Terry L. Price is associate dean for academic affairs and associate professor at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. His most recent book is Leadership Ethics: An Introduction , published by Cambridge University Press.
Vision has a central place in leadership. Before we are willing to follow a leader, we want to know where we are going. What will things look like when we get there? The "vision thing," as George H.W. Bush called it, matters for us as citizens, and it matters for those who serve as part of a leader's senior staff.
It is little wonder, then, that people who study and practice leadership have been preoccupied with the notion of vision. Whether leaders achieve the ends to which they aspire has a real effect on our lives and well-being. We want to make our schools better, our businesses more prosperous, our neighborhoods safer and our government more efficient.
For those who work closely with a leader, vision drives their behavior in both a practical sense and in a much deeper way. A leader's vision not only structures what they do in their day-to-day lives but also gives them the sense that what they are doing is meaningful. In fact, good leaders rely on their advisors and confidantes to make sure they keep their eye on the big picture and don't become distracted by things that do not matter in the larger scheme of things.
Factors such as partisanship, which should not matter but often do, can also stand in the way of success. So leaders need advisers who can serve as their "eyes," anticipating roadblocks and negotiating rocky political terrain. Because leaders can hardly see everything and everyone around them, those who work closely with leaders must sometimes play a protective role by openly expressing their loyalty and by "watching the back" of the leader.
But there is another type of vision that is just as critical to good leadership and to what it means to be a good adviser. The best advisers can be trusted to make sure leaders do not lose sight of the means they are using to achieve their ends. Although there are often many ways to get the job done, only some of these ways will be in keeping with the vision the leader is trying to achieve. We expect our leaders to live their values, providing us with a model of their vision. Couple this expectation with the legitimate demand that they comply with rules that apply more generally to others, regardless of how compliance promotes or impedes goal achievement.
The problem, however, is that a leader's sight is normally outward-looking and future-oriented. One result of this outward gaze and preoccupation with outcomes is that they can come to think less about their own actions. This perceptual bias should not be attributed to the weaknesses of particular leaders. As psychologists point out, all of us tend to understand our own behavior as a response to the demands of the situation. But normal biases get accentuated by the realities of leadership in complex environments. Thinking about how the parts fit together in service of goal accomplishment can leave little time for reflection and introspection.
In the worst cases, leaders become so fixated on the value of the goals they are trying to accomplish that they come to believe they are the exception to the rules. Success is so important — not only to them but also to us — that they conclude that they are justified in doing what the rest of us would not be justified in doing. Focusing too intently and too persistently on one thing, they miss other things that matter morally. In short, they are blinded by their own vision.
Leadership can also make it difficult for us to see what means our leaders are using to achieve their ends. We have a right to a certain level of transparency from our democratically elected leaders, and the media plays an important role in making sure we get it. But there will always be things that we do not — and probably should not — see. Although leadership makes people more accessible and visible in some respects, it can also promote a kind of isolation and invisibility. People do not say it is lonely at the top for nothing.
Fortunately, good leaders are not really alone or completely out of sight. They can rely on the vision of trusted counselors. The advisor sees what citizens often cannot see and what the leader himself sometimes does not see. When leaders show sign of what ethicist Kenneth Goodpaster calls "teleopathy," a kind of goal-induced illness, it is the job of those who work closely with leaders to make a quick diagnosis and to give them an honest assessment of their behavior.
Carrying out this job is not easy. First, it requires that advisers not become blinded by either the leader or the leader's vision. They must have a strong sense of self and the ability to see themselves as separate from the goals of an organization or administration. Second, it demands that advisers take advantage of their privileged access and pay attention not only to the leader's values but also to the leader's actions. To the watchful eye, process matters as much as production. Third, it means that advisers cannot be afraid to tell the leader that he is wrong. We are all wrong at times, and leaders have more opportunities than most for error. Giving this kind of correction may indeed be the most difficult requirement of the three.
The best advisers, however, are up to the challenge.