Thirty-five years ago when I was in my mid-twenties, I was ready to change the world. I was in my first leadership role, and I had some BHAGs (big, hairy audacious goals), a concept introduced in the book Built to Last by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras.
The feedback I got was they liked what I was doing, and they liked me, but I was so far ahead they couldn’t see me or my vision. Try being just a ‘half-step’ ahead rather than miles ahead, they suggested.
Today, this is a common theme in my coaching sessions with leaders, and one of the most practical leadership tips I can offer:
As a leader, you want to be far enough ahead that you see the vision, but not so far that no one can see you anymore.
As Collins explains, “A BHAG is clear and compelling, needing little explanation; people get it right away. Think of the NASA moon mission of the 1960s.” So a key ingredient of a compelling BHAG is that it’s far enough away to be exciting and to propel work forward, but clear and immediate enough for people to know what they need to do next.
As leaders, we need to travel frequently back and forth between the big goal in the future, and the actions and activities in the present. We fill dual roles as a telescope (visionary) and a microscope (practicality), holding both the global vision and the local vision. We need to keep inviting our team to come along and join us, give them their next steps, and walk alongside them in whatever ways they need.
I recently coached a pastor who had a great vision for his church but nobody was buying-in, nobody was “getting it.” If anything, they were reacting negatively to it because it was so big and bold.
Yet this person was adamant about not stepping back or creating half-steps; it took a good 45 minutes of our conversation to convince him to try. As leaders, we can get tunnel vision, but if we can back it up we’ll see that breaking that vision into steps doesn’t mean we’re giving up on it; we’re making it possible for people to come along.
People get on board with a vision at different times and different places along the way. There will always be early adopters, late adopters, people who hang out on the fence along the way. My client was an early adopter, while others may not be comfortable with how things are now but are nervous about going too far in another direction.
This is where coaching can really help a leader. The coaching template itself requires that we “step it out” and determine the next step towards a vision. In our coach training programs, we teach a bridge model. We travel with clients to their grand vision of the future, and then we come back and build a bridge – a plan for how we will get there. There’s a gap between the current reality and the ideal future reality, and we coach that gap.
So how can a leader hang on to their big vision and not get deflated or lose enthusiasm waiting for others to come on board? Here are a few ideas:
- Enable and celebrate quick wins – In Managing Transitions, author William Bridges talks about creating short-term goals to give team members quick successes, those baby steps that build momentum.
- Come out from behind the curtain – Bridges also encourages leaders to be visible and available and to talk a lot about their vision. Don’t stay tucked away like the Wizard of Oz, even if you’re worried about being vulnerable and opening up your vision to questions or criticism. It’s natural to want to protect it and much easier to do that if you don’t allow any input, but it will be far less effective to move forward that way.
- Call on your team – Some leaders are so naturally visionary that it can feel almost impossible to think more practically, and here’s where a team comes into play. You don’t have to do it all; you can find people who complement your skills and strengths. When I look back at times I cast visions successfully, I can clearly see a group of people who helped me break things down into half-steps.
Where has your vision as a leader pulled you too far ahead of your team? How can you back up and give them to steps to walk with you?