Like George Herbert Walker Bush, we all have doubts about our handle on “the vision thing.”
But the reality? Like former President Bush, you are more a person of vision than you let on, even to yourself. This most-positive trait isn’t just within your grasp – it already lies within you.
To see why requires a little background on Pierre Mendes-France, a former Prime Minister of France, from 1954-1955.
Don’t believe me? Well, please read on…
Mendes-France was born in 1907. He graduated from the University of Paris with a doctorate in law and in 1928 became the youngest member of Paris bar association in 1928. By 1932, he was the youngest member of the French National Assembly. By 1936 he was Secretary of State for finance. An up-and-comer! He was captured and held by the Nazis early in World War II, but succeeded in escaping to England, where he joined de Gaulle. In 1947, he once again rejoined the National Assembly. In 1954, he became prime minister of France – and, almost overnight a hero.
Why? At the time he took office, the French found themselves fighting not one, but two colonial conflicts – in French Indochina (today, Vietnam), and in Algeria. The drains on the French conscience, morale, and pocketbook were substantial. The Vietnamese communists had just handed the French a stinging defeat, at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. French could see where things were going, and didn’t like it. Anyway, Mendes-France quickly negotiated an armistice with Ho Chi Minh. Assembly members supported this action at about the 97% level. The French people, even though deeply troubled by the war, were stunned by this rapid turn of events. The main grumbling came from the Catholic Church, concerned about leaving so many Catholic Vietnamese vulnerable to Communism. Nevertheless, the relief was palpable. [The French would come to feel vindicated over the next decade as they watched the United States, with its far larger reach and resources, escalate the struggle.]
However, mere months later, Mendes Frances’ government was toppled, and he was consigned to the sidelines.
What happened in the meantime?
Several factors played in. But here’s a big one. In the interim, Mendes-France had an epiphany. The French were consuming far too much wine! The statistics? We’re told that at the time, France was spending 10% of its national income on liquor, dispensing a liter a day to its soldiers, supporting a bar for every 70 men, women, and children. Maybe he had a point! Even with the touted medical benefits of a daily glass of wine, the French consumption might have seemed a bit over the top. But come on. Even you and I, looking at this from a distance in time and geography, can see that this could easily end badly.
And it did. Mendes-France went public with his concerns. And he wasn’t just vocal, which would have been bad enough. He took action! He made a show of drinking milk on public occasions (modeling behavior! Isn’t that supposed to be good?), and urged his government to do the same. He pushed through laws limiting time-honored French freedom to consume alcohol.
And he was gone within weeks. The French people saw their wine consumption as a non-problem. It followed that he was not a visionary, but a threat.
What does Pierre Mendes-France tell us about leadership and vision?
Leadership is not about getting a group or a society to change course 180 degrees. Leadership is about recognizing a great, pre-existing, universal, powerful, but vague concern, and articulating it, making it tangible, giving it focus.
Each of these pieces matters.
Leadership is not an about-face. The crowd is smarter than that! People may seem to be oblivious to a problem, but chances are they’re not. You’re far more likely to find that they’re deeply troubled by the issue. Take the big issues of today: jobs and the economy; health care; the changing state of the world and our foreign policy and place within the new geopolitics, education, and yes, the environment. What pollsters seem to find is that the environment isn’t at the top of people’s lists, but it’s generally on those lists somewhere. Those findings suggest that those of us working environmental issues make a mistake when we’re tempted to frame more-shrill alarms about the coming dangers. People know that they must address these problems. It’s just that other concerns are more pressing. As Steinbeck wrote, “How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children? You can’t scare him – he has known a fear beyond every other.” [Okay, so what should environmentalists do? More on this next step as it relates to leadership in an upcoming post.]
Leadership is about recognizing a pre-existing, universal, powerful, but vague concern. And how can you and I do this? Not through introspection. That would not only be difficult but pointless. Instead, we can listen. The best leaders, at every level, are those who follow Stephen Covey’s advice: “seek first to understand, and then to be understood.”
This is the single key to getting a handle on the vision thing. And it’s why I said at the beginning of this post that you are more a person of vision than you let on. Chances are, you’re already listening, to all sorts of people, in every kind of context. And without realizing it, you’re also integrating what you hear. What concerns are only at the fringe? By contrast, what messages do you hear repeated – often in many different ways – on all sides? Increasingly, you and I are swimming in an information soup, and we’re using that experience to see problems, and opportunities, for strategies and priorities for how we’ll spend our time and what we’ll do.
The suggestion is: you’re listening already. Keep it up! If anything, start listening more deliberately, choosing more strategically who and what you listen to and why; that you start being more intentional about your listening.
In today’s world, with its time pressures, it’s tempting to shortchange this vital step. But don’t do it! Ask people more questions; delay jumping in quickly to offer your opinion. Pay more attention to their answers. Ask follow-up questions. Watch. Read. Pay attention to events, and to the media – a broad range of the media. This skill of listening can be improved by practice. Try this everywhere – at home, at work, on the Metro, in stores.
Do this, and you’ll become a person of vision…and over time, that vision will grow more powerful, deeper, more insightful, more useful. At first, many of the concerns you hear may seem vague. But don’t worry. You’ll become more fluent in sharpening and articulating the expression of those concerns. And focus on the powerful concerns, not the lesser ones. You’ll get better at distinguishing these as you practice.
Vision? It’s vital for leaders, but, as you can sense, it’s not enough. In a future post, we’ll talk more about what else will be expected of you – and how and why you’ll be up to the task.