The vision thing

George Herbert Walker Bush, the 41st president of the United States, had, and still has, many good attributes. Not the least of these was, and remains, his unassuming nature! He was self-deprecating, and perhaps no more so than when he would admit to be not being so good at “the vision thing.”

The reality? He was a lot better at the vision thing than he let on. It seemed to be part of his nature to remain somewhat in the background, to shine the spotlight on others, invite people to underestimate him. No doubt this served him well as ambassador to the United Nations, Chair of the Republican National Party, ambassador to China, as director of the CIA, and as vice-president to Ronald Reagan – and even as father to the 43rd president. All these are roles where too much visibility can inhibit accomplishment.

In fact, however, vision, in contrast to visibility, is vital for leaders. We introduced that notion in the previous post. Your credibility as a leader starts with being able to see things, with clarity, that matter to others…that onrushing train, for example.

No getting around it. To be successful, leaders must:

dream a great dream, and share it.

My first professional experience with this – in fact, the experience that drove home this notion – came early in my career, in 1970. Up until that time I’d been working in what was then the Environmental Science Services Administration, in the Ionospheric Propagation Laboratory, in Boulder. Gordon Little, the Director of the Wave Propagation Laboratory, asked me to join him, just at the moment when ESSA was being folded into a new federal agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Ionospheric Propagation Laboratory was being calved into a new National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Gordon Little was and remains an extraordinary individual. A Brit (who became a U.S. citizen), he was born in China, the son of missionaries. He was Cambridge educated and would in time be elected to the National Academy of Engineering. His scientific and technical accomplishments over several decades were legion. However, please focus here on the remarkable step he took in 1967. He voluntarily stepped down from his position as director of ESSA’s Institute for Telecommunication Sciences and Aeronomy, which comprised multiple laboratories. Why? In order to form a new, remote-sensing Wave Propagation Laboratory within that complex. 

Would you and I have done that? Probably not. On the surface it looked like a huge cut to his former considerable responsibilities. Why give all that up?

But over time the new laboratory, though small, proved to be a cornucopia of new tools for observing the oceans and atmosphere and learning their secrets. The work there spawned a range of innovative optical remote sensing technologies, the wind profiler, the CODAR for measuring ocean currents, improvements to weather radar, development of active and passive acoustic probing techniques, important algorithms for the inversion of radiometric data, and much more.[1] In addition, WPL scientists and their kit contributed to major field experiments worldwide. What the laboratory didn’t develop in-house, it adapted and improved upon from laboratories around the world. And it gave back in equal measure. For decades, the Wave Propagation Laboratory, though small, played a seminal role in advancing the discipline of remote sensing and its applications.

What made WPL special? Gordon was a leader! He had a vision. His vision was that remote-sensing, as opposed to in situ observations, would be the primary means going forward for observing the atmosphere and oceans. But his vision didn’t begin and end there. The key to his considerable success as the director and founder of WPL was that he saw remote-sensing not as an end in itself, but as a key to understanding the Earth, its oceans, and its atmosphere, and through that means, benefiting society. Most importantly, he didn’t keep that dream to himself. He shared it, every day, every week, every year, with the hundred-some staff of the laboratory, and with other scientists, from every agency, every university, and every nation.

At first this part escaped me. For some time I used to think to myself that Gordon was a great boss – that he combined vision and integrity, and I’d be happy to work for someone who had either one. At the time I thought he had just one flaw. He was always repeating himself!

Then I realized: all of us in the laboratory (and indeed, those visitors) were learning a catechism. Like Gordon, we came to believe that there was nothing wrong with the world, no social ill, that couldn’t be cured by more and better remote sensing. We knew and could recite the four great pillars of remote-sensing (theory, technique development, applications, and technology transfer). We knew the seven great advantages of remote-sensing over in-situ techniques. We bought in! If we could have, we’d have developed an “app” for microwave ovens (the term didn’t exist then), so that housewives could disable the safety interlock, open the door, point the microwave oven out the window, and get a quick Doppler-wind profile, and phone it in to a central location. Gordon not only had a dream; he shared it.

But note. Leaders need to have a great dream. It can’t be a little dream. It can’t be a shabby, self-serving dream. Instead, it should ennoble every hearer. It should elevate, inspire, energize. Gordon wasn’t thinking about how to get a bigger laboratory, or greater personal prestige, or become head of NOAA research, or even of NOAA itself. He’d already turned his back on all that. He saw how to make the world a better place. He made sure we were all thinking the same way.

So here’s the bottom line for you and me. We are all tempted, every day, to think small, to be content with and settle for a small, shabby, self-serving dream. Maybe it’s getting ahead. Maybe it’s getting through the day. Maybe it’s getting something for ourselves. Maybe it’s just keeping what we have. What’s worse, we’re all too often tempted to keep our dreams to ourselves. What if someone stole our idea and ran with it? And they got the credit? Or the prize? Where would we get another idea?

Don’t give in to these fears! The opposite is true. Remember Henry David Thoreau, who advised, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.” And share that imagination. Your very act of sharing will stimulate other ideas and visions in their train. As you give away and share your very finest ideas, even better ideas will come to you.

Dream a great dream and share it?

One August day in 1963 a preacher did this. He stood at the Lincoln memorial, looking down on thousands of people gathered the whole length of the reflecting pool. He had a dream to share with them, and with us. He began: “I have a dream…”

What kind of world would we have today if he’d taken no deliberate action? A much-diminished one. What kind of world did he want? He told us in his speech: a world where we are all brothers. And what kind of world has proved possible in the years since, following a little action? Not a perfect world, but certainly a much better one.

[1] In fact, the laboratory was the incubator for a systems development effort to develop forecaster workstations for a round of NWS Modernization and Restructuring which took place over the 1975-1995 period.

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