Have you noticed that there’s a shortage of good stories about CEOs that don’t fall into the stereotype of wealthy-fat-cat-who-dodges-taxes-and-treads-on-the-poor? Where are the stories about a corporate or organizational president who wants to do what’s right but runs into constant ethical grey areas, and faces struggles with public perception, morasses with no good outcome and dark nights of the soul—not to mention overcoming his or her own personal weaknesses? The current TV series most benevolent to CEOs is Undercover Boss, in which the big boss risks embarrassment and ridicule as he or she attempts to step into the shoes of an average employee within their own company.

I think my hunger for good president stories led me to dust off The West Wing, the long-running TV series from the 2000s that focused on the staff serving with the president of the United States. The episode I watched last night depicted a White House mired in a controversy that was in large part caused by a president who was less than forthcoming with his own staff, let alone the public. It causes the president’s staff an enormous amount of extra work and personal expense, as they each have to hire their own lawyers. They begin to crack under the stress, and it becomes clear that the core problem is not overwork or personal cost: as loyal as the staff are to their president, they haven’t forgiven the president for not bringing them into the loop earlier. By the end of the episode, the staff entertain a number of possible steps their leader could take to repair the damage.

  • Does he need to commend their hard work and give them some time off?
  • Does he need to apologize and spend some time getting them on the same page again?
  • Does he need to lay out a bold vision for the future that stirs their hearts to get over their personal pain?

President Bartlet does apologize to them as a group, but it feels cursory. Then he moves to inspiration and paints a vision for what they’re going to accomplish in the years ahead – something new and noble and big. Then he says, “Break’s over.” In other words, rather than lighten their load, he increases their capacity to give even more.

Vision does that. It makes a load feel a little bit lighter and in fact reveals that the load-bearer has unknown additional capacity. In her book, Multipliers, Liz Wiseman offers research that says a manager who diminishes staff will only draw out about 45% of their staff’s capacity, while a multiplier will get closer to 90%. But a significant sample in her research suggested the staff actually gave more than 100%. In other words, the leader drew out of them capacity they didn’t even know they had.

I recently read a chapter of Mistakes Leaders Make, in which Dave Kraft says leaders sometimes sacrifice vision for busyness. After all, many who find themselves in leadership positions were promoted because of competence. They love to do the work themselves while their teams struggle because they don’t have the one thing the leader alone can provide: vision. He arrives at one of the best differentiating statements about leadership and management I’ve ever heard:

Biblical leadership is concerned with the future, while management is concerned with the present.

To back up his point, Kraft cites Marcus Buckingham: “What defines a leader is his preoccupation with the future. He is a leader if, and only if, he is able to rally others to the better future he sees.” Kraft concludes, “True leadership is always forward thinking and forward moving.”

So how does an average, life-size leader practice “visioning,” without the benefit of Hollywood script writers and triumphant background music?

Take time to dream. Kraft says visioning is not just one thing a leader does; rather, “a leader’s primary responsibility is to hear from God.” And for most of us, it won’t happen without hard work. A leader has to “set aside time for retreating to dream, think, plan, and pray.” Kraft’s point:

Biblical leadership requires taking time to be in God’s presence often enough to hear from him what he wants to do in the future in your church, ministry or group.

Unlock ability in people. Wiseman says multipliers identify talent, know what they’re capable of, invest in them and create space for them to thrive. In short, they inspire people to offer their best. But they don’t stop there.

Demand their best work. Multipliers follow inspiration with high expectations. They delegate ownership and then hold their staff accountable to the high standard they know they’re capable of. Wiseman says that while the best leader’s desks appear level, in reality they have a distinct slant, where accountability slides back to the person sitting on the other side of the desk. Responsibility is never delegated upward.

It’s the beginning of a new year. I always rebel against the idea of resolutions, but I realize that my practice of reflection at the new year more often than not leads me to set areas of improvement. Let’s just call a resolution a resolution. Here are three areas I want to improve in 2014:

1. Visioning. I think my team needs to hear more vision, and they need to be equipped to share vision and plan for the future with their own teams.

2. Accountability for high expectations. I need to throw greater challenges to my team and hold them accountable. I need to constantly move things off my plate so that I have space for visioning and follow-up.

3. Storytelling. Since storytelling is such an essential tool for conveying vision, I want to invest in my abilities to tell effective stories that inspire, challenge and emote rather than simply conveying information.

How about you? What steps do you need to take to improve your ability to share vision and draw the best out of your team?

By the way, I think President Bartlet went a bit light on his apology. There’s incredible power in apology, and I think he missed an opportunity.