Choosing Direction in the Absence of Vision

When you're lost in the forest, you may not be able to see your way out. But you must at least choose a direction and embark on it.

Leadership often faces the same quandary. There is a leadership myth that the leader must always begin with vision. Experience tells me otherwise. When uncertainty runs high, vision often emerges only after we've made enough headway for a clearer future to emerge.

In times of confusion, choosing a direction may be the best that we can accomplish. Choosing the best direction is often just as strategic as setting the right vision.

And notice that I said choosing the best direction, not the right direction. Truth is, in the midst of uncertainty, it's typically impossible to choose a direction and be absolutely certain that it's the right one. But neither should it be chosen impulsively or in some kind of willy-nilly planning process.

My first consulting client, some 40 years ago, had a sign over his desk which read, "It's very difficult to make mid-course corrections with a stationary object." He pointed to that sign frequently when one of his managers was postponing action on a thorny issue.

In his judgment continued procrastination was a far greater mistake than choosing the wrong initial direction. After all, if the initial direction proves wrong, feedback will alert us to make mid-course adjustments. Sitting still gives us no feedback whatsoever.

On the other hand, he wanted his managers to be able to explain why the direction they chose was the best of the options before them. Sometimes he might disagree, but he rarely overrode them. He reserved his override solely for situations in which a manager had clearly overlooked a critical consideration too consequential to ignore.

At the same time, my client always wanted to know his managers' rational for the direction that they were choosing. This was not so much to micromanage their decision. Rather, it was to assure himself that they had thought out the decision thoroughly. By asking for their rationale, he guarded against those impulsive or willy-nilly decisions that we mentioned above.

Leaders should always strive to develop a clear, compelling vision, then rally people around it. That's the ideal. When the ideal proves momentarily unattainable, the leader's next best option is to move in a well-chosen direction. After all, you can't make mid-course corrections with a stationary object.

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