There’s an old line about every journey, even the ones of thousands of miles, beginning with a single step. Leadership, as a concept, really isn’t any different. It all begins from a single place — but oftentimes, getting to that initial step can be hard for many leaders.

Bob Dunham, the CEO and Founder of the Institute for Generative Leadership, has said that leadership happens when a leader declares a future that people commit to. Vision is about declaring a future, and that is exactly what leaders do.

OK … so can we pack it up and go home on this blog post? Are we done here?

Hardly.

If we know the what of vision — declaring a future that others commit to — then we need to understand the why and how of vision. As Kouzes and Posner wrote about in Leadership Challenge, though, leaders can’t command a vision. They can only inspire it.

Why will people stand in line, crawl through a slimy mud pit, and jump through hoops of fire just to be lead by the right leader? They do it because they want to be inspired. That is why.

If we know the what (of vision) and the why, take a deep breath and let’s start on the most challenging aspect for many: the how.

How do leaders inspire a vision of the future? It has to do with a single element we all have. In fact, it is the primary catalyst driving our every action and inaction. It works its magic on us with every breath, every thought, every conversation, and yet goes mostly unnoticed.

The value of care in leadership

I’m talking about the phenomena of Care.

Think about it, you can’t really be ambitious about doing anything unless doing that thing somehow helps you take care of what you care about.

You can’t fight for something, unless something you care about worth fighting for. You don’t protect something, unless something you care about appears to be under threat. And you cannot be inspired by and be doggedly determined to realize a vision for the future unless you see how that future allows you to take better care of the things you care about (better than any other possible futures).

The problem is: most of us don’t know where to start, because we don’t know what we truly care about. “Come on,” you say, “I know what I care about.” When is the last time you asked the question, “What do I care about… really?” If it takes you more than 5 seconds to think about it, you might not know. I’m just sayin’.

Many managers can talk a good game about their vision, but when it comes to taking care of what they care about, “Oh that? That happens outside of work.” What about when it comes to collective action? Surely amongst their peers they will be inspired reach higher, go farther, right?

Not so much. Put a bunch of managers in a room together, and they fall into a culturally learned lock-step corporate beat, and they legislate against care. “Suck it up, work nights and weekends, make sure you bring your laptop with you on your vacation, skip that yoga class, and annihilate the competition…” Ra ra ra…

Take the common example of senior managers crafting the new vision at off-sites with little to no input from the people on the front lines, yeah they ones who are expected to execute and realize that vision — The result? A bunch of transactional and cascading talking points where vision is force-fed down to the masses, not inspired. Care is seldom listened to or even invited to the party.

Left open to interpretation, the front line concludes that management is out of touch, misguided, and possibly even has malevolent intentions. They believe that somehow becoming a manager obligates people to sell their soul – disregard care, kill innovation, and extinguish any remnants of human spirit that might be lingering in the halls.

How can we practice care in leadership, though?

Think about this: when is the last time a boss asked you, “What do you care about?”

When is the last time you asked it of others? Is anyone listening to care anymore? Were they ever?

You cannot inspire a vision if you don’t listen for care, and if you want to inspire greatness in others, you better start listening. Great leaders do. You can start by listening to your own care and then listening for the care in others.

To make this more broadly applicable, let’s approach this in terms of a quick exercise I learned from Fred Kofman, now VP of Learning and Development at LinkedIn. You can try this with yourself and/or with a colleague. Here’s how it works.

The next time you think about a hobby you have or someone shares an interest they have, take the conversation one layer deeper, and ask, “What about X do you really care about?” Listen for an answer, and then take it a layer deeper… “And if you achieved that, what would you have as a result that is even more valuable than what you achieved? Continue in this line of inquiry until you arrive to the point where they say something to the effect of, “Well that’s just it… There’s nothing more than that.”

Let me use myself as an example. I may be talking about my love for surfing, and you might ask, “What about surfing do you really care about?”  I might answer, “Well, I care about the combination of exercise, being immersed in nature, and adventure. You might ask me again, “If you had Exercise, Nature, and Adventure, what would you have as a result that is even more valuable than Exercise, Nature and Adventure?” I answer, “Being a part of something bigger than myself, something I care about, and something that requires me to be courageous in order to do.” You may ask again, and I answer, “Feeling fully alive.”

At this point, when you ask me further, I respond with, “Well that is it, there is nothing beyond feeling fully alive that would matter more to me.” Eureka! You have discovered something I care about at my core. Show me a vision of the future where I can feel fully alive, and you can have me. Get it?

Now you are touching the heart of leadership. Your answers will reveal the types of care that inspire people to eat nails and break through brick walls for their managers, their teams, and their companies.

If you can help people see a vision of the future that takes better care of their deepest cares (better than other possible futures), they will follow whole-heartedly. Don’t believe me? Try me… No really, try me!

About Marc Smith Sacks

Marc Smith Sacks is a change agent & certified executive coach to senior leaders, high potentials, & corporate teams in SME’s to Fortune 500’s - aligning talent with strategy, positioning for rapid growth, performance turnarounds, and leader transitions with less pain and greater impact.

Subscribe to OP|EN for BUSINESS!
Receive A Weekly Digest of the Most Popular Posts to Your Inbox!