Associated Press
Former General Electric Chairman and CEO Jack Welch smiles as he takes questions during a news conference Feb. 29, 2000, in New York.

A good vision gives an organization both direction and the inspiration to pursue it. The German philosopher, Goethe, said, "The important thing in life is to have a great aim and possess the aptitude and the perseverance to attain it." But the aptitude and perseverance are not independent of the aim. No, the very act of having the aim in large measure provides the aptitude and perseverance needed to achieve it. Vision does this because it taps deeply seated emotions. It stirs people, kindles their passion and propels them forward. Vision provides the crucial performance motive beyond the survival instinct.

As a leader, you are commissioned to give others sight, allowing them to behold greater vistas. In the service of a compelling vision, people willingly perform work and absorb stress. If urgency is about selling a need, vision is about selling an ambition. It opens a window through which to view the future. Without it, people improvise and work at cross purposes.

We have torrents of data that tell us we’re not very good at communicating vision. A number of studies show that approximately 80 percent of employees cannot accurately recite their organization’s vision. Instead of vision, we often apologize to organizations with sterile bromides, complex plans, shadowy ideas, or fuzzy aspirations. Our feckless efforts return skepticism and a jaded complacency.

Operationally, a vision has three functions. First is the cognitive function to educate. Second is the emotional function to motivate. Third is the organizational function to coordinate.

When we hit all three, a vision becomes the ultimate economy of scale. It reduces the unit costs of performing certain types of work by answering thousands of questions, guiding employees in thousands of small decisions, and eliminating the ambiguity that might otherwise create the need for thousands of conversations. An effective vision provides for the mass production of answers and the creation of more efficient and effective coordinated action. Organizational metabolism, engagement, and productivity all rise together.

The two biggest threats to a strategic vision are that it will be changed or lost. Think about the predators that might take a vision down at its knees — interpretive filters, cultural bias, competing assumptions, informal networks, communication handoffs, and not least, the editorial filter of the chain of command. How’s that for a gauntlet? Oh, and there’s one more — and this is often the most difficult barrier — the insecurity of the leader. Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, recognized this pattern when he observed, “If you don’t have self-confidence, you can’t be simple. You’re scared to death that you’ll look simple.”

So here’s the principle and the imperative, and my advice is the same whether you are a start-up or Walmart:

First, assume illiteracy.

Second, assume oral tradition.

Communicate on the belief that no one can read and that the only way people can handle and pass on a vision is by talking about it. There is no pen. There is no paper. No Internet, no blog, no social network, no mediated discussion, no video, no podcast. There is nothing but a person’s ability to carry the message in his or her head and communicate it to another human being face-to-face.

If you operate on these two assumptions, there’s a good chance the message will remain unmolested and able to withstand the damage-in-handling it will have to endure as it moves throughout the organization.

If you are the CEO of a large organization, you learn this lesson or you fail. A.G. Lafley, the former CEO of Proctor & Gamble, and one of the most successful CEOs of the last decade, put it this way: “It’s Sesame Street language — I admit that. A lot of what we have done is make things simple because the difficulty is making sure everybody knows what the goal is and how to get there.”

W.H. Auden said, “History marches to the drum of a clear idea.” If a vision is clear, it doesn’t require PowerPoint, talking points and well-milled prose. Put all of that gear down, pretend I can’t read but I can talk to my friends, and give it to me straight. And if you can’t do that, the vision isn’t ready. Put it back in the oven.

Timothy R. Clark, Ph.D., is an author, international management consultant, former two-time CEO, Fulbright Scholar at Oxford University and Academic all-American football player at BYU. His latest two books are "The Leadership Test" and "Epic Change." E-mail: [email protected]