Leadership – Vision 1

Leadership - Vision 1

One of my favorite stories about vision and achievement of long-term goals relates to the carving of the Crazy Horse memorial in South Dakota.  Chief Henry Standing Bear of the Oglala Lakota commissioned Korczak Ziolkowski to carve the monument because he was known to be a rapid and outstanding carver.  His work on nearby Mount Rushmore gave him the credentials for the job.  Alone, and with only rudimentary tools, he would climb the mountain each day with the intent of carving a whole granite mountain into one statue.  He started in 1947 and he and he alone understood the size of the job and the need for a long-term vision of the completed work.

Korczak carved a small replica of the finished work so that future carvers would have it as a reference.  He carved this smaller duplicate of his vision so that those in later years could see in stone what he saw in his mind’s eye.  Today, 2023, the carving project goes on with the Ziolkowski children and grandchildren picking up his vision and moving toward completion.  Few among us can build a generational vision and lay the groundwork to get it done.

What do you want to be?

Every time we see our grandchildren, I have a consistent question for them.  I usually pose this question late on the first day because I want to have time to let them think and to ask follow-up questions.  The question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  I would imagine that many grandparents ask this same question in jest, but it is a serious question and, in my opinion, has real developmental implications.  At about age five, one of our granddaughters would always reply, “A Princess ballerina.” 

I never figured out what a “Princess ballerina” is, but that was less important than the question and the answer.  Even at 5 years old, we can visualize a future in which we might live.  But to get from here to there you must also be able to understand the gap and how to fill that gap with actions.  When the gaps become filled with positive, measurable, and time-targeted goals, which are then filled with measurable tasks, then the vision has a chance of becoming a reality.  It is the sum of these successfully completed quantifiable tasks and goals that lead to fulfilled visions and dreams.

“Dreams without goals, are just dreams and they ultimately fuel disappointment.”

Denzel Washington

Now that our grandchildren are older, still young but older, they know to expect the question.  I know the answer to my question will change with time, but I ask this question over and over because it forces them to think about the future, about their future.  We want them to dream big, and to visualize a future state for themselves.  My wife and I want our grandchildren to be leaders in a world almost devoid of such people.  People who cannot envision a better world, one filled with hope and opportunity, are doomed to a meager and sad existence.  Without vision, they cannot lead others to a better place because they cannot see it in themselves.

Where are we now?

Often missing from this discussion is the honest assessment of the current state of our existence.  Simply said, you cannot define the gap between today (where you are) and a future state (where you want to be) without an honest assessment of today.  This is where our politicians often fail in their duties.  They want to create an imaginary current state from which to work, and then define some future state that is either unattainable or completely fictional.  With an imaginary current and future state failure is assured, and actions taken are a complete waste of time and resources.

Moses, a true leader

One of my favorite stories from the Old Testament is that of Moses and leading the Israelites out of Egypt.  This story easily proves the power of vision for leaders and illustrates another important concept.  Moses had a difficult job, but he solved it with a vision of a place called “The Promised Land.”  With the Israelites coming from an oppressed state in Egypt to the desert, their current state was well defined.  Moses gave them the vision of the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  The gap between where they were and where they were going was long and arduous, and the goals and tasks related to a getting in a right state with God.  The roadmap for getting in that “Right State” is laid out for them in the Pentateuch.

The story of Moses also gives us an important point that most political “leaders” miss.  If you can describe a future state that is a better place than where you are now, then people line up to help make the vision come true.  This brings me back to the void in Presidential leadership mentioned in the introductory article.  In my lifetime I believe that only John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan would meet my definition of visionary Presidential leaders.

President John F. Kennedy

I believe President Kennedy is famous for two speeches with notable quotes.  The first was his inaugural speech and the phrase:

“Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

President John F. Kennedy, January 10, 1961

While impactful and dramatic, it is likely that this was a distilled version of a quote by Kahlil Gibran in The New Frontier:

“Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you, or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country?  If you are the first, then you are a parasite; if the second, then you are an oasis in the desert.” 

Kahlil Gibran, The New Frontier, 1925

Whatever the source, this statement is not a vision, it is a call to action but produces no visual representation of a better future state.

The real visionary speech by Kennedy came in his address that kicked off our space race to the moon.

“We choose to go to the moon.  We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

President John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962

This speech has all the earmarks of a broad vision.  Kennedy described a future state that was better than where we were then; it called for a united front to get that done; and it required that we all do our utmost as a nation to get there.  Kennedy clearly visualized that “No one has ever done this, but as Americas we can do this!”  We also felt that he was part of the team, even after his assassination.  We all knew that the race was ambitious, symbolic, and a real contest between Democracy and Communism.

President Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan was the only other Presidential visionary in my lifetime.  His ability to align the American people behind his actions to create a better America is legendary.  Politicians from both parties now want to claim alignment with Reagan to prove they are just as insightful, just as visionary.

Reagan had many speeches and quotes that helped us understand where we were as a nation and why our role in the world order was unique and critical.  None was more important than his speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1987.  As often happens at moments of greatness, Reagan’s advisors recommended that he not call for the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.  The press gave the speech little coverage, and Reagan had to write the phrase back into the speech.  Today his speech is seen for what it was and is:

“General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate.  Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate.” Reagan then waited for the applause to die down before continuing. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

President Ronald Reagan, June 12, 1987

The powerful description of an undivided and free Germany was impactful, easy to visualize, and easy for all people to rally behind and end the Cold War.  It took two more years, but the wall came down.

Reagan’s most impactful and best speech came in his farewell address to the nation.  In this speech he laid out a vision of the United States.

“In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity.  And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

“We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American.  And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions.  If you didn’t get these things from your family, you got them from the neighborhood… .Or you could get a sense of patriotism from school.  And if all else failed you could get a sense of patriotism from the popular culture.”

Ronald Reagan, Farewell Address 1989

Reagan had used parts of this same analogy in his 1988 State of the Union message, and his farewell address reinforced this as his vision for the nation.  In his view our Nation’s greatness had to be reinforced through family, schools, churches, and neighborhoods.  It fell to all of us to keep the vision of freedom alive.

In my opinion these two Presidents, more than any others, set out the vision for our nation.



We try to keep each article on the web site to 1,500 words or less, but this topic is too involved and too important to condense to that length.  We will conclude the topic of Vision in our next article.  This discussion also feeds into the series titled The Sum of Our Decisions.

This article is part of a larger discussion on the Foundations of Leadership and the whole series can be seen by CLICKING HERE.