Great Leaders Are Dreamers

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was always my friend. Oh, I did not actually know Sam personally. 

But, his poetry made me feel like I was in a conversation with an old friend. I first met Sam when I had to memorize lines from his famous poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

One of his poems that stuck with me forever was his poem What If You Slept. While the poem had a decidedly religious overtone, the challenge presented by his poem is universal for all leaders eager to be excellent.

Here is his poem:

What if you slept
And what if
In your sleep you dreamed
And what if
In your dream you went to heaven
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower
And what if
When you awoke
You had that flower in you hand
Ah, what then?

We were all taught in Supervision 101 that managers are directors of stuff—policies, materials, numbers, and systems; while leaders are influencers of people. People have hearts and souls rather than programs and sums; people are emotional, not just logical. And, that is where the dream part comes in.

“All successful people - men and women - are big dreamers,” wrote author Brian Tracey. “They imagine what their future could be, ideal in every respect, and then they work every day toward their distant vision, that goal or purpose.” 

Great leaders are superb dreamers. Thomas Edison was not in pursuit of improving the candle. Rosa Parks was not just claiming a seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. Virgin Galactic founder and CEO Sir Richard Branson is not seeking to just build a faster passenger aircraft.

Dream-Driven Leaders Tell Stories

When Dr. Martin Luther King stood before a quarter-million people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August, 1963 and delivered a speech practically every fifth grader knows, it did not solely present a dream of beautiful future, where “this nation would rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: that all men are created equal.” 

He put a flower in the hands of everyone within earshot. He spoke of a day when sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners would sit down together at the table of brotherhood. He painted a poignant and powerful picture of a time when his own four little children would live in a nation where they would be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.

One of the most powerful tools dream-driven leaders use in order to sincerely communicate a clear, compelling purpose is storytelling. Stories are memorable and rich in their capacity to convey meaning. Stories also stir inquisitiveness. It is that trait— the inquisitive pursuit of a dream—that inspires and cultivates front line employees to strive for what is beyond, not just what is.

“If the Bible were a list of rules,” says information design guru Richard Wurman, “it would have been out of print centuries ago.”

It is the stories that create legends out of organizational heroes, parables out of organizational errors, and folklore out of organizational beliefs. And, it is the anecdotal style that invites connection, identification and discovery.

Stories telegraph a set of norms or values unique to the organization. When Southwest Airlines employees tell the story of retired CEO Herb Kelleher hiding in the luggage bin to scare passengers as they entered the plane, they are really saying, “We are supposed to have fun.”

When Aflac managers tell the story of how CEO Dan Amos took a major risk with his approval of a duck as the company spokesperson, it was really saying, “Be willing to be different.” One senior leader said of the infamous meeting to introduce the duck idea, “We thought he had lost his mind. But, today that duck is one of the most recognizable, brand-enhancing corporate symbols on the planet.”

“Without a dream,” wrote famed author Zig Ziglar, “there would be no dream come true.”

Dream-Driven Leaders Act Congruent With Their Dreams

“Like Desperadoes Waiting For A Train” is a song made famous by the Highwaymen, a singing group made up of country music giants Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and the late Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. It perfectly captures the sense of eagerness dream-driven leaders help create. Watch such leaders in action and there is always a sense of anticipation, like something special is just around the corner. More importantly, they fan the flame of impatience and expectancy by their low tolerance for anything that creates temperance, moderation or restraint.

It is not that these leaders are shoot-from-the-hip, impulsive types. Their decisions are grounded in substance and bordered by solid information. It is more a restless recognition that being in the moment is required for greatness. They speak about the journey ahead with excitement. They evaluate input filtered through an interest in tomorrow, not an anchor to yesterday. They show more fascination with what they can be than anxiety with what they are.

Larry Kurzweil, President of Universal Studios Hollywood, requested the theme park to turn up the volume on the street music and to make it peppy, walking-somewhere music. His leadership style communicates that same upbeat, animated, idea-a-minute persona. When people are around him his infectious forward pushing energy makes them ready to push the go button and make stuff happen. The result? Universal Studios Hollywood enjoys a repeat visit rate among their guests that is considerable higher than Disneyland and other theme parks in the area.

Dreams lived are dreams retold. President John F. Kennedy did not paint a picture of going to the moon solely in his 1961 inaugural speech. He repeated the dream in word and deed. It remained on the top of his presidential to-do list. The dream found its way into many of his speeches and conversations after taking office. He used every opportunity to buttonhole people of influence to clear away the obstacles for the realization of his space dream.

If dreams are shared with consistency, conviction, and clarity, they are heard. If dreams are followed by aligned actions and obvious accountability, they are believed. If dreams are repeated by those not the subject of the tale, they are remembered. And, sooner or later, with persistence and passion, followers will awake from the dream and find a flower in their hand.

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