The Devilish Vision Thing – for Health Care Leaders

Tapping the January 2018 Harvard Business Review for something apt is irresistible – even though February and March are both rich in material relevant and provocative for healthcare leaders. But the January issue, “Transforming Leaders” is just too much to pass up for at least one more connection.

While every health care leader should read every article in this issue, I can’t resist going for To Lead, Create A Shared Vision, contributed by James M. Kouzes (Dean’s Executive Professor of Leadership) and Barry Z. Posner (Dean) of the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. They also happen to be the co-authors of The Leadership Challenge, an easy reading business book of biblical stature among leadership gurus. It would be a mistake to think that yet another spin on vision is bound to be trite.

Everyone Wants a Visionary Leader

Kouzes and Posner have surveyed tens of thousands of workers internationally about leadership. In response to a query about the quality most desirable in a leader, the authors report that after honesty the most sought-after quality in a leader is the ability to be forward-looking – to have vision. 72% of non-management respondents and 88% of senior managers identified the ability to transcend the constraints of operations, and look down the road – beyond this quarter, this project, this crisis, or this year – as the critical differentiator between a leader and a colleague. So the demand is there. The catch, according to K & P, is that while everyone wants a visionary leader, they don’t actually want someone who is too far out ahead of them.

Crystal Ball Not Required

Does this represent a paradox or a conundrum? Actually not. Being a visionary leader is not about predicting the future – that capability happens to be a skill in short supply as you may have noticed in the recent economic collapse. So being seen as a great leader is not about “seeing the light” where others don’t and running to it as fast as possible – even at the risk of leaving everyone else behind. Rather it’s about understanding, capturing, leveraging, and mobilizing the aspirations of the followers towards what they see as a worthy and substantial destination.

If you haven’t read Mike Krzyzewski’s “A Season Is a Lifetime” go forth and do it. Even if you hate basketball. Because while Kouzes and Posner have studied vision and taught about it, Coach K has put it into practice. And into words: “People want to be on a team. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves. They want to be in a situation where they feel that they are doing something for the greater good.” In other words, they want to be in touch with an exciting vision. The vision actually lies within them – not within the leader. It is the leader’s job to reveal it, focus it, give it voice, and instill confidence in its attainability.

There’s a Blue Devil Hidden in Everyone

And healthcare leaders are there to find it. The visionary leader must not only be able to get out of the muck of solving operational and short-term problems, and must not only personally see ahead, but must actually be able to see what his or her followers have in their hearts – and understand what they want to see ahead. That’s the trick. As Kouzes and Posner put it, “As counterintuitive as it might seem, then, the best way to lead people into the future is to connect with them deeply in the present.” Accomplishing this means that a leader with the “vision thing” has to be in touch with followers, not cloistered with smart but detached advisors or deeply immersed in the data or predictive models of the future. While those may be part of successful execution, they are not what creates the loyalty, passion, and drive required for extreme success in business or in health care.

Coach K says: “I don’t look at myself as a basketball coach. I look at myself as a leader who happens to coach basketball.” Might healthcare leaders be most successful by building more than the technical skill set required to be a CMOs or CEOs – to explore how they can be leaders who are put in their positions to capture the vision of their employees, staffs, and colleagues?