I once knew a woman who was starting up a new NGO project in S.E. Asia. When speaking of her work she said, “I’m a starter. I like to start things. Then I like to work myself out of a job. Once things are up and running, I get bored, so I hand the work over to someone else and go off and start something else.”
There are truly gifted visionaries out there who can do just what my friend described above, and the project they begin does indeed continue on under new leadership for many years. But, in my experience, more often than not, when someone says, “I’m a starter and then I’m gone…” what they’re really saying is, “I like to be around when things are new and exciting. Once the novelty wears off and things become more mundane (and difficult), I leave.”
Visionaries tend to invest into the New! and Exciting!; into a fleeting glory which quickly fades. The Visionary invests into what makes him look good in the here and now and into what the masses focus on and get excited about (and pour resources into) in the here and now.
The Master, however, invests into an undying glory which never fades, but is often hidden in dark places in the days of small things.
Visionary projects start off big, but that’s mostly an illusion. It’s like a sugar rush — lots of energy rapidly infused into a body, but then just as rapidly leaking out. There is nothing wrong with starting big, in fact it’s probably the better way to go, but is there a sustainable system ready to take over once the initial momentum dissipates?
When a Master invests into a new project, he does not think, “Okay, let’s throw a whole bunch of money at this thing, hype it up big, and add it to the list of our great accomplishments (regardless of wether it works or not).” No, a Master says, “I am investing into this project for the life of the project. I want to see this thing flourish, not just at the beginning when everyone is watching, but in the middle, and the end, after most initial investors have lost interest.”
I recently finished reading How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Bigby Scott Adams. In it, Adams makes a good suggestion which goes something like this: Don’t set goals in your life, rather, build systems.* And that got me thinking about the difference between Visionary leaders and Masters — Visionaries set goals, Masters build systems.
As I wrote about before, a Visionary leader does not have much to offer other than his vision. To follow the Visionary you must celebrate his vision, but after that, you’re mostly on your own. And if you do not celebrate his vision you become a pariah. In fact, you could be very good at what you do, but if you don’t celebrate or connect to the vision you’ll be ignored. And vice versa, you could be terrible at what you do, but if you do celebrate the vision you will be promoted.
Visionary led movements which never transition to Master led movements usually die with the Visionary. I grew up in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). The CRC was founded in 1857 and has roots going back to the Reformation. I don’t doubt that the CRC will still exist 100 years from now. I also know of Christian church movements which are only 40 years old. These movements are Visionary led and I don’t see them lasting another 40 years. Once the Visionary dies, the fuel feeding the movement burns out.
So I agree with Scott Adams, but I will change the wording: Don’t rely on vision, rather, build systems. Systems will outlive the Visionary. You can start with a Visionary, but don’t die with the Visionary.
A system does not mean a bureaucracy. It’s true that can happen, but a Master won’t allow it. A Master creates a system in which everyone can operate freely and not be bogged down by unnecessary rules. Systems are not void of progress; they create an environment in which progress is normal. For example, a friend of mine is trying to lose weight. In the past he would always set a goal of how many pounds he would like to lose. He would reach that goal, but never sustain the new weight. Now, he has abandoned the goal setting and is creating a system instead. The system is not pushing toward a specific weight but rather is creating a lifestyle in which a healthy weight becomes normal.
Christian Visionaries love to quote this Bible verse: Where there is no vision, the people perish… See how important vision is? It’s in the Bible! But, it’s funny because they don’t quote the whole verse. In fact, they don’t even quote the full sentence. The whole verse is this: Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he. (Proverbs 29:18 KJV) The word vision in the passage is the Hebrew word châzôn, which refers to a prophetic vision. The prophetic vision here is not some scheme conjured up by a leader, but rather it is a divine revelation from God instructing us how to live our lives. What is that divine revelation according to this verse? It is the law. And what is the law? It is a system.
A system sustains life and is superior to anyone’s vision. A system is intergenerational whereas a vision is only held passionately by the originator, and maybe by his immediate successor… maybe.
* “A goal is a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, its a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal. If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or set new goals and reenter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure. All I’m suggesting is that thinking of goals and systems as very different concepts has power. Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous presuccess failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do. The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good everytime they apply their system. That’s a big difference in terms of maintaining your personal energy in the right direction.” ~Scott Adams (from the book)
It’s easy to have strong opinions about generalities. It is equally easy to speak in absolutes when you think you know everything. But often these opinions and absolutes are not qualified. And once you start asking detailed and specific questions, those strong opinions and absolutes begin to break down. There is nuance to life and only God can see and know everything. As for us, we can only speak in absolutes when we know 100% of the facts (very rare) or when we repeat what God has already said (and even that is often argued about).
Visionary leaders tend to speak in absolutes. What they believe they know and what they believe they’ve experienced in life is a “one size fits all” for everybody, and if someone disagrees with them, they can’t except the idea that anyone could correctly see things differently from them.
This single-mindedness is both virtue and vice. Of course a visionary needs to have a single target in sight, and not be turned left or right by self-doubt. But, this also could prevent them from having any relationships with anyone who is not a follower of theirs. Now, a visionary reading this might ask, “So! What’s wrong with that?” And that’s fine if that’s how you want to live. But I think there’s a danger it will make you resentful, bitter, and suspicious. You’re trapping yourself into a limited way of thinking and you’ll be personally offended every time someone doesn’t agree with you or does not want to connect themselves with you.
Be a Master instead…
A master strives to have 100% of the facts but always is aware that he rarely does.
A master is open to new ideas and is not afraid of change.
A master never adds to God’s word, and never condemns where God does not.
A master has relationships with other masters and those relationships are built on a love for the work, not politics.
A master lets his apprentices go off on their own when they’re ready — he doesn’t expect them to follow him forever. But, he is always there to offer advice when needed.
The inner crisis of a disintegrating society is constituted by the fact that too many people inside this society are not told what to do… An unemployed man [or a hampered man] is a person who looks for orders and can’t find anybody to give him orders.*
I am a master electrician, although I haven’t worked in the trade for several years now. One thing about working in a trade is that once you’re past being a first year apprentice, your responsibilities on the job are no longer limited to the tool belt. You have to begin training the guys less experienced than you. And once you’re a journeyman, you’ll likely discover that most of your time on the job is teaching and supervising the apprentices.
The number one thing that will stop an apprentice from doing his work is a lack of knowing what to do. It won’t be laziness or apathy. He simply either was not given clear instructions, or he is too overwhelmed with the task before him. And once that happens, he’ll either stall out altogether or begin lying about what he’s actually doing.
I remember working for a company in which the boss (not a very good boss) left an apprentice to run a fairly large job. There were several different areas in one warehouse where electrical work needed to be done. The apprentice had the skills and knowledge to do every job, but he was struggling and falling behind. The boss sent me to help him get back on track. After walking through the job site with the apprentice to see where he was at, he said to me, “There is so much to do, and I just don’t know where to start.”
To remedy the situation, all I needed to do was lay out a systematic task list for him to follow: “Do that job first, because you’re going to need that powered up in order to do the next job. Do that other job next so that we can move this junk into that corner to have space to do the next thing. Next, do such and such…….” Once he knew what to do and in what order, he was back to working at his normal efficient speed.
Visionary leaders are rarely good at creating systematic task lists. Because their leadership style is so rooted in rhetoric, their connection with practical realities is severed. Visionary leaders are often throwing bricks in the air to build the second story of a building for which no proper foundation has been laid.
It is amazing what can be accomplished with mere rhetoric, and as I have written about before, visionary leaders are needed to inspire people at the beginning of a movement. But it is also amazing at how quickly the rhetoric can become completely meaningless. Some things sound good and wise when spoken, and they might even be true, but when you actually stop to ask what the thing said really means and how it applies to real day to day life, it proves to be completely worthless. And when I hear followers of visionary leaders parrot their slogans without thinking, like Winston in 1984 I get a little lonely and depressed.
When a visionary leader sees that his followers aren’t doing what he expects and hopes for them to do, he usually writes them off and says, “They just didn’t catch the vision.” And he might actually be correct, but does he ever ask why? Also, because his expectations are what they are, he usually is only followed by more future visionary leaders, which isn’t always desirable.
A master knows that when his followers are not living up to his expectations, it’s usually because he hasn’t clearly defined what needs to be done at ground level. He hasn’t laid out the systematic task list. He assumes his followers are already passionate about the work and striving to be masters themselves (otherwise they wouldn’t be there), so he doesn’t waste time using himself as an example to inspire them to work harder or embrace the vision. He knows the passion will come from the work itself when the followers know what to do.
I am currently learning the skills and techniques of blacksmithing. Now, you can’t honestly call yourself a blacksmith until you’ve learned how to forge your own tongs. My first attempts at forging tongs resulted in embarrassing monstrosities which I kept hidden from my family so they wouldn’t laugh at me. I watched how-to videos and looked at pictures of completed tongs, but I could not get them right.
It wasn’t until I bought a book in which a master laid out the forging process, step by step, systematically. “Measure this much here … isolate this much material there … hammer down to half the bar’s thickness here …” Only then was I able to forge the tongs, and they turned out quite well.
When a visionary leader is most needed and effective, the movement which he is leading is in such a state of rapid growth that no one cares if there is any systematic structure at all. The movement is riding on a wave of excitement, and for the time, that is sufficient. But that wave is temporary. The master needs to step in and create some proper systematic structure.
Now, when I say “systematic structure” I am not talking about creating a bureaucracy. I am a libertarian, and I hate all unnecessary rules. But, it is a false dichotomy to say that you can either have structure or freedom.
A master is a master precisely because he knows how to create freedom in the boundaries of structure.