Like millions of other Americans, I tuned in to hear President Obama’s second inaugural address on Monday. The President is rightly admired for his strong oratory skills and ability to use communication as an effective leadership skill. That’s why I was so disappointed in the speech. While there were parts of the speech that resonated with me, overall I thought it landed flat. As I reflected on my disappointment, I realized that the President had not inspired a shared vision.
If you lead within a church, a ministry, a non-profit, a business or a community, you must be able to communicate in order to lead. As part of the communication responsibility, every leader must be able to inspire a shared vision. An inspired vision pulls people forward. It projects a clear image of a possible future and generates energy to strive toward the destination.
I think the President’s address can help us better understand how to inspire a shared vision. Here are five components of an inspiring vision (adapted from Kouzes and Posner’s The Leadership Challenge) along with my two cents on how the President performed on each:
- An inspiring vision shares an IDEAL. An ideal is a high standard to aspire to, an ennobling purpose and greater good we are seeking. On this score, the President tried. His refrain “We the people…” and recitation from the Declaration of Independence both exemplify his attempt to call us all to an ideal that is energized by both history and ambition. But I thought he came up short by trying to hang too many ideals onto the one ideal. He seemed to want “We the people” to have room for everything from global warming, to ending wars, to gay marriage, to gun control, immigration, to training math and science teachers, to the tax code, to… the list could go on. What followers need from our leaders is not a laundry list of ideals, but a single high standard to which we want to aspire. For the sake of contrast, listen to Martin Luther King Junior’s “I have a dream” speech, which looks at the “dream” from a multitude of angles, all of which shed light on the one ideal. In other words, President Obama shined the light from an ideal into a lot of directions (thus diffusing the ideal) while MLK shined the light of his speech onto the ideal from a score of directions (thus illuminating the ideal).
- An inspiring vision is UNIQUE, it creates healthy pride in being different by creating an identity that is extraordinary. An inspired vision helps followers know how we are collectively unique, singular, and unequaled.
I think this is one facet where the President’s speech ran at crosscurrents to itself; I got the sense that we are a good country, but not a uniquely good country. As a Christian, I don’t think the United States is a uniquely good country, but the role of the President (as leader of the U.S.A.) is to inspire a shared vision that relies on a sense of differentiation.
I came away from the address feeling called to help create a better country, but not a great country. Who gets inspired by a vision of being blandly better? Like an employee who’s been “inspired” to work harder in order to produce more widgets so the company could maintain profitability, I found myself longing for a vision that inspired me to contribute to a one-of-a-kind vision instead of a one-size-fits-all vision.
- An inspiring vision uses IMAGE to make concepts tangible through descriptive language. Word pictures, stories and symbols help make the vision more memorable and compelling. President Obama laced stories and examples throughout his address, offering tangible expressions of conceptual aspirations. I think where he fell short was that he offered too many concepts, with too many images. He gave descriptive visions of the past and vivid descriptions of the preferred future, but all of the images started competing with one another rather than cooperating to generate a compelling vision. When a vision lacks true focus, the use of many images prevents the vision from being memorable. No compelling vision ever included the terms “tax code,” “Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security,” or “engineers.”
- An inspiring vision is FUTURE-ORIENTED, looking toward a destination. Visions describe an exciting possibility for the future and stretch our minds out into the future and asks us to dream. The President has a lot of ideas for what the future should look like. I think he was at his best at inspiring a shared vision during the portion of his address that started, “It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts.” He carried the “journey” theme throughout that portion as he described a preferred future that requires some imagination, even as it fell short of asking us to dream. Mixing policy points into the poetic cadence made the future he described seem to predictable, practical, and political. I think the whole address would have been stronger had he minimized the policy statements; sometimes less is more.
- An inspiring vision is built around a COMMON GOOD, a way people can come together. Visions are about developing a shared sense of destiny. Followers must be able to see themselves and their interests served in the vision; they must see how they are a part of the vision in order to enlist others in it. The President told us that his vision was for the common good, but I don’t think he did a great job of showing us. I thought the address was rather fractal in that Mr. Obama made room for a lot of good things for a lot of people, but we ended up with a quilt of interests thread together by the stitching of our nation’s ideals instead of a common garment tailored by our individual efforts. I think one of the reasons economic visions are so compelling is that they easily translate into a common good: a rising tide lifts all boats. The same goes for national defense in times of threat: we all benefit from being protected from harm. But the President’s message invited all of us to join him in bringing about what only some of us consider “good.” By including fewer goods (in other words, appealing to fewer special interest groups), I think he could have done a better job of helping us all envision a common good.
So how well do you think the President inspired a shared vision? What worked and what missed the mark? And what are some examples of leaders who did a masterful job of inspiring a shared vision? I look forward to your comments.