Can You See What I See?
December 12, 2014
Chief Communication Officer of Insite Skill LLC
Driving down the road along Main Street I read this quote on a marquee in front of a local church: "Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others" (Jonathan Swift).
That’s it! That’s why describing our vision is so difficult. What we see in the future is invisible to everyone else.
When I was in elementary school, my parents were good friends with an evangelist who used chalk talks to explain Biblical principles. I was captivated as the stories came alive in full color landscapes, furniture, clothing and even food of the period.
One afternoon I tagged along with the artist while she prepared the canvas and laid out the chalk for her next story. As I approached the easel, I noticed a distinctly off white rectangle over one area of the canvas. I was curious because it appeared to be a mistake that was covered over with thick chalk.
Why not just take the vacuum and clean it up like the artist did after every other chalk talk? I didn't recognize it then, but that was my first introduction to what it means to have a vision.
That night, I sat mesmerized as the artist told the story of the 10 lepers and how only one came back to express thankfulness at being healed. As the lights over the easel turned from bright to black, that one lone person running to Jesus to say thank you, was revealed in the exact area of that white mistake on the canvas.
Many years later I learned the technique for using black light technology. The artist can see perfectly what they want to appear at the pinnacle of their presentation. Before the event, the artist goes into a type of design session where the final scene is planned out.
To assure the effectiveness of their presentation, the artist surrounds the working environment with a curtain, angles the lights circumspectly, and arranges the pieces of chalk. Chalk that illuminates under a black light is white, regardless of its actual color. With a perfect vision of their final scene, the artist first chalks the surface of the canvas with a neutral color.
Then they draw with precision, using black light chalk. Behind the curtain with the black lights shining down, the artist draws and shades the pictorial image of their vision. They can see so clearly the rendering of the future. The black lights are then turned off, the curtain drawn back, and only a patch of creamy chalk remains.
The artist approaches the easel, colored chalk laid out on the tray and begins to draw the sky, mountains, trees, tents, and people, all the while telling the story we've heard a hundred times before. The canvas is now in full color with no hint of the mistake detected earlier in the day.
As she gets to the end of the story, the artist moves to the side of the easel where, as if by magic, her vision emerges. At this point the audience is fully engaged. There, on the canvas, is the picture that was in the artist’s mind all along, her perfectly articulated vision in full view of all looking on.
I remember the first time I heard the word vision used in a sentence that didn't involve a sleepwalking child and bad dreams. I was in a corporate gathering pragmatically dubbed Town Hall Meeting to suggest inclusion and involvement of all employees. The leaders of the organization were trying to articulate their vision for the next big thing despite the dreadful economic outlook.
Attrition wasn't vacating enough positions to stop the bleeding of weekly layoffs, but the executive team knew this was not the time to put down the paintbrush and fold up the canvas. This was the time to bring paint in 50 gallon drums, roll out a canvas the size of Texas, and put brushes in the hands of innovative designers.
Using this as their premier presentation forum, these executives mapped out in stories and pictures staged changes that would be made over the course of a few years to keep the company solvent, productive, and thriving, not just surviving.
It wasn't the mesmerizing essence of magic like the chalk talk in the analogy described here, but there was renewed hope because employees were invited to peer into the future, share the vision and understand that there was a distinct plan.
If you remember the eras of 1987 or 2001-2002 or 2007-2008 your experience might be similar. The devastating effects of the economy sent many companies to the brink of disaster and some went over the edge. Each of those times, I was fortunate enough to be working for an organization whose staunch belief in its corporate vision was unwavering. In tough times those leaders held tight to their resolve, formulating communications, talking about the future and articulating their vision - their united, singular, intentional vision.
Jesse Lyn Stoner, in her article Characteristics Of An Effective Vision defines vision in these two ways:
“Vision is knowing who you are, where you’re going, and what will guide the journey" and “a vision is a clearly-articulated, results-oriented picture of a future you intend to create. It is a dream with direction.”
There is no substitute for a clear vision when leading a team, an organization, or a family. Mark Deterding, founder and principal of Triune Leadership Services says:
"As a senior leader, you can’t delegate vision. You must be intentional about setting the vision of your organization. The leader must paint the picture of the future."
A clearly defined, well-articulated shared vision can provide the following for an organization:
- Helps the team grasp what is compelling about the destination
- Provides specific direction for the development of the strategy that will be required
- Generates passion versus obligatory compliance
- Enlists enthusiastic engagement in the strategy and required goals to achieve the vision
- Provides a reason for enlistment versus deflection when the journey gets tough
- Provides a context to rationalize all decisions"
Leading requires discipline, laser focus and the ability to see the future. It also requires that you articulate your vision so well, that those you lead can see it too.
Can you see what I see? If you've painted the picture effectively, the answer will be: “Yes, I see it and I’m with you all the way!”
First, thanks for a really engaging description of the creative process, which appears like magic to many of us, especially if the person is highly skilled. Behind the curtain, you note the planning, the practice, and the careful thought that goes into making something clear to others.
I suspect this same process could easily be applied to the art of speaking – what looks easy for some comes from the same elements of planning, practice, and thought.
The application to leadership, beautifully stated by Jesse Lyn Stoner’s words, is right on and ought to be memorialized (I would almost say “memorized”) by all of us who care about becoming better leaders and helping others to do likewise.
… and the inspiration came from a church sign you “happened” to notice … bonus:)
John, Thank you for reading and for sharing your insights as a visionary yourself. I’ve worked on teams in the past where vision was so speculative it wasn’t obvious until the project was complete and immediate rework begun. Clearly understood purpose and well defined vision are irreplaceable on a project level as well as the corporate level.