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The Visionary Leader in a Modern Organizational Context

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Goal Setting

The modern Visionary leader is faced with a major challenge: how does one translate an inspiring vision into tangible goals. This is not just a matter of moving from some general, vague notion about what the world could be to some specific, even quantifiable goals. An even greater challenge for the visionary leader concerns the magnitude of the goals. How ambitious should they be? Many years ago, David McClelland and his colleagues at Harvard University conducted research on the need to achieve. They discovered that people with a low need to achieve tend to set their goals either very low (making them very easy to achieve and non-challenging) or very high (making them either impossible to achieve or achievable only with a great deal of good fortune or “luck”). Men and women with a high need to achieve tend instead to set their goals at a high but realistic level. Years later, Hershey and Blanchard identified a key concept in team goal-setting that complimented the McClelland findings. Hershey and Blanchard wrote about the capacity of a mature team to set goals that are high and ambitious, but also attainable.

In much more recent times, Czikszentmihalyi has written about (and conducted research on) the conditions that are most amenable to high levels of concentration and learning. These conditions are those in which there is a major challenge, yet the challenge is not so great that it can’t be achieved. These results amplify the findings of McClelland, as well as Hershey and Blanchard. Goals should be set at a high but realistic level. The one major addition to be found in the work of Czikszentmihalyi returns us to the issue of motivation. Czikszentmihalyi observed that these “threshold” experiences (when challenges can be met) are highly motivating in and of themselves (suggesting intrinsic motivation). According to Czikszentmihalyi these “flow” experiences are among the most motivating that one can experience in life.

The power of “flow” would suggest that modern motivational theory and modern management practices associated with visionary leadership need to be re-examined. In many instances, there may be little or no need for an extrinsic motivator (such as money, public recognition or job security). The task itself may yield sufficient motivation—provided that the goals that are set for the task are ambitious (“idealistic”) yet achievable (“realistic”). The challenge facing a visionary leader in a modern organization is therefore one of translating a vision into goals that are situated in the midst of the threshold of “flow” that has been articulated by Czikszentmihalyi.

Goal Monitoring

It is not enough to set goals – as a visionary leader operating in a modern society. It is also critical that the attempts to achieve these goals be closely monitored. This emphasis on accountability has become particularly critical in recent years, with tighter budgets. By the end of the 20th Century there was a widespread push toward “zero-based” budgeting–starting each fiscal year with a clean budgetary slate and the requirement that each manager justify their program. Emphasis was also placed on specific measurements (“metrics”) and the computation of specific ratios that produced a statement about “return-on-investment (ROI).” These metrics and ROI calculations enabled managers to identified costs associated with any new project as related to the fiscal outcomes of this project. As a result of these new emphases, successful modern day manager in the 21st Century must find ways to monitor goal achievement and to somehow measure this achievement and compare it to the costs associated with this achievement.

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