If you type “CEO Vision” in a Google search, more than 145 MILLION results pop up. The sheer number of responses reflect how integral having a vision is to being a CEO. Jack Welch said “good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.” So why then, do so many CEOs have trouble creating and communicating a compelling vision? For the past 13 years, I’ve worked with scores of CEOs of small and midsize firms in confidential peer advisory groups. From where I stand, the biggest reason why this vision thing is so tough is simply because CEOs are human. I’ve seen three very human obstacles hold these otherwise successful CEOs back from “owning the vision”. I’ve also seen courageous CEO’s overcome them producing breakthrough results. What are these three human stumbling blocks?
FUNK: Have you ever found yourself in a funk lacking the energy to do anything other than the basic requirements of your job? Do you even recognize you are in a funk when it happens? The dictionary defines “funk” as “to be afraid of or to shrink from undertaking or facing”. Think back to your last funk and see if you can’t identify one or more fears that may have been the culprit. Do you think a CEO is impervious to these same fears? In fact, CEOs are even more susceptible to the fear/funk obstacle as they are accountable for ALL of the risk, results, and relationships that define their business. While they may start out with a robust vision and great passion, they can become deflated by the cruel realities of the business world such as disappointing sales, dissatisfied customers, disengaged employees, and skeptical investors. So what’s the antidote? As Mark Twain said, “courage isn’t the absence of fear, it is acting in spite of it.” Great CEOs must find a way to consistently avoid and overcome their own funk. In a recent LinkedIn post, Adam Grant says “great entrepreneurs…are afraid of failing, but they’re even more afraid of failing to try”.
LOSS: CEOs will experience significant loss in life and in business just as all humans do. Loss is part of life, and just like the rest of us, they’ll go through a grieving process that can nearly blind them to the future. Whether it’s the death a loved one or coworker, the loss of a customer or partnership or another type of setback, CEOs will experience setbacks that feel like a significant loss. It’s unrealistic to expect anyone to have a sharp vision when they’ve just been dealt a blow to the gut. Not only do CEOs have the same emotional attachment to their customers, employees, business opportunities, friends, family members as other people; the best CEO’s care even more than most. Great CEOs learn to cope with the grieving process and sense of loss effectively so that it doesn’t derail them or their organization.
CURSE OF KNOWLEDGE: Once you know something, it’s impossible to imagine not knowing it. It also makes it very difficult to understand how anyone else could not know it. The affected CEO becomes so clear about what needs to happen next that it nearly destroys his or her ability to articulate a clear and compelling vision. It can even result in them dismissing the people around them as being dense or incompetent, because “they just don’t get it”. In Made to Stick, Chip and Don Heath suggest that the only way to beat the curse of knowledge is to either not learn anything, or to take your ideas and transform them into messages that resonate and stick. Equipped with these messages, the CEO can effectively pass on the new knowledge so that others can act on it.
These three “vision killers” can happen anytime, either in parallel or separately. A healthy dose of humility, self-awareness, and emotional intelligence help great CEO’s avoid these human traps. They invest in support systems that not only help them quickly identify these obstacles when they occur, but also help them develop risk-mitigating strategies to overcome them. They understand the emotional impact of fear and loss, and they also know it’s not humanly possible to have all the answers. The best CEOs are not too proud to ask for help.