olympic athletes my students and clients to help them act You’ll likely find that trust builds as
put their dreams on the line, what’s stop- with authenticity by clarifying what’s you become more aware of what really
ping you from crafting your own vision important as a leader in all parts of life.
of the good life—and going for it with A useful personal leadership vision—
unbounded courage and abandon? one that focuses action, provides direc-
tion, and inspires your stakeholders to Telling others
Christopher Gergen and Gregg
Vanourek are founding partners of New
move in a direction you choose—is a
compelling image of an achievable fu-
a one-minute
Mountain Ventures, an entrepreneurial
leadership development company, and
ture. In my book and in a previous post
I detailed how you can develop your
version of
coauthors of Life Entrepreneurs: Ordi-
nary People Creating Extraordinary
own personal leadership vision. Telling
others a one-minute version of it is a
your vision is a
Lives (Jossey-Bass, 2008). powerful tool for unearthing your real powerful tool for
passions and thereby increasing your ca-
pacity as a leader. unearthing your
After hearing a set of examples, I then
ask the whole group to describe what real passions.
The Most was inspiring in what was just said and
heard. Invariably, it is the people who

Compelling speak not about their own achievement

but, rather, about how they’re help-
drives each other, and you’ll be better
equipped to capitalize on a critical, of-

Leadership ing someone else, who draw the most

powerful emotional responses and pro-
ten overlooked, aspect of diversity: the
remarkable variety that exists in the as-

Vision nounced support.

Having heard many personal vision
pirations of the people around you. 

by Stew Friedman statements in the last few days, in dif- Stewart D. Friedman is a practice pro-
ferent groups (including, through an fessor of management at the University of
A distinguished woman rose to interpreter, securities industry execu- Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Man-
speak in front of a room of 40 fellow tives visiting the Wharton School from agement, a former head of Ford Motor’s
employees during a Total Leadership China), I was struck, once again, by the Leadership Development Center, and the
workshop I was conducting earlier this power of this very simple, yet critically author of Total Leadership: Be a Better
week at a large pharmaceutical compa- important idea: Serve others and oth- Leader, Have a Richer Life (Harvard
ny’s headquarters. ers will want to serve you. This paradox Business Review Press, 2008).
“Joyous laughter—this is the sound is often difficult to grasp, especially in your
I hear throughout the home I have early years. Yet is seems to be a universal
R e a d e r C omm e n t
built and now maintain for mentally truth: People are more likely to pay at-
ill women in Puerto Rico. They are sur- tention to you—and they are more in- It is said that people don’t care how
rounded by people who love and care for clined to help you—when you declare much you know until they know how
them. They are enjoying life.” yourself committed to serving others. much you care. Experience has shown
Juana, let’s call her, was telling the me that you can achieve a lot more at
one-minute story of her personal lead- Try It Now work and in life by genuinely focusing on
ership vision; a description of the im- To grow as a leader you must have a per- other people and helping them succeed
pact she’s having on her world and the sonal leadership vision. Compose a draft both at work and in their relationships.
legacy she’s creating 15 years from now. of yours, practice telling it to others, and –Oforkansi Oti

12 Harvard Business Review OnPoint | Winter 2010 |