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Leadership: Vision and environment

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- Much is said today about a leader's obligation to set the vision for an organization. That sometimes difficult task is crucial to the success of any organization, be it large or small. Setting the vision, however, is just one part of the equation. The leader must also provide an environment that allows the organization to meet that vision.

Farmers understand how important the environment is to their success. They spend a great deal of time before the season planning how to maximize the harvest. They measure the pH levels of the soil, determine soil temperature and watch the weather. Once they decide on the type of seed and determine the optimum time for planting, the farmer sows the field.

A farmer's work, though, is only half done. They cannot simply turn off the tractor, head inside, flip on the TV and wait for fall; if they did, the crop would soon dry up and wither. They must then begin to do everything in their power to ensure the seeds are given every opportunity to grow and flourish so when harvest season arrives they are able to reap the bounty from the seeds they have sown. They determine the optimal combination of fertilizer and herbicide and control the amount of irrigation in the field based on the weather. In doing these things, they are providing the proper environment for the crop to grow.

In a similar sense, leaders determine what vision to "plant" in their organization. They organize tiger teams, ask for inputs from members, seek outside help from high priced consultants or some combination of all three. Signs and posters are made, slides are built and newsletters are distributed all touting the new vision, with leaders never missing an opportunity to discuss the topic with the organization.

Setting conditions for success and providing an environment for the vision to take root, however, is equally important. Without this step, the vision will wither away and the organization may go back to the way it operated before.

The leader can provide a vision-sustaining environment in two ways; resources and mindset. Resources come in the form of money and time. If meeting the new vision costs money, then the leader has to provide necessary funds or cut back on unnecessary spending that doesn't contribute to the vision. Providing necessary time to meet the vision is perhaps more difficult. Leaders do this by letting members of the organization know time consuming events or procedures that don't contribute to meeting the vision should be closely scrutinized and, if necessary, reduced or eliminated. Finding these events or procedures requires taking an objective, unemotional look at organizational processes. There may be some people in the organization, however, who hold on to those outdated processes and impair the ability of the organization to meet the vision. Dealing with this can be the leader's biggest challenge.

Having a vision-sustaining mindset is also necessary for providing a vision-sustaining environment. The organization has to know that virtually nothing is off the table when it comes to meeting the new vision as long as it is safe, legal and ethical. Additionally, the leader must be willing to let people run with their ideas. True, some ideas won't be optimal; they may not even make it out of the starting blocks. On the other hand, the organization may stumble onto the perfect solution while going down what seems to be a suboptimal path. Leaders may find that only two in 100 ideas or initiatives actually make it off the drawing board. But those two may be all that is needed to get to the vision.

Successful farmers and leaders know that "planting" seeds is only the first step in obtaining the abundant harvest they envision. Setting the conditions for success by providing an environment for their vision to flourish is equally important. Both steps require hard work, perseverance and patience.