The 1st rule of vision for leaders – “Look at the Red Tractor!”

Sir John Whitmore, famous as a pioneer of business coaching, had previously been a very successful racing driver. He described racing as ‘a form of personal expression’ and I have always thought of it, in common with other sports as a form of personal development as well. Thus it was that a little while ago, in an effort to improve my own car handling skills, I decided to swap the smooth, grippy tarmac of track day outings for a day on the loose gravel and shale of a rally driving school. One end of the track was a long sweeping right hand corner, entered immediately after a sharp swing to the left, and eventually sending you back the way you had come – a 1800 corner plus a bit more. In common with most other people there on the day my first efforts were erratic. In too slowly then slithering wildly as I tried to accelerate. Then in too fast and understeering wildly towards the hedge, resulting in a sudden need to slow down and sort things out. Then the instructor said: “Go in just like last time, but this time look at the red tractor – and keep looking at it.” The red tractor was parked (safely) some way off the track, at the very last point of the corner, almost alongside the following straight. To look at it when entering the corner meant looking through the side window of the car, and initially at least, almost over my shoulder. Emboldened by the clear instruction I flung the car round from the left hander and stared rigidly at the red tractor. I was vaguely aware that my hands were rapidly rotating the steering wheel, my right foot was balancing the throttle, the car was performing a beautiful sweeping arc around the turn and suddenly, magically, we were straightening up and heading off on another lap.

Vision is simply a question of knowing where you want to go. Once you know what you are aiming at, what it is you want to achieve, what you want to build, then vision flows naturally. We are vision-creating animals. We picture things all the time. The leadership habit is to picture a future that is attractive to others as well, then you can lead them where they want to go.

I was surprised in an interview with the CEO of a FTSE 100 plc when he said he did not really believe in ‘visions’ in business. A little gentle probing revealed that what he was really against were what he saw as slightly fatuous statements, written in generalised language, that were as likely to produce a cynical response as a motivational one. In fact he had a very clear vision. It was of his business being properly and efficiently structured, peopled by a competent and well-rewarded workforce and delivering value to customers and results to shareholders.

I have referred to this previously as ‘breaking the iron triangle’, because typically efforts to create greater shareholder returns take away from customers or staff, creating greater value for customers often reduces dividends or rewards and so on. Nonetheless this particular Chief Executive had a vision of the business he ran achieving this balance, perhaps inspired by the fact that it had been somewhat out of kilter when he took it over. So although he did not focus his public, or internal pronouncements on expounding ‘a vision’, everything he said and did was aimed at creating his ideal business.

Leaders do have vision. After all, if you are not taking people somewhere they have not been before, or building something new, then you are probably just managing in a steady state. Whilst there may be a lot of people in business at the moment who wished they could just take a break and manage something in a steady state, that doesn’t require leadership. In fact, the phrase I have heard most often from all of the many leaders I have interviewed has been: “What we’re trying to build here is …” and that means vision. It means having a vision of what the business will look like when it is built, or transformed, or seen through into the next stage of its life, even if that only produces the need to go on again.

Please note that, like the CEO I have mentioned, I am specifically not referring here to crafted and wordsmithed ‘vision statements’. While writing this I have just read about fifty such statements from world famous global names and brands. None of them inspired me remotely. They nearly all sound designed to send a marketing message to customers that “we’re an OK business that mean well for the planet and everyone on it.”

I am talking about a personal quality of leaders to see how an organisation could look and act in the future, and then to communicate that in different words and language, according to the audience, one-to-one, one-to-many, at any time. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech has rightly gone down in history as a superb piece of passionate oratory. It was brilliantly crafted, superbly delivered to a large audience, and televised. Did he use those same words and that delivery throughout the history of the civil rights movement in America? Of course not. Was his vision, that the nation would ‘rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,”’ constant? Of course it was.

To be clear, I am using that solely as an example of a leadership vision. Dr King was a preacher, and a practised and consummately skilled orator. Presentation skills – the ability to get one’s message across vividly, with vitality and momentum, and to command the attention of an audience with great use of intonation, gesture, and analogy – are a valuable tool for any leader, but they are a set of learned, and learnable, skills and behaviours. Quite different and completely separate from vision.

Therefore, the first rule of vision for leaders is: “Look at the red tractor!” Or in other words, keep looking, and keep visualising, where you want to go. Oh, and if you don’t believe me, join a rally school for a day. You’ll not only learn the lesson, you will smile more broadly than you ever thought possible – everybody does.