One of the goals of a true leader is to be the Keeper and the Promoter of the Vision. As a leader you determine where the organization is going and you steer the team through often stormy seas, always keeping an eye on the far distant horizon, rallying the troops with enthusiastic descriptions of the Glorious Future that lies ahead.
A compelling image, it’s true. Being Keeper of the Vision is important — but, to borrow from Stephen Covey, what about those times when the urgent things seem to completely subsume the important things? Are there times in an organization when the lofty language of vision takes a back seat to the terse commands of immediate danger? As every leader knows, the answer is “Absolutely.”
Back in my U.S. Navy days when we were sailing across the wide Pacific Ocean, we typically had our radar set to its maximum range — about 40 miles in those days. I remember many times when we were sailing on the same course all day long, seeing another distant and harmless ship here and there, traversing the calm seas under the breezy sunshine at our blistering cruising speed of around 22 knots. At times like that it was easy for the captain to maintain the Vision — we knew our ultimate destination and we were on a good course and speed to get there without interruption. Sometimes your organization is like that: nothing but fair winds and following seas, as the mariners used to say. Being a leader at times like that is a calm and lofty experience indeed.
But one time we sailed into Tokyo Bay, heading for the Japanese port of Yokosuka. I had never in my life seen so many ships, boats, barges, tugs, fishing boats and random water craft in one concentrated place in my life — like a floating Interstate 5 at rush hour! At times like that you forget about talk of your long-range “vision.” You also forget about the luxury of gazing across those wide open seas toward the far horizon. And that 40-mile radar range? You have to shift your thinking drastically, reducing that radar sweep down to about 2,000 yards, just to avoid hitting something or being hit. (Old Navy saying: “A collision at sea can ruin your whole day.”) Experiences like that are when a leader shows his/her true mettle. Can you avoid your natural impulse to panic? Can you, as Kipling said, keep your head when those around you are losing theirs? Stressful times like that transit of Tokyo Bay reveal a lot more about the character of the captain of a ship — or the leader of an organization — than peaceful days sailing under the open sunshine of the breezy, broad Pacific.
Is your organization on the wide open sea, with your steady hand guiding the group toward your Vision, full speed ahead? Or are you in Tokyo Bay with the potential for disaster imminent, reacting to the barrage of danger signs all around, doing your best to arrive safely at the dock without a collision? Yes, the lofty language of vision is important — but so is the steady confidence of the leader who is competent and sure-handed under stress. Here’s a salute to those leaders who possess the ability to thrive in both the calm and the crisis.