Unleashing the Power of Rubber Bands
- Tuesday, July 15, 2008
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from Unleashing the Power of Rubber Bands: Lessons in Non-Linear Leadership by Nancy Ortberg (Tyndale House Publishers).
The Problem with T-Shirts
Recently I read some statistics on the Internet that said in order to stay aligned with their company’s vision, people need to be reminded of that vision every twenty-eight days. I’m not sure how they came up with twenty eight days; seems like an odd number to me. But suffice it to say, people need to hear about your vision on a regular basis in order to stay motivated.
Great leaders think about vision—a lot. But the problem is, most of us are thinking about it more than we are talking about it. And if vision is that important, we need to be constantly asking ourselves, What’s our vision and how are we doing at communicating it?
In many organizations, once a vision sentence is crafted, it’s often written on a piece of paper and put in a notebook, only brought out again a couple of times a year at new trainee orientation or in a leader’s speech. Occasionally it might make its way onto a mug or a T-shirt.
Nothing inspires cynicism in an organization faster than a T-shirt.
Vision doesn’t belong on T-shirts. As leaders, our job is to breathe life into the vision and fill the words with meaning that stir people in the deepest parts of their souls—the parts that long for significance and transformation. We need to come up with creative, compelling, and repetitive ways to talk about the vision, and then we need to make the words come alive. Sometimes we even need to say those words in different ways so that people can see every facet of the vision, kind of like the shifting colors of a kaleidoscope.
Vision is about stirring and provoking, reminding and imagining. It’s about showing people the wonder of an improved future and infusing them with hope. Vision is about creating a reason to believe again.
Vision is primarily nurtured through the stories we tell and the heroes we create in our organizations. A couple of years ago, we were working with a large school district on the East Coast. We were in the second day of a two-day offsite conference, with about a hundred and twenty people around tables in a large room. As is true with any school district, this one was facing huge challenges: increasing ethnic and economic diversity in their student population, budget cuts, and mounting expectations in test scores.
As part of an exercise in vision, we asked people to stand up and tell a brief story or mention a hero that reflected their district’s vision of “providing a place where every child would succeed.”
The principal for one of the larger high schools in the district stood up and talked about a young African-American boy who had just graduated from their school the month before. He had spent six years, from middle school through high school, in their district, but he stood out from the other kids because he was homeless—by choice.
Although this boy had received numerous offers for housing from friends, he did not want to be separated from his mother, so for nearly six years he woke up every morning in the back seat of a car. He walked across the parking lot to a nearby Wal-Mart and washed up in their restrooms. Then he took two city buses to arrive at school before the first bell rang. He ended up graduating with a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Scholarship, a full ride to a four-year college of his choice.
The story took two minutes to tell. But by the end, I was ready to quit my job and go to work for that school district!
Here’s the deal. No one goes into education for the big paycheck. That two-minute story worked in a powerful way to reconnect those overworked and underpaid educators to the core reason they went into this line of work in the first place. You could see it all over the room: tender smiles, nodding heads, people clearly reenergized and ready to return to the issues of diversity, budget, and test scores with a renewed sense of purpose and hope. The story was a creative and compelling way to remind people of the vision.
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