When comparing managers to leaders, there are many skills, characteristics, and mindsets that are concurrent. However, one distinct skill separates managers from leaders. Those who master this skill rise to stratospheric heights of influence and achievements, leading nations, businesses, organizations, and groups in our society to new realities.
As I began my independent management consultant career, this unique defining ability was made clear to me. I was hired to keynote at a series of regional sales meetings for Equitable Life. The organization had recently hired a new President, Jim Benson, to lead the company and its 14,000 insurance agents.
One thing was apparent at the events I participated in with Jim; the field force recognized him as a leader and was excited to follow. Some agents at these meetings knew him previously, while others were meeting him for the first time, but they all hung on every word and cheered him on.
I’ve seen many CEOs and Presidents speak to their organizations, but none captured the hearts and minds of his organization like Jim. As I witnessed Jim speak and the audience’s reactions, I said to myself, “This is what leadership looks like.”
Not long after the roadshow, Jim invited me to his office in the penthouse on the 54th floor of the Equitable building in New York. Being relatively new to my role, I was slightly intimidated by the elite corporate atmosphere with heavy security and multiple gatekeepers.
Nevertheless, I was led into his office, which appeared to be the size of a regular tennis court. Jim’s windows had an incredible view of the entirety of the island of Manhattan, from 54th St. to the southern tip of Manhattan.
He was sitting back in a massive chair behind an enormous mahogany desk that was completely bare except for a copy of one of my books, Sweet Persuasion. There was no computer, no reports, no files, no blotter, no pens, no awards, nothing. It was apparent Jim wasn’t spending his day dealing with stuff. Jim was in the business of leading people, not handling things.
At that moment, I recognized Jim’s leadership currency was the currency of all great leaders: Vision. His office was a metaphor for the visionary leader. It was an open space with windows on the world, a distraction-free canvas ready to explore creative possibilities for the future. Jim had an intimate understanding of the difference between “doing” and “seeing.”
This creative talent and the ability to vision are innate in every human being. As children, we reveled in games of “Let’s Make Believe” and “Imagine If We. “Unfortunately, we were misdirected to believing the more we do, the more valuable we are. The truth is anyone can work hard. It’s a commodity. But, vision is a priceless and irreplaceable skill of leadership.
The value of visioning in the scheme of life and leadership was clearly defined by Albert Einstein when he said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Logic will take you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”
Everything in life occurs twice, first as a vision and then as a reality. Leaders “see” what is not visible, communicate their vision, and enroll others in working to achieve the common agreed-upon mission. Visioning is at the core of all creative processes and the seed from which all ideas grow into manifestation.
The pricelessness of leaders with a vision is captured eloquently in the words of Charles F. Kettering, “The opportunities of man are limited only by his imagination. But so few have the imagination that is ten thousand fiddlers to one composer.”
You don’t have to learn visioning. Simply remember and trust your innate universal talent. Everything you’ve created professionally and personally in your life began with a creative idea. The secret to visioning is to allow yourself the luxury of exploring the game of “What if?” more consciously. For me, it begins with clearing my desk and looking out the window.
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