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Leaders as Learners: Developing a Vision for Change

Leaders as Learners: Developing a Vision for Change

JesseLynStoner squareInterview with Dr. Jesse Lyn Stoner, consultant and co-author with Ken Blanchard of the international bestseller, Full Steam Ahead: Unleash the Power of Vision.


[Editor’s Note: I met Jesse in the spring of 2010 through mutual friends in the leadership development industry. Both professionally and personally, Jesse epitomizes the foundational principles of the Global Girls Project and has been an important role model, helping me to gain clarity and further refine my own vision for my life.

The second interview in the series, Leaders as Learners, Jesse talks about the role and importance of individual and collective vision in helping women (re)define their future and develop their potential and capacity as leaders in their own lives and communities.]

(Sharon): In 2003, you co-authored Full Steam Ahead: Unleash the Power of Vision in Your Work and Your Life with Ken Blanchard, a wonderful allegorical tale about Jim and Ellie, one a successful but uninspired business owner, and the other, a divorced and recently-hired employee who serves as a sounding board and confidant.

When Ellie asks whether “full steam ahead” means being reckless, or moving ahead blindly in the face of danger, Jim responds, “No, I think it’s the opposite. It means having vision – being so clear about your purpose, so committed to it, and so sure about your ability to accomplish it, that you move ahead decisively despite any obstacles.”

Ten years later, do you still agree with this view of Vision?

(Jesse): Absolutely. There are examples, not only in history, but happening right now. Your Global Girls Project is a wonderful example. When you shared with me the history of how this came about and what inspired you, and when I look at where you are going with this, there is absolutely no question in my mind that you know what you are doing, why you’re doing it, and that you believe that this is going to make a difference.

(Sharon): In the face of struggle or resistance, how do you sustain belief in your vision when the outcome is uncertain?

(Jesse): That’s a good question. No outcome is ever certain and there is going to be struggle. That’s how life is. But if you start focusing on the obstacles, they become larger than the vision and you lose your focus. Remember your ‘why’ on an ongoing basis — Why are you doing what you’re doing? Why is this important? What is the purpose? What is the end result going to be? — This is what helps you stay focused so that when you do hit obstacles, you’ll see them in the context of the larger vision. The obstacles will be smaller than your vision, rather than the other way around.

(Sharon): How do you differentiate between individual vision and the collective vision of an organization or community? Is there any difference?

(Jesse): We all have our own individual vision, whether at a conscious level or not, of who we are and how we want to be in this world that may not be a total match with the collective organizational vision; but there needs to be an alignment on the most important values and aspects of it around the purpose. There’s room for individual difference if there’s alignment with the fundamentals.

When I talk about the 3 elements of a compelling vision, I talk about purpose, values, and a picture of the end result. The vivid pictures that we associate with collective organizational vision illuminate the underlying purpose and values.

However, at an individual level, for us to become more conscious participants in our own lives, the work of surfacing your purpose and values comes to the forefront and the images that represent it are secondary. For personal vision, if you start with the images, such as having money or a family, you may lose sight of your deeper purpose and values. People get into trouble when their vision becomes dependent upon others, which is really outside of their control (e.g. I want to have a husband, a family, etc.). Those things can be intentions, but vision requires really digging down beneath intentions to what’s fundamentally connected to who you are, because in the end, that’s all that you really have any control over.

(Sharon): Why is vision so important in leadership?

(Jesse): How can you lead if you don’t know where you’re going? Leadership is about going somewhere. Without a vision, you might manage things well, but you’re not leading anywhere. There is no leadership without vision.

(Sharon): What role does vision play, if any, in empowerment?

(Jesse): Empowerment is a vehicle. Vision is a destination. When people truly understand the vision and are deeply committed to it, empowerment is necessary. You have to let go of the reigns and let them find their own way to move forward. Otherwise, you end up nailing one of your shoes to the floor.

(Sharon): Women and girls’ roles and future are often predefined (and limited) by cultural norms and values.  What role can vision play in empowering women and girls to find their own voice and become leaders in their own lives?

(Jesse): In places where roles are so overtly predefined and limited by cultural norms and values, it’s a difficult question to answer, Sharon. My heart breaks for women in these countries. In places like the U.S. where it’s more subtle, we’re moving forward. We need to keep naming what’s happening and to be vigilant. But in places where women are seen as objects and discarded…it’s just so sad.

I think of the lessons from Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and the work he did in Brazil in the 1960s. When a group is that radically oppressed, the first step is education. These people are kept illiterate because the oppressors don’t want them to imagine or see that things could be different. Change in this situation begins with individuals beginning to imagine that the world doesn’t have to be the way it is, and seeing that it could be different.

(Sharon): Jesse, I share in your belief that education is vital to empowerment, though there are still those who challenge the idea that equal access to education benefits all. They note that certain groups within the population, including women, may still be denied equal access to opportunity, and question the value of having their eyes opened to knowledge in the face opportunities they cannot pursue; of developing a vision without the ability to execute.

(Jesse): It’s a process that takes time. Breaking the chains of oppression is neither easy nor painless, but the process will play itself out. What each individual will do depends on who they are, their circumstances and their individual makeup, but eventually, an oppressed people will not tolerate their oppression once they have access to knowledge and information.

South Africa once controlled television and books allowed in the country. Today, thanks to the internet, information cannot be controlled. As access to technology increases, oppressed women will have more access to information about ways in which they can be in the world that’s incredibly different and beyond anything they envisioned. In areas where women are so objectified and incredibly oppressed, change is not something we’re going to see overnight, but we can’t give up. This is where the vision is so important. It goes beyond our lifetime. Martin Luther King’s vision continues to guide us beyond his lifetime, and this vision will continue to guide women beyond our own life.

(Sharon): The Afghan Women’s Writing Project is a wonderful example of giving women a sense of empowerment by enabling them to share their stories online and feel like their voice can be heard.  Do you think there’s power in other people’s stories?

(Jesse): Yes, it’s ‘giving a voice to the voiceless.’  It’s very powerful. Stories have traditionally been the way in which we transmitted culture, even before the written word. I think that’s what you’re doing with the stories you are telling and what Whitney Johnson is doing with her Dare to Dream project. These stories are important — not only for the one telling the story, but also for those who hear them. They need to be told. Sometimes a particular story will strike the right person at just the right moment.

(Sharon): Based on your own journey and knowledge about the importance of vision and heart-aligned leadership, what advice do you have for other women and girls who may be struggling or feel helpless to develop and define a vision for their own life?

(Jesse): I go back to the definition of vision: Knowing who you are, where you’re going, and what will guide your journey. My advice is to know yourself — to discover how incredibly powerful and worthwhile you are, so you can move forward confidently, seeing yourself through your own eyes, not as a reflection of others, and not dependent on the approval of others to feel a sense of self-worth.

When we’re young, we look for love and support from the external world. As we grow older, we begin to discover what we hold in ourselves and it can become something we can tap into. When we do, we no longer have to look outside of our self for our sense of self worth. You don’t have to please others in order to feel safe for feel good about yourself.

To young girls, I would say to find role models. If your parents aren’t providing you what you need, find teachers and other adult role models. Don’t be afraid to reach out to them and let them in, because they want to help. As you grow older, look at and begin to challenge your assumptions that your self worth comes from the outside or that you need others to feel good about who you are.

(Sharon): I have one last question: There’s probably more pressure now than ever before, partly because of this elevated dialogue around women’s empowerment, for women and girls to be more and do more as defined by external labels of success. What role can vision play in helping someone develop an internal sense of success? 

(Jesse): Children are going to respond to the expectations of their parents. To parents I would say, help your child, whether a girl or boy, value their own intrinsic abilities and support their own internal exploration of who they are and what they love, rather than imposing your own views of what they should do and be.

Let them fail. That is really hard and painful for a parent to watch their child fail and not try to rescue them, but we have to have faith that young people can find their own answers and not always be given their answers. Otherwise, we inadvertently reinforce the belief that power comes from the outside instead of the inside.

(Sharon): Thank you so much, Jesse, for such a powerful and insightful discussion!   

Dr. Jesse Lyn Stoner is a consultant, former business executive, and co-author with Ken Blanchard of the international bestseller Full Steam Ahead: Unleash the Power of Vision, which has been translated into 22 languages. Currently she is the Executive Director of the Berrett-Koehler Foundation. For over 25 years, Jesse has worked closely with leaders in hundreds of organizations using collaborative processes to engage the entire workforce in creating their desired future. Her clients range from Fortune 500’s to non-profits worldwide, including Honda, Marriott, Edelman Public Relations, Skanska, SAP, and YPO to name just a few. Jesse writes an award-winning weekly leadership blog. You can follow her on Twitter @JesseLynStoner and find her on Facebook.

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