Good Work: Night Climbing

Leadership is…establishing where a group of people should go, getting them lined up in that direction and committed to movement, and then energizing them to overcome the inevitable obstacles that they will encounter along the way.  -John Kotter


My parents visited last week.  After a bottle of wine, the picture albums came out.  My dad and I climbed 50 big mountains together including a few in Mexico.
To climb Popocatepetl, you drive an hour southeast of Mexico City to Amecameca, then you hop on the back of an old jeep and spend two bumpy hours climbing the last ten kilometers to the base of the mountain.  After a quick dinner, you jump in a bag and try to sleep (a challenge at almost 14,000 feet).
We reached the glacier about 3:30 A.M. on a windy February morning after climbing for a couple hours in the dark.  We put on our crampons, roped up and began the slow and steady accent up the steep ice field.  It was a dark morning and our headlamps only illuminated the next step.  We had been able to see the top of the mountain and our planned route the day before from a tiny Indian village.  Now that shared picture of the top and our planned route was all we had to go on in the dark, but it, and the goal to reach the top, was all consuming.  That mental image guided our way and kept us moving even when we were exhausted.
Leaders are supposed to help diverse groups of people see, desire and work toward the same dream.  It is plain hard to do.  Just like the image of the volcano, a vision is a picture in the dark.  It focuses energy, action, learning and investment.  Without a picture of a desired future state you can manage day to day but you cannot lead.
A mission statement describes why the organization exists.  A vision statement describes the desired future state.  For example, Rocketship Education’s mission is to “close the achievement gap.” Fulfilling that mission demands “building, executing, and scaling a 21st century school model.” Rocketship has a shared vision of being the first national network of schools in 50 cities serving millions of students.
In some respects, a shared vision makes things harder—it demands enough discipline to say no to diversions.  Rocketship gets lots of offers, but they say no to more opportunities than they say yes to because they are clear about where they are headed.  A shared vision also helps you know what to learn.  Rocketship has an extensive talent development strategy that helps people be successful in their current role while grooming them for future leadership roles.
Leaders create reliable hope by connecting people with a brighter future.  They wrestle with the same fears, but are unwilling to be a victim of circumstance.  They bring out the extraordinary in people by helping them see what they were unable to dream.  I think we elected Barak Obama because he had a compelling vision
By 5:00 a.m. sky went blood red over the Gulf of Mexico.  The early morning February sun hit the glacier revealing a sub-peak indicating that we were nearing our destination.  The new image marked our accomplishment and renewed our energy.  A shared vision can do the same for everyone you work with.
[Good Work is a Sunday series that started as journal entries while serving as a public school superintendent in the 90s]

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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