Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, August 29, 2010

Ancient Egyptian civilization flourished for over three thousand years, gradually collapsing less than two thousand years ago. What is peculiar about this civilization is that in its long history, its art remained relatively static and unchanged! It was always two-dimensional, expressionless, rigid and flat. This indicates a civilization where the art was determined by the state, and not a product of individual inspiration. No individual innovation was allowed; everything was determined by the nameless faceless system. People’s lives were governed by this system. They devoted their time to farming and when the harvest was done, they were enlisted to build the king’s pyramid. Thus everyone was well-fed, busy, with no time to challenge the system.

Clearly, this was the slavery that is described in the Bible. A break was needed from familiar slavery to unfamiliar freedom. This was offered by one Moses. He presented the people with a value proposition, described as the ‘Promised Land’. This was the land of milk and honey. There was no map to the Promised Land, there was no brochure either or satellite images. Just faith. People were willing to risk everything to follow Moses across the sea and the wilderness to that dream of a better life.

A Vision Statement, genuinely constructed by a leader, is the Promised Land. Unfortunately, today it has become a meaningless business ritual. We have two choices: either hire expensive consultants if one is obligated by the parent organization and is governed by audited processes, or go to Dilbert.com, if one is more cynical. But ultimately every venture offers a Promised Land, and most leaders fail to recognize this.

Vishal buys old properties all over the world. He then renovates it and sells it for a higher price. “I don’t need a Vision Statement,” he told his uncle, “I am a small business.” His uncle did not comment but he knew that without articulating it, Vishal had a Promised Land in his mind. He transformed ugly soulless buildings into joyful settlements. This idea he shared with his engineers and architects. It provided everyone with the satisfaction of doing something meaningful. It also brought in good profits. Every person who worked for Vishal believed in his vision. They walked the extra mile through the wilderness with him. The results were spectacular and for all to see.

The point of a Vision Statement is not to carve it on a wall in the reception of the office; it is to inspire people. Vishal has nothing on paper; but his vision drives every aspect of his business. It is not propaganda. It is genuine belief.

When Vishal started his business, he needed investment. So, guided by his uncle, he spoke to several venture capitalists and angel investors. He told them his plan. He did not realize that he was doing the role of Moses. The Promised Land that he presented to the hard-nosed bankers was all an imagination. But he had faith in it and conviction that it could be done. He had studied the known – the competition, the opportunities, the threats, his own strengths, his weaknesses, what were the gaps he needed to fill. He was also clear about the unknown – he told the bankers that he was uncertain about realty prices and how the market would move. As he spoke, the bankers, were smitten by his passion and enthusiasm; they sponsored Vishal’s journey to the Promised Land. Ultimately, all new businesses are a step into the unknown. And no one has the map to the unknown.

Vishal has taken things further. He does not have just one Promised Land, or rather he looks at the Promised Land from all perspectives not just from an overall business perspective (as most Vision Statements, unfortunately, do). He presents to his customers, their view of the Promised Land. He also slices and dices his vision to make it relevant to every member of his team. He tells them how growth of the business, will bring growth to the junior-most engineer: even if it is something as rudimentary as a better bonus. Because of this attention to every person’s Promised Land, Vishal is able to fire the imagination of his entire organization. He transforms into a leader who provides liberation from the daily meaningless corporate drudgery that is best equated with slavery in Egypt.