Whether one approves or disapproves of the outcome, we have seen a sizeable majority of Americans embrace the vision offered by Barack Obama. Few concepts about leadership have more currency than the idea that what a good leader offers is a vision that inspires followers. As a consequence, leadership itself is often understood as the process by which a leader inspires followers through vision.
The underlying metaphor here is one of cause and effect. The leader is the cause, while the followers’ inspiration is the effect. It’s as if, prior to the leader’s vision, followers are walking around with no vision of their own. As if the leader’s vision fills up an empty place in the heart of the follower and thus creates inspiration where there was nothing.
But this picture of how a leader’s vision works cannot be right. Followers are not empty canvas upon which the leader paints a vision. If vision is a picture or image of the future, a scheme of hopes and dreams, and plans for how to achieve them, then surely followers, as human beings, have vision of their own long before any encounter with a leader’s vision.
The vision of the follower, moreover, is powerful and consequential. As the repository of the follower’s hopes and dreams (whether of her own future or also including the future of others), the follower’s vision is a causal force of its own. The follower’s vision is as likely to inspire the leader as the other way around.
A more practical way to think about vision is that the leader’s vision comes into dynamic interaction with the vision of followers. In this dynamic interaction, the causal power of multiple visions can produce a mutual inspiration in which the leader finds himself moved as much as the followers. Leader and follower embrace one another’s vision. In this way of thinking, leadership is not primarily a process of one-up influence, but at its heart is a social and relational process of shared meaning-making. The part played by interpersonal influence is important but secondary to the part played by the mutual construction of a shared future.
Is this something Obama is wise to? I think so. In the speech that marked his emergence at the 2004 Democratic convention, he said, “For alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga: a belief that we are connected as one people.” And in his victory speech he promised, “I will listen to you, especially when we disagree. And above all, I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation.” He addressed his political opponents, saying, “to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your president too. “ And he spoke to those around the world in similar terms: “to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores . . . our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared . . . “
It is tempting to dismiss this as mere words. But words have power, and, for better or worse, these words have already engaged with the vision of millions around the world. What will happen as a result?
We already know quite a bit about how one person can influence another. I think we need to understand better how people mutually construct shared futures. I’m going to be watching the Obama presidency as a case study from this perspective, and I will report from time to time on my observations.
(UPI Photo/Pat Benic)