Ian Wilson
Wolf Enterprises

What all our institutions—not just education, but corporations and governments—need today is leadership and vision. As a society, we have an abundance of management and a dearth of leadership. If we are to navigate successfully the shoals and rapids of the future, we must correct this imbalance. Why is this so critical? The need for leadership and vision increases in direct proportion to the degree of change we experience. Over the past forty years we have moved from a condition of relatively predictable, incremental change in the 1950s to a condition of largely uncertain, radical change in the 1990s. Educators, certainly, can document the extent of this tectonic shift in their landscape. Read any issue of On the Horizon to get a sense of the magnitude of the changes that technology, government policies, societal expectations, financial factors, and new forms of education are forcing on our schools and universities.

The point is that one can manage incremental change and its impact, but it takes leadership to deal with uncertainty and radical change. Think of it this way. The current turmoil confronting education is so pervasive that schools and universities have to rethink, quite radically, their roles, their structures, their curriculums, their strategies, and the roles and relationships of students, faculty, administration, and community. And this rethinking requires the vision, the ability to invent the future, the setting of new directions that we associate with leadership rather than the cool competence of management.

Management Is Not Leadership

Before going any further, I should perhaps clarify the distinction that I draw between leadership and management. One way of differentiating between these two attributes is to highlight the features that each tends to emphasize:

Direction setting (determination of “what will be”) Emphasis on handling “what is”
Vision and inspiration Control
Leadership of people Management of things (programs, resources, schedules, and so forth)
Effectiveness (“doing the right things”) Efficiency (“doing things right”)
Heterarchy (widely diffused authority and responsibility) Hierarchy (clearly defined chain of command)

Obviously, this distinction is overstated; leadership and management clearly share some features. But on balance each tilts in the direction that this table indicates. It is also true that any organization needs both leadership and management if it is to succeed. But my reason for highlighting leadership is twofold: it is in short supply, and it is now a critical element for organizational success.

In higher education in particular, there is a further reason why visionary leadership is now sorely needed. Not only does the external environment demand the setting of new directions, the internal culture requires the attributes of leadership to build consensus and motivate a commitment to action. This point was underscored in the Fifth Global Change Seminar that Jim Morrison and I conducted at St. Andrews University, Scotland, last year. In discussing how the corporate strategic management model needed to be adapted to education, participants noted, “Administrators do not have the line authority that their counterparts in corporations have,” and that in colleges and universities “emphasis is placed on communication and collegial actions.” Exactly so. This is a situation that calls for vision, inspiration, leadership of people, and heterarchy.

The Power of Vision

Strategic vision possesses real power in setting directions, motivating action, and guiding decisions. Strangely, many executives shy away from the use of vision, perhaps because they equate visionary with impractical, perhaps because they are uncomfortable with what they see as a “touchy-feely” exercise. My contention, however, is that vision is intensely practical, and that—while it should reflect our values and aspirations—it must also be built on facts. Vision is, in short, part emotional (the product of imagination, hunches, and values) and part rational (the product of analysis). It embraces the yin and the yang of strategy and performance.

I use the term vision (or strategic vision) in a very precise and detailed sense. Without this precision, vision can indeed drift off into the realms of fantasy and lack the practical power that, better defined and executed, it should possess. Webster’s provides a definition that starts to move in this direction when it refers to “the ability to perceive something not actually visible, as through mental acuteness and keen foresight.” But I want to go further. I define vision as a coherent and powerful statement of what the organization (college, university, vocational school, and so on) can and should be some set number of years hence.

Each element of this definition is significant:

Vision must be coherent, integrating goals, strategies, and action plans into a complete and recognizable picture of the future organization and its environment.

Vision must be powerful, to generate commitment and motivate performance.

Vision emphasizes what the organization can be, because a vision should be realistic about what the future may hold, and about what is achievable in the chosen time frame.

Vision clarifies what the organization should be, because it must reflect the values and aspirations of the administration, faculty, students, alumni, and other stakeholders.

Vision differs from, but complements, mission and philosophy. Mission states the basic purpose of the organization, defines its relationships to other organizations and constituencies, and sets general objectives. Philosophy articulates the values that should guide organizational behavior, defines the character of relations with stakeholders, and sets the style and culture of the organization. Vision builds on these statements to describe the future size, shape, and texture of the organization (that is, one should be able to get a good feel for the future organization from the vision statement); it sets specific goals and, more important, drives and guides action to achieve those goals. Mission and philosophy are, in a sense, timeless (or subject to change only infrequently). Vision expresses the goals of an organization at a particular time. The true leader uses all three to guide and empower the organization toward its goals.

The Key Elements of Vision

If the vision is to achieve all that I maintain it can do, it must be famed carefully and with considerable detail. How much detail? In working with corporations, I have tended to emphasize six elements portrayed in Figure 1. And, although the terminology may reflect this corporate origin, these elements are, perhaps surprisingly, quite transferable to the sphere of education.

The following examples illustrate the sort of questions that a college or university might seek to ask and answer in the course of developing such a detailed vision statement:

Scale. Although there may not be any intrinsic value in growth per se, it obviously makes a considerable difference—to strategy, organization structure, financing, and so on—whether the institution chooses to double in size or to remain about the same size. So "How big do we want to be?" is a valid question.

Scope. What should be the future mix of undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate education? What role should research play in defining the character of the institution? To what extent should we be in the field of continuing education?

Competitive Focus. On what basis will we seek to compete for students? For faculty? For research funding? How should we differentiate ourselves from other similar institutions?

Product and Market Focus. This further defines the future scope: What disciplines should we emphasize? Will we seek to cover a broad front, or be a niche player? How broadly should we define our market (the area from which we draw our student body)—regionally? nationally? globally?

Image and Relationships. How do we want others to see us? What image do we want to project? How should we manage our relationships with external stakeholders?

Organization and Culture. How should we structure our organization? To what extent do we want to build strategic alliance with other institutions? What values should dictate our organizational behavior?

K-12 school leaders can ask similar questions. In particular, private elementary and secondary schools, which face at least a quasi-competitive environment, should be able to adapt this vision structure to their specific needs, substituting (in the Scope and Product Focus segments) questions concerning the range of levels to be included (K–12? 7–12? K–6?) and the desired emphases in curriculum. For public schools, typically the vision is more likely to be systemwide than specific to a particular school. Overall size is a factor more of demographics than of choice, although choices remain as to the size of individual schools within the system, and—absent any pronounced spread of the school voucher system—questions about competitive focus are less relevant.

Twenty-five years ago, I chaired a citizens' commission to develop long-range goals for the Westport, Connecticut, school system. We didn't call what we produced a vision, but in retrospect we might well have done so—and our work would have benefited from the more structured approach I have outlined here. However, our final report did lay out a detailed vision of an elementary and secondary school system that was to be but one part of lifelong learning and based on three core values we called the three "I's"—Individualization (of curriculum choices and the pace of learning); Innovation (the encouragement of new methodologies, interdisciplinary studies); and Integration (this was, after all, the Civil Rights era).

The level of detail I have specified here is at least a target. Not every vision statement will include all the elements, but the aim should be to move in this direction. When we read or hear the vision statement, we should have a clear picture of what we want the organization to become, a sense of purpose and direction that will guide our everyday actions and decisions. The statement need not be lengthy; a single page will do. More important than length is depth and originality—the vision must go beyond trite generalities to sound some basic truths about what this particular organization can achieve.

Is vision the product of one individual’s thinking? Or is it the result of a group process?

The history of education in this country is replete with examples of university presidents whose vision cast a long shadow, not only over their own institutions, but over the whole field of education—James Conant of Harvard, Robert Hutchins of Chicago, Nicholas James Butler of Columbia. In the field of business, the names of Jack Welch of General Electric; Jan Carlzon, formerly of SAS; the late Sam Walton; and Akio Morita of Sony stand out in the current field of executives. In all these cases, the vision sprang from the insight and inspiration of individuals.

The current climate of educational institutions requires a less hierarchical and more consensual approach than these examples would suggest, in line with the earlier comment about the difference between corporate and collegial organizations. This is not, however, to deny the role of leadership in the process. Indeed, it will usually be the leader's insight, drive, persuasiveness, and, yes, charisma that will start the process, guide it past the dangers of meaningless compromise, drive it to a successful conclusion, and then use the "bully pulpit" of the leader's office to communicate the final vision.

However it originates, the vision must be a shared vision. The purpose of the vision, after all, is to stimulate action and achieve results, not to have an impressive piece of prose. If a vision is to shape the future and drive action, then the leader—and others in executive positions—must communicate it broadly, consistently, and continuously, until it becomes an integral part of the organization's culture. General Electric's Welch, for example, takes every public and corporate opportunity, in speeches, management meetings, articles, and interviews, to drive his message home. It is not simply a matter of an initial announcement, but a constant drumbeat of emphasis—words backed up by action.

The power of vision derives from its ability to capture the hearts and minds of an organization's members by setting forth a goal that is both feasible and uplifting. It can reinforce the empowerment that most organizations today seek to promote. It focuses thought and action, providing both the readiness and the aim—as in "ready, aim, fire"—for strategic and tactical decisions, helping to ensure consistency in decision making. It is the star by which the organization steers.


This article should be cited as Wilson, I. "The Practical Power of Vision." On the Horizon, 1996, 4(2), 1, 3–5. It is reproduced here with permission of Jossey-Bass Publishers.


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