Be Mean (About the Vision)
by Shawn Lovejoy
I don’t consider myself to be a mean person. I have lots of friends. I’m an extrovert. I am a neck hugger. I consider myself to be a nice, loving person. I don’t think most people would say I’m a mean leader. You may have read this title and thought that I was going to give you permission to be a mean leader, but I’m not. There are already too many mean leaders out there today, yes, and especially, in the church!
Being mean about the vision is not about being mean to people or being a mean leader. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. If you look up the word mean in the dictionary, you’ll see several definitions. One of them says that to be mean is “to be offensive, selfish, or unaccommodating.” That’s the definition most of us think of first; but if you think more about it, that is not even the most common use of the word mean itself. The other definition of the word mean is “to have an intended purpose.” In this instance, the word mean has to do with intent.
We’ll sometimes say “What I meant to say was . . . ” or “I meant that as a compliment.” In these instances the word mean has to do with intent. That is what “being mean about the vision” is all about. Being mean about the vision is being intentional about the vision.
Why is it so important that we be intentional about the vision? The Bible tells us in Proverbs 29:18 that “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” In other words, where there is no vision, things die and people die; maybe not physically, but in the Bible death is not always physical. When Adam and Eve lost sight of God’s vision for them in the garden, they died; not physically, but spiritually, relationally and emotionally. That’s how the Bible most often describes death.
Some of us know that the word vision in Proverbs 29:18 is literally translated revelation. The New International Version translates this same verse like this: “Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint” Proverbs 29:18 (NIV). In other words, God also wants us to know that where there is a lack of a clear vision revealed by God for a person or organization, there is going to be less focus, more people running in random directions and more chaos that ensues!
This is why I believe vision is the most important thing in the world. We must understand, embrace and align our lives and our organizations around God’s revealed vision for our lives and the organizations we lead! This is what it means to be mean about the vision. The question is how, right? How can we be more intentional about understanding, embracing and aligning our lives and organizations around the vision.
Where there is no vision people perish. Things and people die. Organizations die. Where there is no vision, people cast off restraint. They wander off in random directions. There is no unity or synergy. However, this means the opposite is true. Where there is vision, there is life, vitality and growth. There is clear direction, unity and synergy! This is why I believe vision is the most important thing in the world! We must understand to our core the importance of vision in our lives and the organizations we lead.
In his book Built to Last, Jim Collins exposes some of the myths people had held about what he called “visionary companies.” One of the myths he and his team debunked was the belief that “Companies become visionary primarily through vision statements.”1 He and his team set out believing that cool and clever vision statements might separate the great organizations from all others. On the contrary however, his team’s research revealed that it wasn’t the content of the vision statements that seemed to make the difference. It was the clarity of that vision statement throughout the various levels of an organization that made all the difference.
To be honest, I’m not a big fan of vision statements. Vision statements are a dime a dozen as far as I’m concerned. Every organization has a vision statement. At the end of the day, a vision statement is just that: it’s a statement. It’s words on a page. It has no life on its own. It cannot, nor will it ever, energize, unify, or align an organization. This task falls to the leader. A vision statement is only as strong as the leader is. Vision is only as clear as the leader is. Vision is only as compelling as a leader makes it. A vision is stewarded and sustained by a leader. This is just another reason why the leader’s vision is everything.
Another myth Jim and his team exposed was the belief that “visionary companies share a common subset of correct core values.”2 Jim and his team looked to see if there was a common set of values that every great organization had in common. Their research revealed, however, that no such monster existed. Among the best organizations in their study, there was no “right” set of core values that they all shared. The crucial variable was not the content of a company’s values, but how deeply they believed their values and how consistently they lived, breathed and expressed those values in all that they did.
Don’t you see? Vision is everything! Without a vision people and organizations perish! With clarity and unity behind the vision, good organizations become great! As leaders we must know and understand the importance of vision at every level of the organizations we lead.
Discover a Vision We’re Willing to Die For
Here’s the good news. We don’t have to invent a new vision. We just have to discover it. If vision is actually something that’s revealed to us by our Creator, then we just have to wrestle with Him until we receive it clearly from Him. That’s what Jacob did. If you are familiar with the saga of the Bible, you know that God’s chosen nation, Israel, was named after a man named Jacob. The name Jacob means “deceiver,” and for the first part of his life, Jacob lived up to his name. He spent the first half of his life trying to deceive, manipulate and strategize his way to success. One night, however, all that changed. The story is found in Genesis 32. Jacob found himself in a wrestling match with God (or at least a messenger from God). He wrestled all night, and Scripture tells us that during the struggle, Jacob refused to let go until God blessed him. Think about it: Jacob would not stop wrestling with God until God revealed His vision and promised to fulfill His vision for Jacob’s life! And God did bless him. Everything great in Jacob’s life started with a holy wrestling match over the vision. That’s powerful.
The same is true for us. We must be willing to wrestle with our Creator until we know He both reveals and promises to fulfill His vision in and through our lives. That moment will change everything for us. That moment will allow us to stay true through the disappointments, the setbacks, the attacks and potential hijacks of the vision in our lives and organizations. We need to know that we know that we know that God has spoken to us and we must obey at all costs! That’s a vision we’re willing to die for.
Keep the Vision from Leaking
Bill Hybels, Founding Pastor of Willow Creek Church, was the first one I ever heard say it: “Vision leaks.” It just means that the clarity and the passion for the vision will tend to fade over time. And it doesn’t take as much time as we think! This is why an annual “Vision Talk” will not suffice. We must clearly but also consistently communicate the vision to everyone in our organization. Why is this so important? See, vision is not WHAT we do. Vision is WHY we do it. When we begin to forget WHY we do what we’re doing, we’ll eventually lose our passion. When we lose our passion, we shrink back, let up and often give up, consciously or unconsciously.
So how do we keep the vision from leaking? First of all, it begins with us. We need to constantly bring ourselves back to WHY we’re doing what we’re doing. Why are we here? Why do we want to grow? Why are we trying to accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish? Then we’ve got to talk about it all the time. I do mean all the time. Every week if possible! We must connect vision to everything we do. Everyone must know, understand and embrace the vision . . . or we perish! When people start joining about or complaining about the fact that we talk about the vision too much, we’re probably getting close to the appropriate threshold. We also must celebrate the vision often. We need to remind everyone about the difference the vision is making in people’s lives. What is the fruit if the vision? What is the win? Gather and tell stories often. Have team members do the same. If forgetting why robs us of passion, then remembering why restores it!
Keep the Vision from Being Hijacked
No matter how clearly and consistently we communicate the vision, some people just won’t get it. Sometimes they will not want to follow. Sometimes they will want to wander. Sometimes they will have their own ideas—their own agendas. Sometimes they’ll even try to hijack the vision!
I don’t know how you were raised, but I was told never to pick up hitchhikers. That may sound mean, because after all, hitchhikers obviously need a ride. Why not stop to pick them up? Simply because, historically, hitchhikers have often become hijackers! They’ve knocked the driver in the head and seized the wheel of the car and taken both car and driver to their own peril.
Hijacking happens in organizations every day. The leader gets knocked out of the driver’s seat, and the vehicle is taken somewhere else to everyone’s peril! What do we do? We learn to recognize potential vision hijackers. We’re willing to have courageous conversations about where we’re going and where we’re not willing to allow the organization to go. We confront potential vision drift quickly. We confront potential vision hijackers. We take responsibility to safely steer the vision home. We refuse to allow someone to take the wheel and steer everyone toward peril. We’re willing to say NO. We have the courage to even be willing to stop the car and tell someone to get out and find another ride before they hijack the vision. We have the courage to let people go.
Why? Because vision is the most important thing in the world. Our Creator has revealed His vision for our life and the organization we lead. We are responsible for stewarding it well and accomplishing the vision God has revealed to us! So today, commit to relentlessly preserve and protect the most important thing in the world: the vision! Surprisingly, it turns out that being mean about the vision could be one of the kindest, godliest, life-giving things we could do for the people we lead! So go be mean (about the vision)!
1Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (New York: HarperCollins, 2011)
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