Practically ubiquitous with the start of the school year is the vision speech. It’s that moment when everyone is officially back together after summer vacation. There is a palpable excitement in the room – and some anxiety – considering that the first day of school is right around the corner. The superintendent or principal or organization figure-head has the mic and the floor and the mandate to inspire and set direction for the coming school year.
Arguably, we all put too much emphasis or faith in the content and delivery of that speech. Certainly we know that the success of an organization depends on many factors and variables that go deeper and further than speeches and storytelling. Yet, the vision speech persists as an essential component in the toolkit of leadership skills.
But why so much emphasis on one declaration of purpose and direction?
Perhaps it is because education is such a deeply human endeavor. After all, learning brings with it a range of new relationships, conflicts, experiences, and struggles. It is deeply social in nature. From academic discourse to high expectations, our learning trajectory is plotted amongst the relationships and interactions we have with other human beings. Not surprisingly, education is deeply emotional work. We wade through triumphs and tragedies because the outcomes we seek are not physical products. We seek learning, transformation, and strengthening of the human lives around us.
In my current district, the superintendent’s vision speech typically comes on the morning of the annual leadership symposium. That was just over a week ago, and our superintendent did not disappoint in her acknowledgement that this would be a key moment in defining her leadership. She launched with a short film tailor-made for our community, referring to the stark contrast of poverty that most of the families in our district experience with the incredible wealth of surrounding neighborhoods and communities. Indeed, Orange County California is well-known for it’s wealth, sunshine, and beaches. It should probably be as well-known for it’s degree of economic and racial/ethnic segregation. Our superintendent captured the sentiment with reference to A Tale of Two Cities. Like Dicken’s novel, or John Edward’s stump speech of the Two America’s, the message was designed to reinforce our urgency to accelerate student learning and break down barriers to access and opportunity.
The moment got me thinking about some of the elements that make for a powerful vision speech.
Authenticity is key
It doesn’t matter what you say or how convincingly you say it, you have to convince your audience that what you are saying represents the real you. That can be tricky, since those you lead have plenty of data points from months if not years of interaction that either corroborate your vision or stand in contrast to it. Even more than your speech, you are your vision.
As leaders, we all have strengths and weaknesses. When it comes to the vision speech, you can put your foot on the accelerator when talking about what you know you do well and what there is ample evidence to support. On the flip side, a powerful vision speech will take time to honestly acknowledge and reflect on those areas where there is either real or perceived weakness. Glossing over your deficiencies is a dangerous practice and only fuels the fire of your biggest critics. Of course you don’t want to perseverate on your weaknesses, and nobody wants to hear a downer speech of confessions and second-guessing. But you have to walk that fine line between confidence and arrogance, and much of that happens in the space where you share some of your more authentic reflections.
In our superintendent’s speech to launch the school year, for example, there was ample time dedicated to highlighting accomplishments and improvements over the past year. The speech was celebratory. Yet, for me at least, the most powerful moment came as the message shifted into a reflective tone. We just experienced a layoff and budget reduction process that was painful. There were times when leaders within the system felt frustrated and angry. Our superintendent acknowledged how she had not always attended to the human element of leadership, and recommitted to engage in both listening and attending to human needs within the system. It resonated strongly and opened up ears to other elements of the speech that came later.
It’s Never Enough
In any relationship, if we only hear about what is wrong with us or what we need to do better, then it won’t be long before we check out. We can only handle so much critical feedback before we get defensive. In fact, most adults struggle with any negative feedback at all.
So start with the sweet stuff. Acknowledge improvements and gains. Call out exemplary effort and intention. Publicly reinforce the behaviors, attitudes, and actions that match what you are looking for in your organization. It’s not a gimmick. It represents a recognition of the good work that is happening in the organization – wherever that may be.
But you can’t stay celebratory too long. You don’t want to neutralize the even more important message of urgency around equity of student learning. We’re not there yet. Far from it. Especially for our most marginalized students and communities, we have to be willing to sit with the discomfort of knowing that we are falling short – that our instruction can and must be better. The vision speech has to push hard on any sense of complacency.
If there ever were a time for a heavy dose of Symbolic Leadership, this is it. Yes, leading an organization requires the creation of purposeful structures, strategic management of human capital, and insightful political maneuvering. But the vision speech gets at human emotions and motivation – this is the time to inspire. As Bolman and Deal describe it, Symbolic Leadership is the acknowledgment that organizations are messy and often ambiguous, and that creating shared meaning and purpose are essential to the practice of leadership.
So, remind us why we do the work we do. Tell us what is at stake. Convince us we’re the right people for the task. Paint the image of new possibilities and show us the way we are going to get there.
Leadership vision can be inherently dangerous in that it explicitly calls out what you think the organization lacks. It’s a public statement that important things are currently missing. There is a gap, if not a gulf, between the current practices and outcomes and what you envision as possible. Mustering the energy and faith necessary to successfully bridge the uncertain space between current conditions and your version of the future is the central purpose and challenge of leadership. You must convince your organization that what is on the other side is worth the risks and losses that the change process inevitably will bring.
Clarity & Delivery
Good delivery takes practice. Sometimes it requires a lot of practice, and everybody knows when you are reading a script. Really, this is one of the most important speeches you give in your professional life, so take the time to practice. Memorize it if that is what it takes. It should come across as natural – part of who you are.
And if you are going to make this a multi-sensory, multi-media experience, then make it look good. Get the graphics right. Make it visually appealing. In our superintendent’s most recent vision speech, it was clear that the accompanying slide deck had been given a lot of attention. The color schemes were consistent. It was error free. The videos she showed had been thoughtfully curated, and they generated the desired effects – laughter & emotion and a sense of deeper human connection.
Hire someone to help if you need it – you are putting your vision out there, and these are the things that will stay with people over time. In the case of our superintendent’s vision speech, there are countless Twitter and Facebook images out there sharing elements of the vision beyond the immediate administrative and managerial staff. I imagine that many of the graphics and images will be recycled and reused throughout the year to reinforce the vision and remind people of our priorities. It’s an investment worth making.
In some ways, I can catalogue my leadership experiences and (hopefully) impact through the vision speeches I’ve given throughout the years. And while I know they are important, even I get surprised when someone comes back a few days, weeks, months, and sometimes even years later, and reminds me of something that I shared that has stuck with them in a meaningful way.