• Phil Cole

The Function of Vision and the Goodness of Leadership

Listen to this on the Short Takes Podcast or on your favorite podcast app (episode 48).


The function of vision is a story that we constantly write about our lives. We explain our lives, our place in the world – our families, our personal characteristics, our desires, our past, and also our work. This story explains why we conduct ourselves in the way that we do. We create an image of who we are and who we want to be. Every day, each person writes this story, selecting the actions that align with his or her role as the central character in the story.


This story can drive us forward, towards our goals and over obstacles. Or it can hinder us, keeping us in a place where we are not happy or fulfilled. We use it to justify our behavior, based on the pain we have experienced in life. This process of storytelling is constant, in everything that we do. It is so ingrained into what it means to be human that we don’t ever really notice it.


As leaders, we have to notice this story in others. If we want to bring out the best that another human being is capable of, then we have to understand how they see themselves and how we can support that self-image in positive ways. We provide the bricks that the person uses to build their storytelling home, the place where they live.


In turn, this story allows the person to become part of the organization – to contribute, to belong, and to understand and make sense of this work. The story invites people to find meaning and value, to find self-worth. And in a second turn, the story allows people to see the ways that they can contribute this value back to the group, to the other like-minded individuals who are part of the same story.


The function of vision, like all functions, occurs even when we refuse or fail to provide these bricks, these ideas, expressions, words. Into this void of leadership steps chance, coincidence, luck – that each person in the group will arrive at productive understandings of the work, that the story each person constructs will both be positive and align with others’ stories. But this is unlikely at best, and our dependence on chance limits the possibilities for the group.


The alternative to chance is that we provide a story of vision – not always, not in every moment, because that isn’t possible – but enough to connect individual tasks to a meaningful change. This allows the individual person to tell a story in which he or she is a hero, making a difference no matter how big or small. Even in something as mundane as work.


This is a good thing to do. Not just because all human beings deserve to find meaning and value in their lives, which is perhaps enough of a good reason that we should feel obligated to try our best whether or not we want the responsibility of leadership. But it is also good because, by creating a possibility where this meaningful change might occur, we create the actual meaning. Leadership brings out the group’s excellence, and that makes it possible to turn the story into reality. Leadership makes the story into reality. The story isn’t just words, it is an actual accomplishment of the group, one that is real. Leadership tells the story, and leadership – through all three functions – makes that story become real.


This is worth doing. Leadership makes somebody else’s life better, and this is worth doing.


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