Also see: The Visioning Process | Why a Vision is Important | Why Children Are Important | Letters of Recommendation
MY HISTORY IN CREATING VISION STATEMENTS AND TEACHING LEADERSHIP
I learned about the meaning of a vision and leadership in a most improbable way some 45 years ago, at the age of 21. Tired of college by the end of my junior year, I headed to Colorado to become a "cowboy," and it was there I participated in two activities that held the secret to the power of a vision and leadership—building fence and herding cattle on an old-fashioned trail drive. It would take several years, however, for me to understand the lessons.
The very essence of leadership is that you have to have a vision. You can't blow an uncertain trumpet. — Theodore Hesburgh
I learned about the concept of a vision while building fences in the rockiest ground in the world, on a ranch seven thousand feet up in the Rocky Mountains. While I won't go into the trials and tribulations of digging postholes amidst boulders, I will tell you about the importance of two particular posts.
The first post is the initial "corner post," the one place in the ground at the beginning of the fence. Every other post is tied in its relationship to that initial post in some way. From there, the location of the next corner post is staked out, and the post is securely planted in the ground. These two posts represent the essences of a vision—where you begin and where you want to end up. If the second post, the one off in the distance—the "vision post"—is not placed as a destination for the fence, there is no way to place the intervening posts in a straight line. Without two corner posts with which to align the intervening ones, they meander all over the place because there is no "line of sight" to guide their placement. And a straight line is critical when it visibly represents the boundary separating two ranches owned by different people because "good fences make good neighbors."
A few years later, as graduate student, I had another lesson, a poignant one, about the value of a vision and the absolute necessity of being true to it. While working in Egypt, I wanted to go to a particular black hill I had been told about. The hill was in the desert approximately 300 miles southwest of Alexandria. The desert in this part of Egypt is flat and sandy with vast areas of desert pavement and no visible life for hundreds of square miles.
We had traveled by jeep for some time when my Bedouin guide told me to steer about three inches to the right. This sounded ridiculous. What difference could three inches possibly make? Not only was it bright daylight with no visible landmarks that I could see but also he didn't even have a map! Nevertheless, I was finally persuaded to make this "insignificant" correction.
Two days later we were at the black hill, and my guide told me to look at my map. I spread the map on the hood of the jeep and learned about humility and the value of being true to a vision. My guide drew a triangle and showed me that a target correction of three inches near Alexandria had saved us about fifty miles worth of fuel and water on our way to the black hill—neither of which could we spare. Thus I learned that the further we project into the trackless future, the more conscious and clear we must be of our motives and vision, for they act as our guides when no landmarks are visible.
Unfortunately, I still see agency after agency, community after community (including my own hometown) attempt to plan their futures without first placing the second corner post to affirm a line of sight, a desired outcome, a truly collective vision of what they want to become, an ideal toward which to build. Without an ideal planted firmly in the ground of one's heart and soul, people suffer disillusionment and despair, which is a psychological condition brought about by aimless wandering with no clear destination and no positive outcome. And so it is that I learned about the critical importance of a collective vision toward which to build by constructing fences where none had existed. I say "collective vision" because the two corner posts guide all the intervening posts in the desired direction, just as the vision of an ideal guides a multitude of people as they strive in unison for a desired outcome that increases their perceived quality of life. Like my Bedouin guide, a vision also instructs us to make the necessary "target corrections" that will keep us truly on course as we navigate toward the ideal of our journey.
A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the quality of his actions and the integrity of his intent. In the end, leaders are much like eagles … they don't flock, you find them one at a time. — Anonymous
Meanwhile, back at the ranch during late spring, as the snow's of winter melted in the high mountains, we prepared to drive the cattle from the fields around the ranch, where we had fed them all winter, to the pastures of summer. Then, each autumn, we rounded them up again prior to the onset of winter's snow and drove them back down to the ranch, where once again we fed them until the next spring. And it was on these cattle drives that I learned the essence of leadership.
There are three positions in driving cattle: point, flank, and drag. "Point" is the rider out front—the leader, the person who must know the way; where the water is; where there is sufficient forage to rest the cattle; how fast to move the herd without making them lose weight from exertion, particularly in autumn when they will be sold and the rancher paid by the weight of each animal. "Flank" is the position alongside the herd to keep them moving in the desired direction, and "drag" is the least desirable position at the rear of the herd breathing the dust. The person riding drag keeps the would-be stragglers moving, so none are left behind.
The point rider is alone, not only physically but also psychologically, with the major responsibility for the safety and welfare of the herd, as well as that of the other riders. The leader must know where to go and how to get there. On the other hand, the riders at flank and drag are the managers who know how to keep the herd moving in the direction set by the rider at point.
As I learned herding cattle, a true leader is a visionary who "sees" the ideal and unyieldingly follows the guiding star toward the journey's end. I also learned that managers are responsibility for making make sure everything works as it must in order to reach the appointed destination. A leader without managers could never successfully move a herd of cattle—or a group of people—from a position of complacency to one of possibility, just as a manager(s) without a leader would not know where to go. Moreover, these positions (that of leadership and managerialship) are not interchangeable because the each requires drastically different talents.
PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER
I didn't think much about these lessons until I began working for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management some thirty years ago, and I saw how often managers are placed in positions of leadership and vice versa. There clearly are far more managers than leaders, the latter being intuitive systems-thinkers, which, in my experience, is a rare gift. I do not, by this statement, mean to disparage managers because a leader without a competent manager is like a ship's captain or an airline pilot without a navigator to "ride herd" on the endless details of any successful journey. One without the other is incomplete.
During my tenure in the Bureau of Land Management, I began helping personnel in positions of leadership within the U.S. Forest Service prepare to engage in conflict resolution. Part of that preparation was to facilitate their understanding of the fundamentals involved in the art of creating a vision and of leadership. Here, I must point out that, while the elements of leadership can be taught, the best leaders lead intuitively because the "inner authority" of an ideal demands singular focus, personal courage, and impeccable timing, which makes or breaks the authenticity of leadership.
Over time, I was increasingly invited to participate in leadership training, something that always took me back to my days as a "cowpuncher" and the life-changing lessons I learned digging postholes and stringing wire, as well as riding drag, flank, and—finally—point. Then came the time when so many people asked for help in understanding what I had learned building fence and driving cattle that I wrote a book titled "Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Development" (Vision and Leadership). Finally, Dr. Dean Button, Director of Program Development in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, asked if there was some place in which he could use my work as a case study for his Ph.D. Dissertation. I suggested the community of Lakeview in southcentral Oregon, where I had "midwifed" the community's process of creating a vision for their future, which Dr. Button successfully used as the case study for his Doctorate: Dr. Dean Button.
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