The Problem with T-Shirts
Recently I read some statistics on the Internet that said in order to stay aligned with their company’s vision, people need to be reminded of that vision every twenty-eight days. I’m not sure how they came up with twenty eight days; seems like an odd number to me. But suffice it to say, people need to hear about your vision on a regular basis in order to stay motivated.
Great leaders think about vision—a lot. But the problem is, most of us are thinking about it more than we are talking about it. And if vision is that important, we need to be constantly asking ourselves, What’s our vision and how are we doing at communicating it?
In many organizations, once a vision sentence is crafted, it’s often written on a piece of paper and put in a notebook, only brought out again a couple of times a year at new trainee orientation or in a leader’s speech. Occasionally it might make its way onto a mug or a T-shirt.
Nothing inspires cynicism in an organization faster than a T-shirt.
Vision doesn’t belong on T-shirts. As leaders, our job is to breathe life into the vision and fill the words with meaning that stir people in the deepest parts of their souls—the parts that long for significance and transformation. We need to come up with creative, compelling, and repetitive ways to talk about the vision, and then we need to make the words come alive. Sometimes we even need to say those words in different ways so that people can see every facet of the vision, kind of like the shifting colors of a kaleidoscope.
Vision is about stirring and provoking, reminding and imagining. It’s about showing people the wonder of an improved future and infusing them with hope. Vision is about creating a reason to believe again.
Vision is primarily nurtured through the stories we tell and the heroes we create in our organizations. A couple of years ago, we were working with a large school district on the East Coast. We were in the second day of a two-day offsite conference, with about a hundred and twenty people around tables in a large room. As is true with any school district, this one was facing huge challenges: increasing ethnic and economic diversity in their student population, budget cuts, and mounting expectations in test scores.
As part of an exercised in vision, we asked people to stand up and tell a brief story or mention a hero that reflected their district’s vision of “providing a place where every child would succeed.”
The principal for one of the larger high schools in the district stood up and talked about a young African-American boy who had just graduated from their school the month before. He had spent six years, from middle school through high school, in their district, but he stood out from the other kids because he was homeless—by choice.
Although this boy had received numerous offers for housing from friends, he did not want to be separated from his mother, so for nearly six years he woke up every morning in the back seat of a car. He walked across the parking lot to a nearby Wal-Mart and washed up in their restrooms. Then he took two city buses to arrive at school before the first bell rang. He ended up graduating with a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Scholarship, a full ride to a four-year college of his choice.
The story took two minutes to tell. But by the end, I was ready to quit my job and go to work for that school district!
Here’s the deal. No one goes into education for the big paycheck. That two-minute story worked in a powerful way to reconnect those overworked and underpaid educators to the core reason they went into this line of work in the first place. You could see it all over the room: tender smiles, nodding heads, people clearly reenergized and ready to return to the issues of diversity, budget, and test scores with a renewed sense of purpose and hope. The story was a creative and compelling way to remind people of the vision.
Some of my most memorable intersections with powerful vision have come in educational contexts. Perhaps it’s because there is no question that something more than money motivates educators.
Another time we were working with a large school district in the Los Angeles area. Once again we were working on exercises around the topic of vision, but this time, we had divided the group into teams: administrators, principals, psychologists, teachers, etc. One team in particular worried me: the facilities and maintenance employees. I wasn’t at all sure that these guys in their jeans and T-shirts would be able to deeply engage in discussions about vision. After all, their primary responsibilities included cutting the grass and cleaning the bathrooms.
I can be an idiot sometimes, but that’s for another chapter.
After I explained what I wanted the teams to do, I walked over to “help” this table. I kneeled down and said in my best consulting voice, “So, what have you got for me?”
The head of the department said, “Well I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot over the past twenty-five years,” and the rest of the guys around the table chuckled. I assumed he was having hard time trying to figure out this vision thing, so I continued, “Well, tell me what you have been thinking.”
To this day, I still carry a scrap of paper in my wallet on which I’ve written what that man said next:
“We work to create and maintain an environment that inspires greatness.”
As he repeated that sentence (that glorious sentence) the laughter around the table returned, and stories started spilling out.
“Yeah, yeah, we don’t just plant flowers, we create gardens that inspire greatness,” one of them said playfully.
As if trying to top that, another said, “When people use the bathroom, they will look around the facility with a pride that comes from cleanliness and working parts all in order.”
“Everywhere people look, everything they see, from the grass to the classrooms to the restrooms, will inspire them toward greatness because of the physical environment of the schools. From the teachers to the students, to the parents, even the Fed-Ex guys that make deliveries on our campuses…” I was getting the picture.
Wow. After I regained my footing from having been bowled over, I stood up from my kneeling position. Then I bowed down to them.
I returned to the front of the room and told the entire group what had just happened. I said, “These guys are rock stars! If the facilities and maintenance guys can come to work every day understanding that their job is about more than trimming shrubs and cleaning toilets, that it’s up to them to create an environment that inspire greatness, then everyone in this organization should be able to figure out how to tie his or her job to the vision.
“You all ought to bow down every time you cross paths with one of these men. We are not worthy to look directly into their eyes and ought to give them sunglasses so we can pass by,” I finished with a smile.
The next time we worked with this district, the superintendent told us we had created monsters! The maintenance guys now strutted through the campuses…and well they should.
Heroes shape the culture of an organization, giving it form and substance and breathing life into it. They turn an organization into a living entity, taking it out of the“institution” category and plopping it squarely into the “organism” category.
It is good for us to think about organizations as living things, because doing so moves us away from the idea that it’s us—people—against the organization. We need to realize that the organization is the people.
The right heroes help us fight the encroaching celebrity culture that can destroy even the best organizations: that not so subtle elevation of jocks and the cheerleaders that leaves everyone else feeling like second-class citizens, minor contributors, or Page Three news.
Heroes give flesh and bones to the vision, helping people see what’s right in front of their eyes. And the best heroes make everyone else in the organization realize that “herohood” is not reserved for the select few, but that they, too, can become a hero. And maybe, just maybe, vision is a collection of heroes that point us in the right direction.
I have attended a lot of meetings where sales and marketing people are given awards. They get the verbal accolades and the nodding approvals, while all the while the data entry person who made the success possible—or at least had a lot to do with it— sits unnoticed in the corner. Leaders make sure no one is overlooked. That might sound like it’s too big a job. Well, it is a big job, but it’s not too big. It is imperative, and one of the primary ways of realizing vision. And it is the right thing to do, which is so much of what leadership is about.
Much of a vision’s power lies in what it taps into. Done well, vision connects to that part of us that desperately wants to be a part of something deeper, something with meaning and significance. Vision releases ongoing energy in an individual and an organization that perpetuates and fuels itself. Vision lifts heads, stirs souls, and taps hearts. It creates and fosters and strengthens and stimulates. It engages passion, which is a profound source of motivation. Vision brings out the best where before, good enough was good enough.
Right now, we are working in a community that has been ravaged by violence and is struggling to overcome the legacy of destruction it’s left behind. For years, this area had the highest murder rate per capita in the state, and for a while, in the country. It is difficult and sometimes discouraging work. Two steps forward, five steps back. Recently the community experienced shootings for thirty days in a row. Thirty days, every day, a shooting—some fatal, some not.
We’re working with an agency that seeks to create avenues of non-violence in this community. They’ve started programs in the schools and the neighborhoods to target susceptible kids and intervene in this seemingly endless cycle. The agency does good work. They teach classes, they counsel, they offer music and art lessons, they host a weekly family night and try to “reprogram” the community mindset that sees violence as a way of life.
The young staff that so passionately leads this organization try to be relationally available to the people of the community twenty-four seven. What they do is so important, and in this area, they are the only ones doing it. They frequently gather as a group to remind themselves of their vision. They tell stories of the successes, and celebrate every step in the right direction. When discouragement seeps in, as it does on a regular basis, they return to their vision. They remind themselves of the truth and hope of the words. Their heroes are those who are living out the vision. When they get weary of doing good, it is not the strategy or logistics or budget that breathes life back in to their understandably worn-out souls. It is the vision.
Not the vision on a T-shirt, but the vision as it is lived out in the flesh and blood of those within their God-blessed reach.
Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives