Back in summer 2010, I had the chance to interview Lattie Coor, former president of Arizona State University, and Michael Cowan, superintendent of Mesa Public Schoosl, the largest school district in Arizona. Both were unflinching in their belief that vision was the most crucial aspect of leadership. A quick read of any leadership manual, or a quick listen to any leadership seminar will confirm vision as a preeminent practice. Vision is the ability to articulate a future state in which we work better and do better work, and convince others that it can and will be the new reality. Vision provides the energy, vitality, and enthusiasm to engage in the complex work of organizational improvement transformation.
Interestingly, many leadership programs are not in the business of developing the communication skills to clearly articulate a vision. We might read about it in a book if we are lucky. More likely we see leadership reduced to a combination of technical expertise, analytical thinking, and long work hours. Perhaps that’s why I was surprised when the first assignment in graduate school was to develop vision speeches, practice them in front of our peers, and develop a rubric together for assessing the effectiveness and impact of our discourse. It wasn’t always comfortable practicing in public, especially at first when we hardly knew one another. It felt awkward giving honest feedback to other students – we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
Ironically, it’s that honest feedback that can help reduce heartache in the long run. Leaders in the real world are held to a high standard for their communication skills. Better to hear the truth about our performance in the relative safety of a classroom than in the coldness of a job interview or in the silence of a meeting room. It only makes sense that we would actually take the time to practice and adjust our technique as a part of our formal leadership training.