We’re a team. There’s a mountain that no one has ever climbed before, but you – in your bones – believe we can. More importantly, you can stand in front of us, point at the mountain, and tell us the compelling story of how we’re going to climb that impossible peak.
You talk with your hands, you raise your voice at precisely the right times to punctuate your thoughts. Your pauses build tension. You’re not talking about yourself, you’re talking about all of us and how we are going to collectively achieve this impossible task.
Your story is engaging, but light on specifics. We don’t care because we all desire to achieve the impossible and, more importantly, we just love the way you tell this story. We believe you. This belief washes away the perceived need for concrete next steps. We are emotional beings; your manner and delivery has convinced us to follow you on an impossible task.
This is vision. You are using all your leadership skills to describe a vision.
There is still a mountain to climb. How are you actually going to perform this herculean feat? Thankfully, we have you. Now you begin to plan.
You start with questions: How big is the mountain? What obstacles are we aware of? Where is the top? What is the best path to climb to the top? Are there alternative paths? How many hikers do we have and how fit are they? What are their respective strengths and weaknesses? What is the best configuration of humans to perform each task? What contingencies are we going to need to build for unexpected developments while hiking?
It’s an endless list of questions, so you first determine what questions are critical, which are important, and which are nice to have. Second, you hand the task of answering many questions to humans on your team. You do this by first reminding us of your vision, explaining the relative importance of the questions, and defining when you need to know an answer. Each time, without fail, you finish with I trust you to do this important thing.
You learn not just from the answers, but from how the team discovers answers. Their discoveries update your mental model of not only how we’re going to achieve this impossible task, but also the abilities and nuances of the humans we will need to depend upon.
Conflicting opinions. Confusing data. Unexpected developments. Interpersonal conflict. We sometimes miss the bliss of the vision and despair. I’m not sure I can do this. You respond immediately, “It seems an impossible thing. Of course it’s hard, but we are going to do this together and I’ll explain how.”
And you do.
All of the answers have developed into a draft of a credible plan. You find trusted advisors with whom you test the particulars of the plan — these advisors unabashedly tell you the truth. You eagerly listen to their truth. You iterate. Finally, you stand in front of all of us, describe the vision once more and then tell us how we’ll execute on the plan with a well-defined strategy.
“We are going to climb this mountain. Thanks to all of your hard work, we now have a strategy. We know each part of the climb, how we’ll be organized, and how we’ll tackle each day.” You draw the mountain, you draw the planned trail, and you draw signs along the trail to describe how each step of the climb will go.
We have lots of questions. You eloquently and completely answer our questions, which builds our confidence. We are still scared because no one has climbed this mountain before, but as we stare at the picture we built together we believe it can be done.
This is strategy. You are using all your leadership skills to define a strategy that supports a vision.
We begin the climb.
The execution of the plan, the tactics, is the hardest part, but no one will believe this for a while. We’re optimistic, full of energy, and chasing an ambitious, compelling vision. We’re laughing, patting ourselves on the back, and climbing. We frequently look at the plan that we’ve built, read the signs, and follow the directions. Step after step.
As each day passes, we discover small flaws in our plans. Unexpected developments that our strategy did not take into account. We stop, regroup, and share thoughts on how to proceed. You listen, ask questions, and make a quick decision. We nod – satisfied – and keep climbing.
Days pass and we continue to discover the unexpected. The frequency of the unexpected begins to concern a small group of us. You can hear despair and you show up quickly to talk directly to us. You remind us of the vision. You remind us that no one has done this before, for good reason. It’s not that other humans weren’t smart or organized enough, it was simply that they didn’t believe in the impossible. And we do.
Your words and enthusiasm calm some of us, but others will never come back to belief. They will continue to climb, but the magnitude of the task will never be less than impossible. They will not finish the climb with us.
Disaster strikes. Not just an unexpected development, a complete and total disastrous surprise. Worse, the disaster shines a light on the simple known fact that this task is impossible and our strategy is now clearly, woefully flawed.. All of us are rattled. Including you. Someone asks, “Should we turn back?” and the deep murmurs of agreement show the degree of despair and disbelief within the team.
This started as tactics. You were using all your leadership skills to execute tactics that supported the strategy to achieve the vision. Now you must use judgment if we are to succeed.
Judgment. The accumulation of all of your experiences into wisdom. Readily accessible, informed inspiration. Judgment isn’t just what you rely on to make a decision; judgment tells you when a decision exists. Are we going to stop or continue? What are the costs of each? How much do we risk if we continue? What do we forever lose if we stop? Is now the time to decide?
As you stand in front of us, hearing the echoing murmurs of despair, you make a decision because you are accountable for this journey and while most believe accountability means responsibility, you understand accountability means “required or expected to justify actions and decisions.” Justify to whom? To us. To give account. To tell the tale of why we are here. To justify why we need to complete this impossible task. To make the decision to continue and to explain in understandable detail what changes we’re going to need to make to achieve our goal.
You make your decision. We are going to continue. You explain your decision. And this is how we’ll proceed differently. You repeat the vision, you repeat the now revised strategy and supporting tactics. You feel you’ve done this a hundred times, but you’ll do it a hundred more before you’re done because each human needs a different thing to hold onto at different times in their journey.
Wild enthusiasm is gone. Belief is shaky. Your words can’t prevent a few from turning back, but those who stay take a deep breath, remember why they are there, and start climbing again.
Small steps. Climbing. One step at a time.
The first disaster is far behind us now. The second one, too. More members of the team have left, but others have now joined because they’re inspired by our ambition and also because it’s become well known that we are still climbing.
There are two more disasters ahead of us, but in six short weeks, we’ll reach the summit. The impossible will have been achieved. No one believes this right now. We are singularly focused on the task at hand: the act of taking each small step. The most important thing we do is take another small step.
There are no hacks. There are no silver bullets. The way that you are going to achieve this impossible task is by continuing to climb.