Straight Talk

Dec. 21, 2004
Where there is no visionary, companies falter.

Visionary executives are indispensable to a company's future. They are skilled in dreaming up things that never were. They realize how important studying the past is to investing in the future. Myopic executives can't see the past or the future and, therefore, merely repeat the past. Vision is a priceless talent that distinguishes leaders from managers. One cannot pretend to be a visionary. Either you are or you aren't. Robert F. Kennedy declared himself a visionary when he uttered these memorable words: "Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not." Though Kennedy spoke those words, his speechwriter actually borrowed them from George Bernard Shaw. Ordinarily, I would be bothered if Kennedy knew he was thinking aloud with George Bernard Shaw's ideas. But the message is so appropriate for our times, so profound for our futures, and so true for corporate executives that it deserves to be heard over and over again. Dreaming things that never were created a new industrial revolution -- one that gave birth to high-tech companies such as Microsoft, Intel, Compaq, Xerox, Lucent, Imation, Oracle, and Iomega. Dreaming things that never were reinvented longtime successful companies such as General Electric, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and 3M. Dreaming things that never were invented manufacturing innovations such as computer-aided engineering, just-in-time delivery systems, zero-defects manufacturing, team problem-solving, employee empowerment, quality control, and complete customer satisfaction. Dreaming things that never were is not a science. It's an art practiced by visionaries who manage by faith instead of by formula. They are driven by an unquestioning belief that the lessons of the past will inevitably invent the successes of the future. They see visions where others see vacuums. They say "We can," when others say "We can't." Microsoft's vision statement says, "A computer on every desk and in every home." Microsoft is making that vision real. By contrast, Apple's vision statement was less doable: "Changing the world one person at a time." It used the scary "c" word: change. People don't like change. They resist it. But Apple's former visionaries let the company down. They rested on their laurels and sat on their status quo. The result: Apple's vision needed a revision. Apple is a painful reminder that even a high-profile, leading-edge company can project distorted foresight when its visionaries are impaired. Every worthwhile vision is a dramatic and demoralizing departure from the present. Every worthwhile chief executive who advocates change must allow ample time for all company employees, at all levels, to see his or her vision, understand it, question it, and eventually live it. Only then can vision become reality. Every worthwhile vision needs a gestation period -- and an awakening -- to prove whether it will become a workable fact or a flight of fancy. Visions need to be nurtured, carefully cultivated, and expertly converted. A vision must pass the test of viability before people other than the visionary can see it. Chief executives who expect their people to dream up new ideas need to wake them up to the profit potential in dreaming -- and encourage them to dream when they are awake as well as in their sleep. To keep employees alert, I recommend you add "what-ifs" to your conversations. This will inspire new thinking and new understanding. But you must be willing to tolerate ambiguity and expect mistakes, because when the ideas begin to flow, there will be both good and bad ones. Be relentlessly inquisitive, because the best idea evaluators must be comfortable in the world of abstract and conceptual thought. I've been doing some dreaming lately myself. I'm thinking about publishing a new magazine for married executives -- one they and their spouses can read at breakfast. It will be printed on cellophane. Sal F. Marino is chairman emeritus of Penton Media Inc. and an IW contributing editor. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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