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Vol. 1, No. 12
(626) 791-8973



© 2003 By William A. Cohen, PhD,  The Institute of Leader Arts,   

Adapted from The Stuff of Heroes: The Eight Universal Laws of Leadership by William A. Cohen (Marietta, Georgia: Longstreet Press, 1998)     

A vision is an all-encompassing picture of the way you want an organization to look in the future. Without a vision, your organization is almost helpless.  It can’t get “there” until it knows where “there” is. Without a vision, you’ll never get “there” and neither will your organization. As a leader, defining that “there” is one of your most important responsibilities. Just like the song sang by “Bloody Mary” in the Rogers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, “If you don’t have a dream . . . if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna make a dream come true?”

Visions Can Carry an Organization Far into the Future

A leader’s vision can be so strong that it can continue long after the leader himself is gone. P.T. Barnum was a nineteenth century businessman and showman. Some say it was he that said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” This may or not be so, but his vision was not that of an organization that cheated the public. Rather, it had to do with an organization that amazed the public. Barnum put together a show of the most unusual people he could find. These included Tiny Tim, whose height was only eighteen inches, a man so hairy, he was termed “the Wolf Man,” and a woman who was thought to be 150 years old. He took these amazing people on tours all over the world, and they amazed their audiences, even the crowned heads of Europe.

Because of his vision, Barnum’s show eventually grew into the world famous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Barnum succeeded because he had a vision. It was to entertainment and amaze with live entertainment, not only the wealthy, but the masses of everyday people.

By the mid-twentieth century, television and movies and the fact that it became increasingly difficult to pitch circus tents near the big cities changed everything. The vision may have still been correct, but the environment had changed. As a result, sales plummeted. One of Barnum’s successors, John Ringling North, sold the famous circus to Irwin Feld in 1967 for $8 million cash. Feld turned the business around by abandoning tents and using convention centers. That saved the company, but it ignored the potential inherent in Barnum’s original vision.

It was Irwin Feld’s son, Kenneth, who recognized that while business conditions, demographics, and technology had changed dramatically since the 19th century, Barnum’s original vision for the business was still on target. Kenneth Feld took over the company on the death of his father. “My goal was to have the largest live entertainment company in the world,” he announced, a goal true to and worthy of, Barnum’s vision for the organization he had founded more than one hundred years earlier.

In ten years, Feld owned not only the circus, but Walt Disney’s World on IceSiegfried & Royat Las Vegas’ Mirage Resort and George Lucas’ Super Live Adventure Show. Today, his shows play to 30 million people a year, and annual sales are more than a half a billion dollars.1 P.T. Barnum would have nodded in approval and understood. Barnum’s vision of entertainment for the masses marches on and grows ever bigger under Feld’s leadership.

Great Visions are Always Powerful

The vision held by the successful leader is extremely powerful partly because it is always before him. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, who wrote the bestseller, The Power of Positive Thinking found that with great visions, “You have it, because it has you.”  Such a vision is so strong that it can even appear in the subconscious to make things happen.

How the Sewing Machine was Invented                                                         

Elias Howe is the inventor of the modern sewing machine. He had a strong vision as to how such a machine would work, with a needle moving in and out of the item to be sewed. But, instead of the needle being worked by hand, it would move 100 times as quickly because it would operate by machinery. There was just one problem. Howe couldn’t get his machine to work. 

Howe put the hole in the shaft of the needle on the end opposite the point, just like a regular needle used in sewing by hand. The point would penetrate the cloth and drag the thread down with it. But when the needle was withdrawn on the upstroke, it either got entangled in the cloth or tore it. Howe had a clear vision of what he wanted. He just didn’t know how to get there.

Howe tried everything. He sharpened the needle at both ends. It still got entangled. He used a curved needle. Still no luck. But his compelling vision of a sewing machine wouldn’t go away. He kept trying and failing to make his vision work.

One night he woke up after a strange dream. In his dream, cannibals on a South Sea Island captured him.  They threw him in a large pot over a fire to cook. As the water began to heat up, and Howe got hotter and hotter, the cannibals danced around him brandishing their spears. Even as he suffered from the heat, Howe noticed that their spears were very unusual. Each spear had a hole in its head where it was sharpened to a point. Through each hole was a length of rope.

 When he awoke, he remembered his dream. In an instant, he realized the solution to the problem of the sewing machine: put the hole in the head of the needle and allow the needle to sew without extracting fully to the full length of the shaft on the upstroke. Elias Howe had a compelling vision of his sewing machine to begin with. But, what is a dream, but a vision? The strength of his vision eventually led him to success.

With a Compelling Vision You Can Change the World

In perhaps his most famous speech, Dr. Martin Luther King told us, “I have a dream.” King went on to describe a very different kind of America than existed at that time . . . one in which a person wasn’t to be judged by the color of his skin, but the content of his character. Dr. King’s vision changed America, and perhaps the world, forever.

 Sam Walton built a spectacular retail chain because he had a vision of providing quality goods to people in geographical areas that major retailers were not serving. He felt so strongly about his vision, that he risked his personal fortune and left a well-paid, executive position at J.C. Penny in order to implement it. Wal-Mart was the fruit of Walton’s powerful vision.

All successful organizations, whether small businesses, Fortune 500 companies, athletic teams, combat units, or even countries must be built on a clear and compelling vision. This vision provides direction for everyone. It guides all action and tells everyone exactly where the organization is going. Properly involved in this vision, members of the organization willingly work toward it. Almost miraculously, the organization usually attains the vision that the leader sees, sometimes in every single detail.

The Leader Sees the Vision First

When they opened EPCOT Center in Florida, a news reporter interviewed Roy Disney, Walt Disney’s brother. At one point in the interview, the reporter commented: “It’s too bad Walt isn’t here to see all this,” and asked, “What would Walt have thought about EPCOT Center?”   

Roy Disney didn’t hesitate in replying: “Walt saw it years ago, before anybody else . . . that’s why you and I are seeing it today.”

The leader always does see the finished product first, in his or her mind. Then, he declares these expectations, promotes them, and starts everyone towards making his vision a reality.

In 1948, Disney took his daughters to an amusement park. He was distressed that amusement parks had become run-down, with unfriendly employees . . . a place that parents no longer wanted to take their children. Walt Disney put out a memo for what he called “Mickey Mouse Park” that very year. It read in part:

“The Main Village, which includes the Railroad Station, is built around a village green or informal park. In the park will be benches, a bandstand, drinking fountain, trees, and shrubs. It will be a place for people to sit and rest; mothers and grandmothers can watch over small children at play. I want it to be very relaxing, cool and inviting.”2 And thus began, “The Happiest Place on Earth.”

The Processionary Caterpillar Has Vision

Yes, you can’t get “there” until you know where “there” is. Vision, goals, and objectives are your “there.” These have to be big enough, important enough, and clear enough to be compelling. If your “there” has these qualities, and you are committed, those who follow you will break their necks to help you and your organization get “there.” And well they might. The bible tells us “Where there is no vision, the people perish . . . “ (Proverbs 29:18).

Do you think that you can learn anything about a leader’s vision from an insect? Well, I did. Here’s the story. A professor at a large Midwestern university is a entomologist. That’s a fancy way of saying that he studies insects. He became curious about a strange insect called a processionary caterpillar. What makes this species of caterpillar so unusual is the way it travels. A family of these caterpillars moves as a physically connected unit. They actually “hook-up,” one behind the other and move in a long, undulating, connected line. The leader knows where they are going. The others simply hang on and have a rather spectacular view of the rear end of another caterpillar.

This professor wondered what would happen if there were no leader and hence no vision of where they were going. So, he designed a little experiment. He took a family of these caterpillars that were already connected and hooked the leader up to the caterpillar who was last in line, so that there was no leader. Then, he placed the circle of caterpillars on the rim of a flowerpot whose circumference exactly matched the size of the circle of caterpillars. He placed water and mulberry leaves at the bottom of the flowerpot. Mulberry leaves are the processionary caterpillars’ favorite food. What he wanted to know was how long the caterpillars would continue to travel around in a circle going nowhere. How long would they continue without a leader and no vision of where they were going before they changed tactics, or at least stopped for a coffee break?

So, the professor placed his circle of leaderless processionary caterpillars on the rim of the flower put.  For perhaps the first time in history, these caterpillars would have neither leader nor vision. As the caterpillars began to crawl in a circle around the rim of the flower pot, the professor pressed the start button on his stopwatch, and waited. He planned to calculate to the millisecond how long the caterpillars would continue to go around with no idea as to where they were going.

The professor never pressed the button to stop his chronograph, because the caterpillars continued going round and round the flower pot rim  without a leader and without a vision until they fell unconscious for lack of sustenance. Yet, food and water were always only a few inches away. “With no vision, the people perish,” says the Bible. That appears to apply to caterpillars also.

Seneca, the Roman philosopher, dramatist, and statesman who at one time became the virtual ruler of the Roman Empire even though he was not the emperor wrote: If a man does not know to what port he is steering, no wind is favorable.

1 La Franco, Robert, “The Tightest Man in Show Business?” Forbes, (November 8, 1994) pp.67-75.

2 Thomas, B. Walt Disney (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976) p. 218