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When vision matters more than ever

Stan Soderstrom | May 20, 2020

Kiwanis International Executive Director Stan Soderstrom For the last decade or so, many organizations have looked to 2020 as a metaphor. After all, 20/20 is the standard for normal vision when you take an eye exam. What better way to discuss the near future than to say you're “focusing on” 2020? I can’t count how many strategic plans I’ve encountered that used that metaphor.

Well, now we’re in the middle of 2020 — and “normal” vision hasn’t turned out be adequate at all. Then again, the greatest challenges for leaders are often the ones that you couldn’t have seen coming years ahead of time. Consider a few U.S. presidents. George W. Bush on September 11, 2001. Lyndon Johnson on November 22, 1963. Franklin Roosevelt on December 7, 1941.  

The COVID-19 pandemic may be unprecedented, but it fits an age-old truth: Leaders don’t get to choose when their leadership will be tested. In my assessment, we’re witnessing three categories of leadership style:

  • The uncertain leader. This person is generally risk averse. He or she hesitates to take chances. The current challenge may have even exposed such a leader as someone who lacks confidence. Maybe he or she has been captivated by negative attention from outlets such as social media and cable news sources. Whatever the case, these leaders have stepped back and are hunkered down — they’ll wait for someone else to make the first move.
  • The patient leader. This person observes and learns. While surprises and changes come weekly, even daily, such a leader is analyzing, thinking and, most of all, planning. Highly influenced by the contributions and opinions of others, especially experts, he or she will be prepared to move forward when conditions improve. This leader is safe — a survivor but not someone who makes an impact during the crisis.  
  • The impactful leader. The challenges of the day present an opportunity to make a difference for people in need today as well as create a new roadmap for the future. This leader’s style may be quiet and reserved or loud and boisterous. This leader may inspire confidence in others or create opposition as a result of a strong will and controversial opinions. Several of these leaders attacking the same problem from different directions often find themselves on collision course with each other.  

During the pandemic, we’ve seen examples of each of these styles — in positions ranging from governments and community organizations to neighborhoods and social groups. Through it all, my greatest realization has been how important listening is to vision. That might sound strange coming from your optometrist, but it’s a consistent fact about leadership.  

Think about it: As citizens, neighbors and community members, we’ve all heard the pleas for food, medical supplies, community assistance, family counseling and so much more. As leaders, we also need to hear — to truly listen for — the concerns and anxieties of the colleagues and team members to whom we’re responsible.

Whether times are normal or extraordinary, leaders don’t have to know all the answers. But they do have to define an intended outcome. To cast a vision. And they need to motivate a group of people together to reach that outcome and realize that vision. Among several other things, that means adjusting when conditions change.

Not all vision is 20/20. That’s been especially true in, well, 2020. But this is a time, more than ever, to stick to your commitment to listen effectively, accept difficulties and change as necessary. See the challenge clearly, and focus on opportunities. You may not end up with the exact vision you had expected, but you'll have one that serves you well for years to come.

 

Stan D. Soderstrom is the executive director of Kiwanis International and the Kiwanis Children’s Fund. His background includes global and community-based work in the public and private sectors.

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