Clear Distinction: Vision vs. Journey

A client called to talk to me about creating a vision. He was struggling because he felt hand-cuffed by too many constraints. I responded by explaining the need to maintain a clear distinction between the vision and the journey. That evening, while watching Nelson Mandela’s Long Road to Freedom, I remembered our conversation. Right in the middle of the movie, Nelson Mandela, his fellow leaders of the ANC, and two wives embodied the problems that occur when that distinction is blurred.

At the risk of over-simplifying, let me paint the picture. Mandela and his fellow ANC leaders wanted freedom for their people – one man, one vote. This was their dream, their vision, and a goal for which they were willing to make great personal sacrifices. Mandela’s wife, Winnie, was also committed to that dream and willing to sacrifice.

Who is overwhelmed by next steps and can’t see the vision?

Mandela’s first wife, Evelyn, on the other hand, was not enthralled. Not because she didn’t value this vision, but because she couldn’t even see it, couldn’t believe it, thought the talk was wasted breath. She was so weighted down by survival in the moment that she saw Mandela’s efforts as an abdication of his first responsibilities as father and husband.

You have employees like Evelyn. You want them to develop big ideas and embrace change, but it doesn’t happen. Even with time and permission, their ideas are limited to small, incremental changes at best. This even happens to high level employees who may have been able to dream big at one time, but now see nothing but constraints overwhelming every desire and good idea. Surviving is their focus. Fitting in. Meeting expectations. When the walls close in, dreaming can be dangerous, if not impossible. Who in your organization feels change is hopeless? Who is blinded by next steps and can’t see the vision?

Who is controlled by the journey, not the vision? 

While Winnie and Mandela were imprisoned and apart, she lost track of the vision. For her, the journey re-shaped her vision. The war became the vision. Revenge crept into that vision. And when the journey to freedom called for peace, she was not willing to stop fighting.

You have employees like Winnie too. They’ve lost track of the vision. They are the ones caught up in power struggles.The ones who won’t let go of old goals and habits. The ones who insist upon compliance to ineffective or outdated practices. The ones who have forgotten that they are on the same team as their peers, bosses, and employees. These employees, also found at every level of the organization, are measuring their own success against a different vision, by a yardstick unlike yours. Do you know where differing measures of success are eroding your team’s ability to collaborate and succeed?

Who is ignoring the journey in their quest for the vision?

Then there are the other ANC leaders. When they were getting out of prison and negotiating with white leadership, they refused offers to share power with whites. Their vision called for one man, one vote. How could they compromise on that?

The answer lay in the distinction between the vision and the journey. They hadn’t arrived yet. The journey was still underway. And compromises are part of the journey. How you get to your destination and how fast you can go almost always require negotiation. But those compromises need not, and should not, diminish the vision.

You have employees like this too who forget that the journey is underway. They see things in black and white. They assume saying something once or writing it down makes it so. They get impatient or pig-headed when compromise becomes necessary. They find the ambiguities of the journey painful, don’t pay it enough attention, and just want to make expedient decisions regardless of the consequences. Who in your organization just wants to be done and doesn’t deal well with the realities of the journey?

Do you have a clear vision and the ability to manage the journey without sacrificing that vision?

When Mandela had to negotiate with the white leadership, he did so with one eye to the vision and another to the journey with its realities of increasing violence and white fear.

You need great leaders like Nelson Mandela. People who can create, communicate, and doggedly pursue a clear vision. And who don’t confuse the vision with the journey. You need people who can compromise on the route taken without eroding the power and clarity of the destination. Nelson Mandela was a great leader because he knew he was embarking on a long road to freedom. But he also knew he could compromise on the journey, share power along the way, without a loss of integrity. Do you have a clear vision and the ability to manage the journey without sacrificing that vision?

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