Vision, the faculty or state of being able to see, the ability to think about or plan the future with imagination or wisdom, is one of those grand words of contemporary leadership discourse which is nonetheless used on a daily basis. Vision is cheap, it is everywhere, and yet somehow it is still lacking.
As we find ourselves facing more periods of semi-lockdown, so we look to our leaders to find some reassurance and to guide us to a better future. There are well known psychological reasons for our amplified preoccupation with our leaders: the more uncertain we feel, the more we look for certainty from authority figures. Certainty can soothe our feelings of anxiety, even if it is misplaced or overblown. Remember President Trump’s mantra during the 2016 election: ‘there’s nobody who knows more about tax (or race, or poverty, or the economy, or whatever you want) than me’. This isn’t just narcissism, but a significant gesture of containment to the highly anxious or distressed, which in his case clearly worked well enough to get him elected. Whatever we think of Trump, he took a big enough proportion of his audience and their fears seriously. He acknowledged fears in order to promise hope.
More than 30 years of scholarship about leadership has left us with many contradictory views about what makes a good leader. It has also stimulated critical appraisal: how the leadership discourse tries to make the mundane extraordinary, how every grand claim for transformation carries its dark side, how leadership and transformation has been captured by neoliberalism as a way of masking the goals of corporate power. But in the end we know a good leader when we experience one. Experiencing is different from thinking passively that vision is something a leader ‘has’, like some kind of X factor that they are born with. Optimism and charisma only take you so far. Instead we can understand leadership as a social and group activity, a relationship that involves the leader and those they lead in an evolving performance of mutual recognition.Continue reading