Communicating Vision Is About How People Feel

One of the fundamental missions of leadership is to get people aligned to a vision and motivated to achieve it. Too often companies confuse this process of vision with the managerial process of analysis. Management requires rational arguments and can provide the execution muscle to keep a change on track. Leadership employs the power of sustained, purposeful communications that build support for an emotionally compelling vision. Though both are required, we set ourselves up for failure when we confuse management for leadership.

A clear example of purposeful, visionary leadership was shown by Retired Gen. Robert McDermott, who served as CEO of USAA of San Antonio for 25 years. USAA provides a wide range of financial services products to veterans and active-duty military personnel.

At the time Operation Desert Shield was launched in 1990, USAA was organized into six product units, each with separate management and operations. McDermott recognized that the company might have significant numbers of claims based on combat that was certain to follow. And he realized that the spouse of an injured or killed veteran would have to place a separate claim for each product they held with USAA, a situation that he told his team was unacceptable.

The push-back from corporate attorneys and line presidents, however, was tremendous, and some of the resistance was well reasoned. Insurance claims departments had 50 state insurance commissions to deal with, and each banking and investment unit had different regulators and risk factors.

McDermott knew that even in an organization so closely aligned with the military, he could not simply give the order and expect that it would be carried out. However, he won the “hearts and minds” of everyone in the company with a simple appeal. Starting with each of the unit presidents and working his way through attorneys and key staff, he posed a simple question: “If it were your spouse, how many times would you want her to have to call us? What would you want her experience to be?”

The emotional argument sold what all the rational analysis could not. Sixty days later, USAA had a single claims center serving all of its business lines. Everyone in the organization lined up to design and implement a creative solution — and in record time.

One outcome of the centralized process was enormous gratitude in the customer base that was reflected in increased loyalty. As an added bonus, the company saw substantially lowered cost of claims processing as well.

I would not argue that the rational arguments are unimportant or that companies should embark on change without proper due diligence. Vision without the managerial rigor to execute quickly becomes pie-in-the-sky hopefulness and eventually the brunt of internal humor. However, a key responsibility of leadership is to clearly communicate a vision of the future that engenders a strong personal desire in members of the organization to make that vision a reality — the belief that the vision is attainable and instilling a personal desire to be part of it.

Everyone at every level of an organization has his part in making vision a reality. Leaders know that no one can focus the amount of energy and attention needed to sustain all the moving parts of a company through command and control. Instead, each person must understand how he contributes and want to be part of the end state described.

Perhaps this important trait of a leader was best described by Antoine St. Exupery when he said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

A biography of Brig. Gen. Robert McDermott is available at the American National Business Hall of Fame at

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, May 31, 2004.