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Anyone can grow their visionary capacity – with some help…

Rob-Jan de Jong is an international speaker, writer and consultant on strategy and leadership themes. He serves as an expert lecturer at various leading business schools such as the Wharton Business School (USA), Thunderbird School of Global Management (USA), Nyenrode Business University (The Netherlands), and Sabanci Business University (Turkey).

In 2015, Rob-Jan will be launching and promoting his book Anticipate, which is the culmination of 8 years of work in understanding how leaders can increase their visionary capacity.

BusinessInterviews.com:  Where does your interest and passion for understanding leadership come from?

Rob-Jan:  Today I call myself a behavioral strategist, but I started my career much more focused on analysis and logic. As you grow however, you discover that there are very different things required to set the path for an organization, and get people to follow. Some 10 years ago, I came to realize that leadership is a fundamentally different field, where themes like inspiration, motivation and imagination fit in. People don’t fundamentally change because of a well-research strategy paper or a set of beautifully designed Powerpoint slides – people change because leaders show the way forward, inspire, energize, are authentic and true to some deeply felt values. So in my work today I combine various fields involved in developing leaders, which still has room for analytically oriented tools and frameworks, that I can pull out from time-to-time when the situation calls for it. But I mostly work on strategic topics such as vision, innovation and decision making, in which I combine the cognitive dimensions in a multi-disciplinary approach with concepts and ideas from psychology, social sciences, the arts, etc.

BusinessInterviews.com:  Can you expand on how your book, Anticipate, is the result of your journey in trying to fill a gap in management theory?

Rob-Jan:  About 8 years ago I became fascinated by what I now call ‘the vision paradox’. I was working with a group of executives and asked them for the one word they thought was part of any definition of leadership. They immediately responded with ‘vision’. I have repeated that question many times since, and nearly always vision is among the first words that seems to come to mind to people. But then I followed my first question, pointing out to them that they were all leaders, and asked if they felt they had a vision. None of them raised their hand. That struck me as seriously odd. A concept that we all theoretically speak so highly of as an integral, must-have aspect of leadership is far away from those who should practice this.

When I started to study the literature, again I noticed leadership gurus such as Warren Bennis, John Kotter, Abraham Zaleznik, Peter Northouse, who had all done tremendous work in progressing our thinking about leadership, all named vision as a crucial element in leadership. Zaleznik even called it the hallmark of leadership. But strangely, we all acknowledge the importance of a healthy life and we find dozens of books on how to develop a healthy lifestyle – yet we all acknowledge the importance of vision and we find nothing on developing our visionary self. Many regard it as a born-with-or-not concept, and I believe that that is not true. I believe anyone can develop their visionary capacity. So, I started to zoom into it, worked on it for 8 years, testing ideas and integrating the concepts from the different fields we spoke of before, running hundreds of workshops, and eventually laid out my findings, development framework, practices and all in my book Anticipate.

BusinessInterviews.com:  Why do you think that there is such a big gap between the theoretically heralded concept of ‘vision’ and the lack of leaders putting this into practice?

Rob-Jan: There is a cascade of things that stand in the way. First and foremost, we suffer increasingly from short-termism. The market mantra, with its quarterly results orientation, has left its marks on how leaders have evolved, and how they have grown used – and are often incentivized – to put short-term over long-term interests. The value of a vision, which is mostly concerned with the long term, has therefore depreciated. Some even make a mockery out of it, considering it something for dreamers and idealists, not for hard-nosed, results-oriented realists as they are. So “vision” has developed an image problem over time and that’s a real shame.

Secondly, we must also admit that it is not easy. It’s not magic, but nor is it easy to do well. Even those who do consciously work on it, often arrive at results that are at best just “direction setting”. For a truly meaningful vision, that’s not enough. Direction setting is only one of three critical elements. For a “vision” to become powerful, it will need to be emotionally engaging: people need to feel something in order to persuade them. And thirdly, it needs to be credible and authentic, which implies people need to see it back in how the leader behaves. Without authenticity, the vision is merely a set of hollow phrases, and it will equally fail to inspire.

BusinessInterviews.com:  What’s the difference between a great leader and a visionary leader?

Rob-Jan:  I’m not sure if there are big differences. I believe that vision is an integral part of being a leader, hence also of being a great leader. Alan Mulally, the former CEO from Ford who saved Ford from the verge of bankruptcy and put it back on a profitable track in only a few years time, says that “positive leadership, conveying the idea that there is always a way forward, is so important, because that’s what you are here for, to figure out how to move the organization forward.” I believe that too. It’s a privilege and a responsibility that you carry as a leader. But mind you, for me that implies for leaders at all ranks of the organization, not just the top dog. Nobody works under perfect conditions, so it is the leader, through a vision, that gives meaning and helps people see a path forward, whatever part of the organization you are in and whatever size team you lead. Your vision is the most prominent tool in your toolkit as a leader to do that. To me, the ones able to inspire others with their future-oriented perspective, make up the band of great leaders.

BusinessInterviews.com:  Is it possible for individuals to develop and to acquire the skills to become more visionary in their leadership style?

Rob-Jan: Absolutely, anyone can grow their visionary capacity. I like to compare it to sports, say tennis. Your tennis game is the result of your tennis skills, which in turn are the result of practice. Talent will help, but practice can get you a long way in improving your skills and thus improving your game of tennis. And our aim is not to become the next Roger Federer, but to significantly improve yourself.

The same with vision. Your vision is the result of your visionary skills, and your visionary skills increase with applying the right practices. Surely, also here, some people are better at it than others, but here too, we’re not aiming to become a larger-than-life visionary, but we aim to get you to significantly up your game. With the two key skills I teach, which are around your ability to see change early and your ability to connect the dots, and with the associated practices, you will absolutely develop your visionary side very effectively.

BusinessInterviews.com:  How did you manage to scale down the visionary process to four dimensions to work on?  Did you encounter any challenges when defining and creating this new framework?

Rob-Jan:  All these things seem obvious once you’ve discovered them of course, but indeed I promote four dimensions to work on. How did I manage to scale it down to those four? It’s a process of demystification, where at some point you develop the confidence that this is a good way of looking at it. Then it’s testing and sharpening and honestly, I don’t recall exactly when the four dimensions surfaced that now form the core dimensions.

The first dimension is around your visionary content, in other words what should constitute your vision? For one, obviously your vision needs some inspiring ideas. And since your vision deals with the future and since you cannot fall back on your database of facts and figures, you’ll need to be able to ignite your imagination in order to come up with some original ideas. So, we look at how you practically can do that. We go into much more detail in the book, but this is the essence of the first dimension.

Second, as mentioned before, your visionary capacity as a leader develops through some fundamental practices. This is the practice or growth framework that I developed, which consists of two independent core skills: 1. your ability to see change early, recognizing the early hints of change that could become game changers, and 2. Your ability to connect the dots, to put your insights into a coherent, responsibly constructed bigger picture. In the book I flesh out why these two and provide key practices that go with each of these skills, very novel and practical techniques you can start working with immediately.

Third, you must understand and reflect on your behaviors and mind set in order to make your visionary side grow. Naturally, if you are an eternal naysayer, it is very difficult to come up with a compelling vision that is credible and inspiring. So it requires self-reflection on who you are as a leader, what you stand for and how you are perceived. This self-awareness is pivotal in making your vision authentic and credible, so I offer a number of ways to gain more clarity for yourself on these, often quite tough, questions.

Last, all these things – content, practices, attitude – only work for you if you are also able to communicate your vision in the right way so that it inspires and ignites others. So I lay out what it takes, and how you can make that work, if you want your vision to do what it is meant for: to guide and energize.

BusinessInterviews.com:  What’s the best advice you can give to improve your ability to communicate a vision in an inspiring and compelling way?

Rob-Jan: The advice I give is 2500 years old. The Greek philosopher Aristotle already expressed what it takes to persuade people to follow you. He drilled it down to 3 things: Logos, Pathos and Ethos.

Logos really means that what you communicate should make sense, should be clear, logically consistent and all these things we typically focus on. It’s important to get this right, but it is not enough. Your vision also needs to do something emotionally. People should feel something, your vision should have Pathos to remain in his words. That could be excitement or feeling intrigued or provoked through some unconventional elements, but it could equally be a feeling of warmth, caring and bonding through a deeply felt cause. And lastly, your vision should be credible coming from you, the leader. In other words, people need to be able to connect it to who you are, what you stand for, what you decided when you faced a dilemma, etc.

For Logos I’m usually not too concerned, that’s often the part we have well covered. People generally find it more challenging to integrate Pathos and Ethos into their vision. But there are simple ways to achieve that. For instance, the use of metaphors. Metaphors are images, and images help unlock people’s imagination, which is the state you want your audience to be in in order to get them to open up to your imagined future. It should be no surprise that the word imagination is etymologically related to the word image. So pictorial language, metaphors and analogies can very effectively help you achieve that state.

To make sure you cover all the ideas in the book before you go out and communicate your story, I’ve compiled a checklist to question yourself on each of Aristotle’s aspects. So my best advice would be to verify that you are not only taking the Logos route when you communicate your story: it won’t get you what you are looking for, which is usually engagement, energy and inspiration.

BusinessInterviews.com: Can you talk about the process behind designing a full day workshop that helps leaders develop their visionary side at the renowned Wharton School of Business?

Rob-Jan: What we see in executive education is that executives look for fresh, academically solid ideas, that provide answers to challenges they face. And given the increasingly changing environment, many do face the challenge of how to motivate and inspire their people to reorient the organization in a new direction. But rather than listening to talking heads all day, they want to actively practice and rehearse. So we created a design that helps them create the vision that unleashes the energy and direction they are looking for, and at the same time, we give them ways to continuously improve their visionary self. I’m a big advocate of experiential learning, so my personal goal is that participants walk out with the confidence and experience that they too can operate at a much higher visionary level than they thought at the start of the day.

The ideas in my book Anticipate follow from this full day workshop design that I’ve refined over the years working with leaders of all sorts and ranks at various business schools as well as in-house leadership programs at numerous companies, including a number of Fortune 500 companies. During the workshop, structured around the four areas of content, practices, mindset and communication, we actually actively engage with very practical techniques. One of them is FuturePriming, a proprietary method we developed, that very practically helps you grow your ability to see things early at minimal effort. Naturally at such an academic powerhouse as Wharton, the ideas need to be sound and solid, so these methods are all based on well-researched phenomena. But participants walk out with the surprising experience of how concrete and applicable we can make those ideas for them as they can start FuturePriming for instance immediately: takes them not more than 5 minutes a week, and will undoubtedly yield results in becoming an early-noticer.

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