All Articles Leadership Inspiration 7 elements of a compelling leadership vision for change

7 elements of a compelling leadership vision for change

5 min read


Leading change starts with a compelling leadership vision for change. According to leadership expert John Kotter, a lack of leadership vision is one of the most common reasons why transformational change efforts fail.

A leadership vision isn’t just for large, CEO-led, companywide transformational changes. Leaders at all levels need to inspire people to change in order to overcome significant challenges and achieve important goals.

“Transformational” is always relative and defined by those most affected by the change. While an office reconfiguration at a branch office may seem insignificant and trivial to a CEO and his executive team, it’s probably considered transformational to the employees that work in that office. It’s up to the branch office manager to have a vision for that  reconfiguration or the move is going to be met with skepticism and resistance. The change could take longer than it needs to without even achieving the desired results.

Here are seven important elements for any leadership vision for change:

1. It should be positive. A vision should focus more on how the future will be better, and why. It should paint a picture of a better place to be. While many would say a “burning platform” approach should be used to convince people to change, I believe it’s less effective because it relies on fear in order to motivate. I’d much rather rely on positive psychology.

2. It should be inspirational. “We’re all going to show up for work on time for the next 90 days” isn’t really going to inspire the troops to be all that they can be. Decisions are emotional, not logical. People don’t make decisions by facts — they are swayed by their emotions. They then use facts to justify their emotional decision. A vision needs to appeal to the emotions of those involved in order to be inspirational, then supported with logic.

3. It should be bold. What’s the most inspirational movie that you’ve ever seen? In most cases, you’ll probably think of movies that involved overcoming seemingly impossible odds. Don’t just say “We’re going to make a 10%” improvement” — go for 50%, or 90%! The best visions are BHAGs — big, hairy, audacious goals.

Is there risk involved? A chance you could fail? Sure, there always is with bold visions. Here’s a good way to look at it: There are 32 NFL football teams. Each year, every one of those teams set a goal to win the Super Bowl. Only one of them can win — the others will all lose. However, that doesn’t mean a team should set a vision for “making the playoffs and losing in the first round.” If you don’t achieve it, you’ve most likely made positive steps forward, learned a lot, and had a blast trying.

4. It should be inclusive. Involving other will not only create ownership and buy-in for the vision, it will most likely result in a better vision. There are a lot of ways to involve others in your vision. You can ask people upfront for their input, include them in the creation of the vision, or involve them in the implementation planning.

5. It should be measurable and attainable. While a great leadership vision may not always have a specific number attached it, it should at least be directional enough so that people will know when you’ve achieved it. Again, some may disagree, but I believe a vision should have a destination.

6. It should connect to the greater good. “Increasing revenue by 25%” may be important to the CEO and the board, but it’s not going to inspire too many employees or other stakeholders. Nowadays especially, today’s employees want to feel like they are making a difference, and a contribution to making the world a better place. They crave a sense of purpose — that’s what inspires us to change and give it our all.

7. It needs to be communicated — often. Many leaders believe they have a vision, but when employees are asked, they don’t have a clue what it might be. Visions should not be well-guarded secrets! Leaders need to get out and talk to their employees about the vision. Communicating a vision is not an event — it’s an ongoing process, where the vision is constantly and consistently communicated until every single employee has internalized it.

Creating a leadership vision for change isn’t easy — it’s hard work! But then again, there’s a lot of hard work in creating a lousy vision, too, so you might as well do it in a way that inspires people to change and achieve extraordinary results. After all, that’s what leadership is all about.

Dan McCarthy is the director of Executive Development Programs at the University of New Hampshire and runs the Management & Leadership channel of He writes the award-winning leadership development blog Great Leadership and is consistently ranked as one of the top digital influencers in leadership and talent management. He’s a regular contributor to SmartBrief and a member of the SmartBrief on Workforce Advisory Board. E-mail McCarthy.

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