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The Visionary Leader: What Does Your Sticky Note Say?

“Go as far as you can see; when you get there you’ll be able to see farther.” — Thomas Carlyle

“2017 will be the best year of my life!” You feel that way, right? If you are a leader, I hope so.

Before the New Year breaks forth, I always draft a sticky note with those words. Then, I find a public space, for all to see, and I nail it to a wall with a thumbtack as if I were Martin Luther declaring my Ninety-Five Theses—though I only have one. Observing the reaction of those who read it—some confused, some angry, some puzzled by the randomness—is pure delight.

To give you fair warning, on the off chance that you do hear anyone talking like that in these first few weeks, it’s probably because they have a vision for 2017. I would also guess that the person who speaks with such unbridled optimism about the days ahead is a leader, not a prophet.

To be sure, goals are important, but vision is what sets the best leaders apart. New Year’s resolutions fade. Goals get erased, forgotten about, passed on for “someday”—which is not on your calendar, by the way.

Every Leader Must Have a Vision

A leader without a vision is like a ship without a rudder: tossed and battered by the current, at the mercy of life’s waves. Vision encapsulates a core ideology, it maps out an envisioned future, and it helps to generate valued outcomes.

A compelling vision connects people and drives change. It pulls us toward excellence. Individual leadership can be defined by vision, but a shared vision, deeply imbedded within the culture of an organization, allows us to see through the fog, to set and justify our priorities, to navigate the tumult.

It is hard to know where you are going if the leader has no vision. Direction and change occur with, and not apart from—vision. Zenger and Folkman when outlining the “Ten the Fatal Flaws That Derail Leaders” in the Harvard Business Review, placed vision in the top ten.

Leaders are derailed, they noted, because they lack “clear vision and direction” and “like a hiker who sticks close to the trail, they’re fine until they come to a fork.”

The success of a vision, however, can depend on the cultural context in which it is shared or implemented.

Your Vision Must Be Embraced to be Successful

The vision of another Martin Luther, for example, was embraced by the hearts of millions in the 1960s and influenced change in America for decades. Had Dr. King’s vision been articulated in a different time period or cultural context, it is difficult to say if it would have had the same impact.

Timing is important when it comes to vision and so, too, is the context in which it is shared. Old attitudes, ideologies, and cultural norms can actually hinder vision. Leaders must press their way through these barriers at times in order for the vision to be successful.

Given all that has occurred in 2016 surrounding the leadership shift, the visionary leader is a precious commodity in the next three years as we approach perfect vision: 2020.

Unity, a progressive mindset, and optimism are needed now more than ever.

And if we are going to see successful organizational and social change, it will require leaders with vision—both in theory and in practice. In the same way that a wise investor would never invest in a business without a business plan, people tend not to follow leaders without a vision for the future. Why would you?

What is your vision for 2017? Start with the sticky note.

  • Is it clear?
  • Does it inspire?
  • Is it memorable?
  • Can you articulate it?

I implore you, the leader, to write out your personal and professional vision today for the coming year. I drafted my personal vision in permanent marker on a 3×3, canary yellow sticky note. The baristas at the coffee shop just told me it inspired them…

PS: The “sticky note” vision I drafted for 2016, and the years prior, manifested.

David Carter

David Carter

Dr. Carter is an executive trainer, professional speaker, and best-selling author. An experienced educator for several institutions, businesses, and non-profit organizations, he has also served in the United States Air Force as a combat engineer, as a Kansas police officer, and as an education technician for the National Park Service. He holds a doctorate in Higher Education and Organizational Change from Benedictine University, and currently serves as Claremont Lincoln University’s Dean of the Ethical Leadership program.

Dr. Carter has given two TEDx talks about leadership: The Lesser Seat (2015) and How Old Are You? (2016), in addition to establishing the Laurie Marie Foundation—a non-profit devoted to developing student leaders and providing scholarships. His previous work has appeared on multiple news and media outlets and, most recently, C-SPAN’s Book TV, which highlighted his 2013 bestseller, Mayday over Wichita.

Claremont Core

Claremont Lincoln University

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David Carter

David Carter

Dr. Carter is an executive trainer, professional speaker, and best-selling author. An experienced educator for several institutions, businesses, and non-profit organizations, he has also served in the United States Air Force as a combat engineer, as a Kansas police officer, and as an education technician for the National Park Service. He holds a doctorate in Higher Education and Organizational Change from Benedictine University, and currently serves as Claremont Lincoln University’s Dean of the Ethical Leadership program.

Dr. Carter has given two TEDx talks about leadership: The Lesser Seat (2015) and How Old Are You? (2016), in addition to establishing the Laurie Marie Foundation—a non-profit devoted to developing student leaders and providing scholarships. His previous work has appeared on multiple news and media outlets and, most recently, C-SPAN’s Book TV, which highlighted his 2013 bestseller, Mayday over Wichita.

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