Great conversations produce great learning. I was having lunch with three very insightful women. We were talking about purpose and vision in organizations. I suggested that visions inspire, and I told them the word “inspire” in the original Greek means to “breathe life into.” One of them surfaced the Biblical statement, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).
We explored the assumptions beneath the statement. To perish is to expire, to pass away, to die. In a social system where there is no vision, there is no higher purpose, nothing worth sacrificing for. The people stop investing their energy in the work of the system or the good of the whole. Doing only what is required, they drift toward self-interest and the formation of smaller silos–or even complete isolation.
This means the social system is “disintegrating.” It is dying. The unengaged people are also dying. Disengagement and isolation lead to stagnation and the loss of meaning, which is followed by psychological slow death. Psychological slow death eventually leads to physical death. Where there is no vision, the people do perish–collectively and individually.
The highest role of a leader is to continually clarify the highest purpose of the social system and effectively link it to the deepest needs of the people within it. The leader thus breathes life into the system by introducing inspiration and making it possible for a shared vision to emerge. When there is a shared vision, social excellence can emerge.
At this point one of the women spoke up. She said that some organizations are uniform in design, technology, and policies. Every restaurant in a large chain, for example, is expected to comply with the same corporate policies and constraints. There is pressure on the manager to conform and there are punishments for not conforming. The corporate handbook becomes the determinant.
Yet every social system in each unit is unique. For a unit to prosper, the manager has to become a leader who understands the dynamic unit. This includes all the technical and legal constraints. It also includes all the nodes in the social network. The leader needs to understand the deepest needs and interests of every person and see the commonality across the people. The leader must then find personal inspiration, articulating the higher purpose, the end worthy of sacrifice, unification and the symbiotic investment of energy.
This is not going to happen in a unit where the manager accepts the corporate message defining his or her role. But is the solution to reject the corporate message? The answer is more complicated. The manager must care enough to lead. To lead is to conform while deviating. The deviation, however, is honorable deviation, it is moving the system to social excellence. A leader is a conforming, positive deviant, a visionary who constantly creates a more positive culture because she or he is committed to the highest common good.
I loved her words. She was beautifully articulating an illusive truth. No matter how prescriptive a hierarchy, the people managing the hierarchies within the larger hierarchy must simultaneously live in conformity and initiative. A manager must become a leader who breathes life into the social system because only where there is a living vision do the people flourish. It is only when the people flourish that the unit becomes socially excellent and reaches optimal performance.
- In your unit, are the people flourishing?
- Who understands the deepest, common needs and interests?
- Who breathes life into your unit?
- How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?