Written by Bevin Theodore

Anyone can be a leader. All it takes is a passion for extraordinary results. But deciding to be an exemplary leader is only the first step to becoming one. So how will YOU do it? In “The Leadership Challenge,” James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner outline the characteristics and frequent behaviors of strong leaders. Presented as The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership, the actions provide a road map to help leaders build trust, engage their teams and achieve shared success. This blog, the second in a five-part series, focuses on the practice “Inspire a Shared Vision.”  The first practice, Model the Way is part of this series.

If you want employees and co-workers who are engaged and energized about their work, they must understand how what they are doing fits into the bigger picture.

Have you ever listened to someone talk about a dream for the future and get so caught up in the story that you felt compelled to share that passion with others and find ways to get involved? Maybe it was a story that illustrated a need for a person or a community, and you realized you could volunteer your time, talent or treasure to improve the situation for others. This is how positive change and amazing accomplishments occur, when people come together, united by a common cause, for the greater good. But it does not just apply to being a good steward in the community, embracing a political cause or setting out to save the world in a grand way. This feeling of unity, inspired by a shared vision, is what companies need to grow and thrive.  Leaders who inspire a shared vision engage others around them.

Think about how you talk to your team. You are already Modeling the Way for them with your daily actions and demonstrating integrity and a desire to see them grow. But do you take that to the next level and ensure they understand how the work they are asked to do each day fits into the bigger puzzle of the organization? It begins with sharing that exciting dream for the future. Where do you want to see the company or in your department in a year or a decade? And what do you need from every single person on your team to make that vision a reality? Be specific about short- and long-term goals and how each person fits into the picture. When you paint an image of what you can accomplish if everyone works together, you are showing your employees or coworkers that they matter, that their work has meaning and that you are all in this together. Involving them in this common vision increases commitment and gives a higher purpose to work that might otherwise seem like a series of unrelated tasks.

For many years, I have volunteered with the United Way. Though I have been involved in a variety of ways, the most meaningful for me was the time I spent at a local Community School. The school is large and contends with a high rate of poverty, transiency, and truancy, in addition to typical budget and space concerns. The staff realizes that the school day provides stability and safety that many of the students lack in their personal lives. The school is also designed as a community hub, where families can access a variety of resources in addition to education for their children. What struck me most about the school was how everyone from the principal to the teachers to the United Way liaisons shares a vision of seeing those students succeed. They work tirelessly to increase reading and math skills, to ensure students are on track to move to the next grade, to nurture and champion successes. These kids will not fail because there is an entire community rallying behind them, sending the message that they are the reason so many people go to work each day. And having that shared vision not only keeps the students on track, it ensures everyone who works in that school or supports it in some way operates with the same level of integrity.

To be a leader is to be a visionary, someone who can look beyond what is and imagine what could be. You need to share that vision in a clear, attention-grabbing way. Essentially, why should your employees or co-workers care? To answer this, you need to know what matters to them. Get them involved in devising a vision for your team to show them why a common purpose will beget better results, whether it is increased sales, a new prototype or greater outside awareness of your product or mission. Feeling involved in big decisions will strengthen everyone’s voice, bolster team morale and increase productivity.

Inspiring this clear shared vision begins with listening rather than talking. Take time to actively listen to those around you to determine what matters to them. What do they hope to accomplish, both at work and in their personal lives? How do they live out the organization’s mission? Sure, people go to work to collect a paycheck, but they could do that anywhere. You must find out what compels them to continue working at this organization. Understanding their motivation leads to getting everyone focused on the same mission and goals. Once you have listened to your employees, share with them what you envision. Provide as many details as you can about your plan since people will be more inclined to embrace your vision if they feel informed and involved and can see a clear road ahead. Discuss future trends that might influence how the work gets done, and take a moment to look back before you move forward to avoid repeating mistakes or wasting time. Think about whether your vision appeals to common ideals, yet goes beyond what others are already doing. Does it encourage people to think, feel or act differently? Does it answer “why”?

As a leader, it is your job to always ask what is next, strive for improvement or innovative ways of operating and share your vision with the people who can help you bring it to reality. You do not have to be an extrovert or particularly charismatic to encourage people to follow your lead and embrace your vision. You just need to be truly passionate about what you are sharing. Be vulnerable enough to share personal stories; stay positive, even when there are setbacks; celebrate unique ideas on your team and be mindful, setting aside to reflect and plan before you act. And always remember to enlist the help of others in making your vision a reality because no one succeeds alone.

Are you ready to inspire a shared vision?  Learn all 5 Practices of Exemplary Leadership and the supporting behaviors.  Join Northstar Women leaders for the first Leadership Challenge exclusively for women coming soon.  Or hold a workshop at your organization to teach your leaders The Leadership Challenge. Claim your seat at the table by contacting Julie McGee at 610-984-5637.