Building castles in the air: Visionary leadership

It’s hard to read Henry David Thoreau these days — almost 150 years after his death — and not think, “How quaint! How clichéd!”

It’s equally hard to remember that Thoreau’s insights weren’t considered clichés when he wrote them.

Clichés are a bit like retired professional athletes — spectacular at first sight, and really good for a long time, but eventually over-the-hill and not just tiresome but downright annoying. We wish they’d vanish altogether — and quickly.

Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany (photo by Softeis)

All of this to say that we should try to read Thoreau with 19th-century eyes, when he was at the height of his game and what he was saying had yet to be spun into bumper stickers and refrigerator magnets. With that in mind, let’s turn to the final pages of Walden and be blown away by Thoreau’s insights after two years, two months and two days in the relative “wilderness” of suburban Boston: “I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. … In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

Building castles in the air is, of course, a favorite pastime of visionary leaders. Thoreau, rightly, emphasizes the importance of laying a foundation for the airy castle. It’s not enough to build the castle in the air. Without a foundation, such a castle will crumble.

But what Thoreau leaves unsaid is that building castles in the air — having a unique, inspiring, important vision — is itself incredibly hard work.

Clouded visions, or no visions at all, are the norm in many organizations — from financial institutions and political parties to nonprofits and schools. Why aren’t there more visionary organizations and leaders? How can a leader find a clear, compelling vision? These were the central questions of a recent BAM! Radio Network show I did with Margie Carter, the co-author of seven books on education, including The Visionary Director: A Handbook for Dreaming, Organizing, and Improvising in Your Center. Our host was Holly Elissa Bruno.

I suggested that our lack of visionary leaders is partly attributable to how we hire leaders, especially in the field of education: you get the job because in interviews you say exactly what the hiring committee wants to hear. (That is, to get the position, an incoming leader essentially compromises his or her vision and values — and perhaps only later realizes it’s impossible to change course much.)

In education, a school board often hires a superintendent with a mandate to produce fairly specific outcomes — lower the dropout rate, reverse declining enrollment, raise student achievement, reduce the power of the teachers’ union — and it typically has its own pet theories on how best to reach these goals. The superintendent, in essence, has been hired to implement someone else’s vision. And it’s very hard to be visionary when you have to work within the confines of someone else’s vision.

Changing course midstream is hard, of course, because you’re liable to be labeled spineless or directionless, as Holly Elissa Bruno pointed out. But it’s not impossible. To do so successfully, I believe leaders must be upfront about the change and why it’s not just good but necessary. The alternative — to pretend like you’re staying the course when you’re not, or to refuse to acknowledge missteps or mistakes — is a recipe for failure. Good leaders are unafraid to admit mistakes; they understand that doing so humanizes them to their followers, and that they’ll gain — not lose — credibility by being honest about their shortcomings.

Now, to return to the initial subject of clichés, I offer you parting thoughts from our radio show — Margie’s comes courtesy of Valora Washington, while mine is from a former president of Columbia University (who went on to become the country’s 34th president).

Valora Washington: “Transformation of the social order often begins with acts of imagination that elevate a startling dream of change above the intimidating presence of things as they are. Yet if such dreams are passionate and clear, and if they can call a great many people into their service, they may ultimately give shape to the future.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”