Lasting Impressions

Next to his work, The Wild Sea, at OKCMOA, there is a quote by Balcomb Greene. “Complete abstraction in art is a dead end.” That resonated with me as I tend to be drawn to abstract art. Greene painted in ways that left most of the interpretation to the viewer but contained enough material to guide the viewer along that journey.

The first way a leader communicates the value of the people they serve is by illuminating their vision. Communicating vision is like creating a painting, and the style of that communication, like the style of a painting, can take many forms. From the viewpoint of the artist, we can see what we want, and we can usually see at least one very specific way we can get there. However, we also want to benefit from the diversity of our team and the unique viewpoints they bring. 

Some leaders paint in the style of Romanticism. They present a rosy picture of a future state that appeals to our emotions and idealizes the world around us. This is attractive as it ignores the imperfections that are inevitable in a community. Because the image is exceptionally detailed, it tends to lead people to simply attempt to replicate the image exactly, leaving no room for creativity.

Other leaders are more like Realists. Their picture celebrates the ordinary, sometimes ugly, world as it really is. Though not necessarily pessimistic, this view fails to inspire us. We want to be challenged to reach for a future that exceeds our current state. This image paints a picture that is too close to our present reality.

Then there are the Abstractionists. These leaders fail to give enough specific information because they are afraid their vision might not work. They paint a fuzzy, messy picture that requires each team member to attempt to imagine what the leader wants. With everyone creating their own interpretation, no cohesive effort arises.

Great leaders create a vision that is similar to an Impressionist painting. The vision becomes a vehicle for communicating the relationships and patterns (mission and values) desired. There is a certain abstractness that encourages individual perception, but there is enough information to create consensus.

When I look at The Wild Sea by Greene, I cannot avoid the intended image of a ship being tossed and pounded by the waves. The intent is there, and it is certain. However, I am not told any details about the ship itself by the painting. I do not know how many sails it has, how many people are on board, or who they are. Much is left to be filled in, creating space for me to make the painting personal.

Great visions are the story we tell ourselves and others about a particular future. Vision should be exciting and challenging, while being strategically achievable. Vision should invite the team into the journey and acknowledge the obstacles and detours we will face, while clearly expecting the team to overcome them.

Leaders owe their team a great vision. Like a great painting, we want to be drawn into the picture and invited to place ourselves in the frame. When vision clearly identifies the desired future while leaving room for individual contributions, it creates a lasting impression. Leaders with vision guide their communities into the future and into the Bison Way.