When I was an undergraduate studying economics I got the impression people made rational decisions by weighing the costs and benefits of every option available and making the choice which was most advantageous for them. When I examined the behavior of those around me however, this theory seemed to explain only a small percentage of actual decisions.
I later studied leadership theory and I began to see an explanation for this behavior. People often make meta-decisions which eliminate the need to make numerous smaller decisions. The decision to follow someone else can be used as a shortcut to making complex decisions. This saves the follower time and effort but also gives the leader a great advantage.
In this dynamic, both parties benefit. The follower struggles less with decision making and the leader gets to set the agenda. Both are maximizing their efficiency; one by conserving energy the other by focusing it.
If you are reading this blog it’s likely you see yourself as a person who has a lot to accomplish, a person with drive and ambition. An energy maximizer rather than an energy conserver. If you want to be a leader rather than a follower there’s one characteristic you must develop to increase your odds of being successful: you need to develop vision.
What Does it Mean to Be Visionary?
To be visionary is to have a distinct view of how the world could be changed for the better. A person with vision can improve our lives by reorganizing the living room furniture or by reordering social norms.
While there are many things a visionary person can accomplish on their own, the best reason to be visionary is to inspire others to help you accomplish your goals. Leadership is a way of leveraging our collective abilities, of focusing the energy of many people to create a better world.
Dwight Eisenhower famously said, “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”
While many people have recognized the benefits of leadership, not everyone can effectively get other people to want to accomplish their goals. When most people study leadership they focus on communicating effectively and creating a connection with others, on being the kind of person others will respond to.
While these are the nuts and bolts of leadership training, the real key to success begins much earlier, with the vision you are working toward. If you have a vision that is compelling you have a tremendous head start on those who are merely focusing on the mechanics of leadership.
The Secret to Finding Followers
The secret is, people actually want to follow you. (Well, maybe not you specifically, but they want to follow someone.) When you provide an inspiring vision you are helping them because you are fulfilling their need for leadership and the desire to be engaged in communal effort.
Everyone has a desire to be part of a group; it’s a basic human need. Whenever we find ourselves in unfamiliar surroundings we begin looking for a group with which we can associate, searching for likeminded people and developing a community. A leader provides the mental satisfaction we crave; it’s like a drink of cool water to a thirsty soul.
We all have this need to find leaders but we’re not just going to follow anyone. As leaders we need to provide a compelling vision that will resonate with potential followers.
How To Create an Inspiring Vision
It’s not about pretending to be something you’re not, it’s finding what’s unique about who you are.
We all have a distinctive worldview or a way of interpreting how the world operates. This worldview contains both our understanding of how the world currently operates (e.g., rich people don’t go to jail, or it’s not what you know but who you know) and how the world should operate (e.g., all people should be treated equally, or merit gets recognized).
Our worldview is what motivates us to behave the way we do and inspires us to act altruistically. The people we follow are those who connect with a part of our worldview and who say, let’s work together to make this happen.
The secret is finding a unique piece of your worldview others can connect with. The more this resonates with them the stronger the connection will be. Much of our worldview revolves around ourselves, about how the world should operate in order to make our lives happier. But while this is motivating it’s not really inspiring.
There are a lot of people who use flattery and an appeal to our selfish nature to promote their agenda. If you’ve ever seen a headline that says “You Can Be Rich” you’ve seen this kind of self-interested appeal.
We all know people are first and foremost concerned about themselves, but people also want to see themselves as generous and kind. Being self-serving is socially discouraged; we’d rather see ourselves as helpful. Everyone wants to be part of an admirable cause.
So while people may respond to your message out of self-interest, they will share your message with others when it benefits people besides themselves. And whatever you’re trying to do, you can do it better by enlisting the help of supportive followers.
You can do this by following these two guidelines:
1. Turn your vision into an inspiring story
2. Make it about others
People respond better to stories than to concepts; whenever possible express your vision as a story. Intellectually believing in equal rights can cause us to be committed to it as an ideal, but hearing about someone’s personal experience being denied a basic human right creates an emotional reaction that is visceral. This is what motivates us to action.
While a story about yourself can be touching, endearing, even emotionally appealing, nothing inspires people to share a story with others like being part of a worthy cause. When people feel their efforts will make a difference for someone else they’re much more likely to share it with their friends.
This doesn’t mean you have to operate a charity, it just means you can’t be blatantly rapacious. Find a way to make your needs correspond with the needs of others.
So Why Should You Be Visionary?
You need to be visionary if you want to:
Become a leader
Leverage the efforts of others
Give people something to believe in
Get people to spread the word