Learning to be a leader is like learning to be a great athlete, musician or artist. It’s a capability that develops over time, through trial and error, hard work, and practice. Leadership is learned by doing, not simply by taking notes in a classroom.
-Stanford Graduate School of Business
Are you a leader? If so, when did you become a leader? It’s probably hard to pinpoint a specific date or time when you identified yourself as a leader. Learning to lead takes time, practice, and persistence. Even the best leaders continue to read books and articles on leadership, discuss leadership best practices with other leaders, and continue their leadership journey by overcoming unforeseen obstacles.
But the selection of leadership books, articles and resources is massive. People who’ve spent a lifetime leading or studying leadership are willing to share their wisdom with the rest of us. Much of it is insightful, helpful, and even brilliant. The problem, however, is organizing and making sense out of all this information.
I work for a company that is in the learning business and we work hard to make sure that people not only have access to information, but that they can actually absorb and apply it to the work they do.
About six years ago, we set out to develop a leadership training program, with the goal of making the wealth of leadership insight accessible to all kinds of people in all kinds of organizations. We did a lot of reading, including Warren Bennis, Seth Godin, Liz Wiseman, Peter Senge, Frances Hesselbein, Jim Collins, and Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner.
We also tapped into the opinions and data collected from as many as 3,500 people a day who respond to one of our online assessments. And we engaged subject matter experts from over 150 organizations to test our leadership model and support training resources.
Our goal was to create a framework of leadership that was accessible and actionable for everyone—not just the CEOs or the Ph.D.’s. We wanted to take the mystery out of leadership and spell out a leader’s responsibilities as clearly as possible.
The result is a leadership model of Vision, Alignment, and Execution, or what we call VAE. It’s pretty simple—in our view, leaders have three fundamental responsibilities: They craft a vision, they build alignment around that vision, and they bring the vision to life by championing execution of the vision.
Crafting a Vision: imagining an improved future state that the group will make a reality through its work
Building Alignment: getting to the point where everyone in the group understands and is committed to the direction
Championing Execution: ensuring that the conditions are present for the imagined future to be turned into a reality.
All three are part of a dynamic, fluid process. While there is a loose order implied in the VAE model, the actual work of leaders is not strictly sequential. Although it makes sense to craft a vision before aligning around it and executing on it, leaders are continually revisiting and reshaping their visions of the future. Likewise, we need to have buy-in before any major push toward execution, but maintaining alignment is an ongoing process.
In our research, we identified best practices, or specific behaviors that effective leaders do in each step of the VAE model. As you think about your leadership journey, you’ll probably find that some of these behaviors are second-nature to you. And you’re also likely to discover that you have a few leadership behaviors that are much more difficult.
Wherever you are on your leadership journey, having the VAE framework will keep you on course, ensuring that you are continuously improving your work as a leader, and giving the people who follow you the confidence and the commitment to join you on your journey.
Crafting a Vision
One of the biggest differentiators between skilled and unskilled leaders is their effort and ability to craft a compelling vision of where they want to take their groups. In one study, we asked 3,574 people to rate a specific leader in their organizations and tell us if that person creates a strong vision for the group’s future. At the same time, we were able to measure how well-regarded that person was as a leader.
Among the worst-rated leaders, hardly any crafted a strong vision for their groups. On the other hand, 87% of the best-rated leaders put together a compelling vision for their groups.
Having a vision will take you to a new place. The work of a leader is to lead people somewhere else—somewhere that’s not here. If the group is staying in the same place, they may need a manager, but not a leader. Leadership is all about change. But change to what? That’s why a vision is so important. The leader needs to have a crystal-clear vision of where the group is headed. What exactly will things look like when we pull this off? The leader needs to know the answer to this question, whether she’s the CEO or the team supervisor.
So how can you improve your ability to craft a vision? Our research revealed that leaders who are good at crafting a vision do three important things: They find new opportunities through exploration, they push the boundaries with bold ideas, and they take the time to check their assumptions.
The good news is that most people can learn how to craft an effective, compelling vision, regardless of their level in the organization.
In our VAE leadership model, building alignment is the logical next stage after crafting a vision. Building alignment is the act of gaining buy-in for your vision and it’s absolutely critical in moving from imagination to reality.
Bill George, Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School, and former CEO of Medtronic says, “The most empowering condition of all is when the entire organization is aligned with its mission, and people’s passions and purpose are in synch with each other.”
Within an organization, if teams don’t have synchronization, they will be completing tasks without bringing together passion and goals. Alignment conserves time and energy by making sure everyone knows what they’re supposed to be doing and why. It’s about getting both emotional and rational buy-in to your vision. Alignment also provides a forum for questions and concerns, giving everyone an opportunity to feel a sense of ownership in the vision. And alignment unites and excites people around a vision.
Effective leaders know how important it is to have everyone on board. And yet, very few people actually have been trained on how to get alignment.
Using our access to 3500 assessment users per day, we were able to quickly ask specific questions and get additional information. We were able to discover that, when it comes to alignment, both experienced and inexperienced leaders are getting very little guidance. 65% of respondents say they have received none to a little bit when it comes to training or guidance in the practice of getting alignment.
In your leadership development, how much training or guidance have you had in the practice of getting alignment?
Effective leaders understand that alignment is not something to check off a to-do list. Alignment is a dynamic, ongoing process that requires continual monitoring and realigning as conditions and needs change.
To build alignment, effective leaders use clarity, dialogue, and inspiration to build both emotional and rational buy-in for a vision. When both rational and emotional needs are met, when leaders reach the head and heart, true alignment changes the way team members view their actions; they embrace team decisions and organizational actions as if they were their own. As Seth Godin, author of Tribes, puts it, “The challenge for the leader is to help your tribe sing, whatever form that song takes.”
Once the vision is crafted and people are aligned, how do you as the leader contribute to a successful execution? Research from Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business School begins to point toward an answer. Amabile studied the social and psychological components necessary for people to produce good work. Of the four components she identified, two deal specifically with a sense of achievement. First, people are most creative and productive when they have a passion for a task that’s interesting, involving, personally challenging, or satisfying. Second, cultural and environmental factors stimulate creativity and productivity, such as when leaders encourage a sense of positive challenge in the work, collaboration, and the development of new ideas; and when they support innovation, give appropriate recognition, and create ways to actively share ideas across the organization. In other words, you can create an environment that leads to more effective execution. As the leader, you can instill a sense of the possible in an organization or team, and a personal and tangible feeling that each contribution is a step toward realizing a vision.
While leaders may or may not be directly involved in day-to-day implementation and production, they are always responsible for ensuring that people have what they need to do their work effectively. This is where your work as a leader requires that you step into a new and critical role: that of a champion. Successful execution of a vision can’t happen without the deep commitment and active championing of leaders.
In the VAE model, championing execution boils down to three key behaviors: creating momentum, putting structure in place, and providing feedback.
Championing execution is as much about establishing and defining your credibility as an effective leader as it is about helping the organization or team achieve the vision. Leaders who are deeply committed and actively engaged understand that execution is a process.
The VAE Model
As you navigate your leadership journey, the fundamental work of crafting a vision, building alignment around that vision, and championing execution of the vision will guide your progress, and keep your followers focused. When the VAE model is applied widely across organizations, it can benefit the whole culture. When the principles of VAE take hold, there’s a sense of community and working together toward a common goal. When things go well, there are celebrations. When there are disappointments, people work together to determine what went wrong, without pointing fingers. There’s talk about “us,” “we,” and “together.” Everyone realizes he or she is part of something bigger than anyone could have achieved alone. And that’s a journey worth taking.
Amabile, T. (2012). Componential theory of creativity [Abstract]. Harvard Business School. Retrieved from http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/7011.html
George., B. (2010). Empowering People to Lead. In J. Perry (Ed.), Nonprofit and Public Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Godin, S. (2008). Tribes: We need you to lead us (p. 124). New York, NY: Portfolio Hardcover.
Straw, J., Scullard, M., Kukkonen, S., Davis, B., (2013). The work of leaders: How vision, alignment, and execution will change the way you lead. San Francisco, CA: Wiley.