Putting "Visions" in Your "Sights"
by Herb Rubenstein and Bill Taylor


The organizational development literature is clear and consistent on the positive and necessary role that organizational "vision" plays in contributing to the success of any business, educational institution or nonprofit organization. This literature was carefully summarized at the opening of the second day of a leadership workshop with Volunteers of America for a Greater New Orleans. The basic thesis of this literature developed by Robbins, DeCenzo and others is:

"Visionary Leadership" is the ability to create and articulate a realistic, credible, attractive vision of the future for an organization or organizational unit that grows out of and improves upon the present.

Neil Snyder notes that an organizational vision, if properly selected and implemented, is so energizing that it "in effect" jump starts the future by calling forth the skills, talents, and resources to make it happen. When shared by employees, it can keep an entire organization moving forward in face of difficulties, enabling and inspiring leaders and employees alike.

All organizational visions, as written, are not equal. A vision is likely to fail if it does not offer a view of the future that is clearly and demonstrably better for the organization and its members. People in the group or organization must also believe the vision is attainable for the vision to have power to motivate people within the organization.

Organizational visions, like stretch goals, must be challenging, but also must represent a goal that over time is attainable. As Mintzberg has argued, a vision, even if written, can not speak for itself. Therefore, it is the role of the leaders of the organization to communicate the organizational vision to others - in terms of required actions and clear expectations. Leaders must be able to express the vision not just verbally, but through the behaviors of the leaders and this requires that leaders behave in ways that continually convey and reinforce the mission. The concept of "leadership at every step" summarizes this need very clearly.

Manassee states that an essential ingredient for a vision to be effective in motivating employees of an organization is that the vision needs to be accepted and felt throughout the organization, not necessarily accepted by 100% of the group/organization, but accepted by a major part of the organization. Therefore, organizations must tend to enrolling employees, vendors, stakeholders, investors, and others to take the time to understand and support the organization vision.

This summary of the role, value and characteristics of an "organizational vision" is consistent with Covey's strong emphasis in his writings and the writings of others of the pivotal nature of "organizational vision" in setting goals and achieving success.

During the two day leadership workshop conducted in November and December, 2004 with Volunteers of America for a Greater New Orleans, we discovered a fundamental flaw, or at least a severe limitation, in the literature on the topic of "organizational vision."

The literature on "organizational vision," while enabling, is also limiting, because, as shown below, an organization should not have just one "organizational vision." Each employee of the organization should have a vision for each and every unit, division, program, site, service and product of the organization. It is through the inner workings and synergistic relationships created by these harmonious, but distinct, visions working together within the organization, that propels an organization, its employees, its units, divisions, programs, products, sites and services to reach their true potential.

Reality Impacting Vision

We know that every great idea starts out as an "enabler" or "expander," but eventually it usually becomes a "limiter." For example, at the leadership development workshop the senior management of Volunteers of America for a Greater New Orleans made a commitment to "communicate what they do throughout the community." Before the workshop, the organization through its marketing director had become successful in getting known in the community. It runs public service ads through a partnership with a local TV station, regularly receives newspaper and TV media mentions and the reputation of the organization is strong among those who know of its services.

However, the organization prior to the workshop had no speaker's bureau, had never trained its staff and leadership to become public speakers, had never contacted local organizations to find out if they wanted to have a speaker from Volunteers of America and had never developed a set of speeches that staff members could give on issues including the services they provide, the unmet needs for their services, current relevant trends, and improvements in the development and delivery of housing, substance recovery and other social services that might be of interest to many organizations who regularly invite speakers in the New Orleans area.

Through creating the commitment to "communicate throughout the community" this speakers resource will be developed at Volunteers of America. More articles will be written by staff, more appearances will be made by the President/CEO and this idea will start out as an enabling, expansive idea.

Over time, as the organization begins to be more successful with getting its message through to the New Orleans community, the idea will ultimately become a "limiter." This idea, focusing on the "the community" will, if not expanded, limit the outreach and the communication of what the organization does beyond the Greater New Orleans to all of Louisiana, to the southern part of the US, to the entire US and to foreign countries as well. Over time, the work of Volunteers of America for a Greater New Orleans should be communicated to a much broader audience than just the Greater New Orleans community.

Similarly, the idea of every organization having an "organizational vision" is enabling in the first instance, but ultimately limiting. We discovered during the workshop that each senior leader of Volunteers of America for a Greater New Orleans had a vision for the organization. The visions expressed by the leaders were consistent:

  • To be the premier social service agency in Louisiana
  • To be the lifeline for their clients
  • To be the best place to work with strong employee development and retention
  • To be efficient in using all resources
  • To be financially strong and able to invest in the communities it serves
  • To be an example for all nonprofits
  • To meet the needs of the needy
  • To help create a greater New Orleans
  • To be a partner with other social service agencies
  • To be dependable and reliable

All of these "organizational visions" fit together perfectly. So what is missing?

Nothing is missing according to the literature on "vision" that we read in the organizational development literature. However, through hard work at the workshop, we discovered that in additional to the "organizational vision" that Volunteers of America for a Greater New Orleans had, its senior leaders also had a vision for each program and each service that it provides. Volunteers of America also had desire to create a system for encouraging each program director and each staff person working at every site on every program to develop a vision for that program, for that site and even, a vision for every person that Volunteers of America for a Greater New Orleans serves. It is through the creation of these harmonious "visions" that the true potential of Volunteers of America can be realized in the New Orleans area.

From Vision to Visions: More is Better

Thinking back on this multiplicity of visions within the organization, first we noticed the strength of all of these visions working in concert to make each program, each unit of service, each client or consumer of services of the agency better. Second, we saw that when each employee has a vision for each program, each site, each client, that growth becomes much more likely. When one has a vision, this vision is never exactly like the present or current reality. While it is true that an optimist's vision may be grander than the vision of a pessimist, the utility of a vision or visions is that it helps the mind and body to prepare for or get ready to begin working on making that vision a reality.

An agency is like an orchestra. Certainly the orchestra leader (or in New Orleans - the jazz group leader) should promote a vision or theme for the orchestra or jazz group. But, the best music is created from the harmony that results when each musician creates a vision for exactly the right way to play the instrument and how he or she wants the instrument to sound. It is the individual visions of the musicians, working in concert, that make the best music.

In organizations that spend so much time and energy in creating the organizational vision, they may lose sight that each employee needs a vision for that employee, his or division or unit, for that employee's programs, sites, services, and a vision for the individuals and groups that employees and the organization serve.

Implementing the Lessons

Every employee must be empowered, trained, encouraged and given the "freedom and responsibility" to be able to create a vision for themselves, their programs, their sites and each individual they serve. For organizations that use large numbers of volunteers, it would be ideal if each volunteer is similarly given the opportunity to create a vision for that volunteer that is harmonious with the "organizational vision" of the agency or business. An important role of Human Resources in any organization is to insure that in every employee evaluation and job description (and in each volunteer management form) there is ample time, space and conversation devoted to that employee's or volunteer's vision.

An important role of the communications director of a company, nonprofit or educational organization is to insure that the visions of the programs, the services, the units or divisions, the sites, the employees and the volunteers are communicated to the other employees and the community at large. An important role of the V.P. for operations is to insure that the visions for these programs, services, sites and customers guide the development and implementation of the programs and serve as fuel for growth and improvements in the programs. And an important role of the President/CEO of an organization is to let each and every employee know that their "vision" is important, it is to be nurtured, it should mature and grow over time and that the overall agency leadership will work hard to insure that the organization reflects the visions of the employees rather than simply require the employees to mold all of their activities strictly to the "organization vision."

"Visions" and Leadership

The implications of this concept, the "visions of the sites," on leadership as practiced within an organization are enormous. Each employee now has the ultimate duty of a leader - to create an inspiring vision for him or herself and to help implement programs, services, deliver products and act in a way that is totally consistent with the vision created by each employee which is in harmony with the organizational vision. When "organizational vision" is decentralized to become "visions of the sites" or "visions of the employees," leadership is also decentralized. Communication between and among the programs, the units, the divisions, the sites and the employees, is fostered because while each program staff member may not be interested in the details of another program in the agency, each program staff member will always be interested in the vision for that program and the individual visions for the "sites" and the clients served by the organization.

These visions also give the employees an essential ingredient they need to become great speakers on behalf of the organization, the programs, the sites and the constituents or consumers of the services that Volunteers of America for a Greater New Orleans provides. In addition, these visions give the employees an important ingredient they need to become great fundraisers on behalf of the programs, the sites, the clients of the organizations and the organization itself. These "visions" give the employees an inside track toward becoming leaders within the organization. And finally, it gives the organization a solid growth stimulus that will propel the agency or business to new heights.


One finds what is lacking in a literature by going beyond the written text and investigating and then creating a new reality. Now that the employees and senior management of Volunteers of America for a Greater New Orleans will create "visions" at every level of the organization and for every employee, service, program, product and site, Volunteers of America will work in harmony as an agency. This harmony will promote the improvement of its services, its reputation in the community, and help Volunteers of America recruit and keep employees who want the responsibility, authority, creativity and enthusiasm that developing and implementing their own vision can provide.

We hope that your organization will experiment with creating visions at the sites, at the program level, at the employee level and even at the customer level. Over time the literature on "organizational vision" will catch up with this important organizational improvement process now available to businesses, educational institutions and nonprofit organizations.

Bill Taylor is the Director of Substance Abuse Services for Volunteers of America Greater New Orleans. His description of "vision" in the leadership development seminar in New Orleans served as a great stimulus for the workshop. Bill Taylor can be reached at 4152 Canal Street, New Orleans, LA 70119, Ph: 504 482-2130 or 877 862-2311.

Herb Rubenstein is an attorney and the CEO of Growth Strategies, Inc., a leadership and management consulting firm. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the International Leadership Association, the Society for the Leadership of Change and has authored over 100 articles on leadership, entrepreneurship and strategic planning. He is co-author of Breakthrough, Inc. - High Growth Strategies for Entrepreneurial Organizations (Prentice Hall/Financial Times, 1999). He can be reached at (202) 965-1773 or (202) 236-7626 in Washington, D.C.

Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2005 by Bill Taylor and Herb Rubenstein. All rights reserved.

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