What is shared vision? It is a commonly held picture of a collectively desired future to which each person touched by it can feel a personal connection.
Shared vision is important because, like personal vision, it provides directional force in our lives. It helps us anchor our energy to something positive and desirable. In the absence of a compelling vision, humans succumb to fear. And in the presence of fear, pettiness prevails (e.g. gossip, jealousy, apathy, self-deprecation). Shared vision focuses on how we might contribute to something larger than ourselves. When acted upon, we create something that is more powerful than can be brought into existence by one person alone.
I have a great example of shared vision. A few months ago I was invited to attend a gala sponsored by a young not-for-profit organization. Though I attend many charity events, this one was unique.
A lot of charities describe their good works, how the attendees’ contributions have made a difference in the lives of others, and invite continued support. They are heart-wrenching and heart-warming experiences that always lead me to write a check. But the GEANCO Foundation’s event was different. This gala opened with the unflinching declaration of a young woman, “I am Nche Onyema, and I am building a hospital.”
As the evening progressed, she and her siblings described growing up hearing stories of a promise made by their father, Godwin, to his father that he would one day return to Nigeria and build a hospital. Godwin’s promise fueled his determination to obtain a medical degree then delay his return to Africa so that he could invest in the education of his own four children—at Princeton, Harvard, Georgetown and Boston College. (“Wow” is right!)
Godwin talked to his children and anyone else who would listen about his father’s vision and his own promise. Eventually, Godwin’s second son, Afam, a graduate of Harvard University and Stanford Law School, declined multiple lucrative corporate law offers in order to work full-time to see his grandfather’s dream and father’s promise become reality.
Today, Afam serves as GEANCO’s Chief Operating Officer and sits on the Foundation’s board of directors with his brother, Gozie, and his sisters, Ebele and Nche. They serve together with respected and committed physicians, attorneys, business and healthcare management executives and high-level government officials who are all working tirelessly and passionately to ensure that promises made between fathers and sons are kept.
At the GEANCO Gala, we were invited to join them in building a world-class hospital in Nigeria. We were invited into their vision and to share it. But here’s the trick, they didn’t sell us on a vision that was only important because it was handed down from grandfather to father to sons and daughters. Instead, they opened it up, created access points for everyone in attendance to see themselves as 1) connected personally to the vision and 2) capable of contributing to its fulfillment.
How did they “open it up”? They started with values. They shared staggering statistics with us about life expectancy and infant mortality rates in Nigeria. They described how wealthy people leave the country to get world-class healthcare while the vast majority of people are being treated in facilities that would never be considered an option for even the poorest of Americans. They created a platform of shared values—basic care for children and poor people—and then called us to action. They gave us tangible ways to contribute and concrete language to acknowledge our effort: “I am building a hospital in Nigeria.”
Here’s the important take-away for leaders, shared vision fosters commitment over time. It engages you and others in an ecosystem where there is shared energy to grow and create movement toward a highly-anchored vision. Adaptive learning is possible without vision; that is, learning what not to do again or how to avoid unpleasant situations. But generative learning, actively making meaning and plans of action that make sense of experience and that respond to current realities, occurs only when people are striving to accomplish something that matters to them deeply.
Generative learning builds upon your existing knowledge with new ideas based on experimentation and open-mindedness, and allows you to find new ways of viewing old, and perhaps, unsuccessful methods. Finally, shared vision provides a rudder for directional guidance, to keep the learning process on course when stresses develop. Learning can be difficult, even painful. With a shared vision we are more likely to expose our ways of thinking, give up deeply held views, and recognize personal responsibility and missteps that have gotten in our way in the past.
My challenge to you: As you think about the next steps in your life’s journey, consider:
- Your potential contribution to something larger than yourself, and
- What needs to move from the optional to the not-optional category in your mind to make it happen.