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By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute

After surveying tens of thousands of working people around the world, two Harvard researchers say that leaders need to have vision — but not just any kind of vision. Pope John Paul II made the same point in his 1981 encyclical, Laborem exercens.

Let’s look first at what the pope had to say and then turn our attention to the research.

... the person who works desires not only due remuneration for his work; he also wishes that, within the production process, provision be made for him to be able to know that in his work, even on something that is owned in common, he is working “for himself.” This awareness is extinguished within him in a system of excessive bureaucratic centralization, which makes the worker feel that he is just a cog in a huge machine moved from above, that he is for more reasons than one a mere production instrument rather than a true subject of work with an initiative of his own. The Church’s teaching has always expressed the strong and deep conviction that man’s work concerns not only the economy but also, and especially, personal values. The economic system itself and the production process benefit precisely when these personal values are fully respected. (Laborem exercens ¶15)

Pope John Paul II’s insight — that people need to have a sense that they are working “for themselves,” that their “personal values” are being realized, and that without this they lose their motivation and their productivity suffers — is largely confirmed by the research of James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, writing this month in the Harvard Business Review.

After surveying tens of thousands of workers, they conclude that the most distinctive feature of effective leaders is that they have a particular kind of vision — one that not only envisions “exciting possibilities” but also “enlists others in a shared view of the future.”

As leaders move up the hierarchy, their vision has to extend further into the future. Front line managers have to anticipate what happens when the current project is completed. Mid-level managers need a vision of what things should be “several years into the future.” But top-level leaders “must focus on a horizon some 10 years distant,” according to Kouzes and Posner.

Even more important, “they can’t present answers that are only theirs,” the authors quickly add. “Constituents want visions of the future that reflect on their own aspirations. They want to hear how their dreams will come true and their hopes will be fulfilled.”

After analyzing almost one million responses to their leadership assessment, Kouzes and Posner conclude: “The data tell us that what leaders struggle with most is communicating an image of the future that draws others in — that speaks of what others see and feel.”

Jesus has an amazing capacity for vision. Even in unspeakable pain, dying on the cross, he could say to a man crucified next to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." (Lk 23:43, NAB) Before this, he outlines his mission and intimately connects his disciples to it, first by washing their feet, then by speaking to them, and finally by addressing his Father in their midst (Gospel of St. John, chapters 13-17).

Kouzes and Posner’s research points to the key factor in developing and sharing dynamic leadership visions. “The best way to lead people into the future is to connect with them deeply in the present. The only visions that take hold are shared visions — and you will create them only when you listen very, very closely to others, appreciate their hopes, and attend to their needs.”

In the Lead Like Jesus movement we speak of the importance of “intimacy” between leaders and followers. But perhaps Jesus had an even better word for it. He called it “love.”

Copyright © 2009 Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute, 208 E. North St., Durand, IL 61024. Any part of this newsletter may be reproduced so long as there is full attribution, our web site is listed, and any electronic reproduction includes a link to our site: http://www.yeshualeader.com.

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