Visioning isn’t enough

Effective leadership has three requirements:

  • A compelling vision (where we want to get)
  • Incremental steps (what we will do next to get there)
  • Patience

Leaders often stop at the visioning. It’s fun, it’s intellectually stimulating, and it can be done in an orderly process with some interesting people, often in a single weekend.

Grand visions, however, tend to be grandiose — let’s declare “war on poverty” or accomplish “peace in our time” — and therefore absurd and paralyzing. They promise more than they can deliver. They make the visioner feel good, but leave everyone else untouched. In the end, the grand vision becomes “noise,” to be ignored, not a call to action.

In the world of recovery from addiction, they talk about “doing the next right thing.” Instead of grandly vowing a “lifetime of sobriety,” commit to one more day of abstinence. And if a full day is too much, try for one hour.

In the end, a sustainable recovery happens “one day at a time.” That’s how an effective life is lived, too.

Incremental steps are where the transformed life occurs. One wholesome meal, followed by another. One time of choosing family first. One act of kindness. One act of self-restraint in the face of provocation. One assignment done carefully.

The effective leader sets a stage where incremental steps can be taken — or not taken today, but maybe tomorrow; or not this step, but maybe a different step. Patience, patience, patience. The leader cannot speed up the process, or control its progress, or define its outcomes.

The leader’s role is to honor incremental steps and set an expectation of more to come. Also, keep teaching about the vision — not hectoring folks to speed it up.

The tendency in churches is to define the grand vision, adopt an orderly top-down approach for achieving it, and set a timetable. Leaders often think they have done their work with the initiating vision, the brochures and projects developed to support it, and parceling out duties. Meanwhile, they move on to other vision-setting.

Problem is, most organizations can’t do more than one major thing at a time, and they don’t respond well to pre-defined terms, timetables and outcomes. People need to engage with ideas, participate in planning actions, exercise their own creativity, be heard, and be allowed to resist.

Doing good things at the highest level usually leads only to frustration when incremental steps are ignored and when leaders become impatient.

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