The Problem with T-Shirts

Nancy Ortberg | November 11, 2015

Recently I read some statistics on the Internet that said people need to hear vision every twenty-eight days in order to stay motivated and aligned.

I'm not sure how they came up with twenty eight days, seems like an odd number to me, but suffice it to say, people need to hear vision on a regular basis, in order to stay motivated.

There isn't any great leader who isn't thinking about vision a lot. Problem is, most of us are thinking about it more than we are talking about it. And if vision is that important, we need to be constantly asking ourselves what the vision is, and how are we doing at communicating it?

What often happens in organizations is, once a vision sentence is crafted, it goes on a piece of paper in a notebook, rears its head at orientation and a couple of times a year in a speech the leader gives and that's about it. Occasionally it makes its way onto a mug or a T-shirt.

Nothing inspires cynicism in an organization faster than a T-shirt.

Vision doesn't belong on inanimate objects. Our job as leaders is to breathe life into the vision, fill the words with meaning that stir people in the deepest parts of their souls, the parts that long for significance and transformation. Our job as leaders is to come up with creative, compelling and repetitive ways to talk about the vision. To take the words of the vision and make them come alive, say them in different ways so that people are looking at the every shifting colors of a kaleidoscope.

Vision is about taking people in to the wonder of an improved future, about reinfusing hope and wonder, about stirring and provoking, about reminding and imagining. Vision causes us to believe again.

Primarily we nurture vision by the stories we tell and the heroes we create in our organizations. Vision lives in stories and heroes.
A couple of years ago, one of my partners and I were working with a large school district on the East Coast. We were in the second day of a two-day offsite, with about 120 people around tables in a large room. As is true with any school district, they were facing huge challenges of increasing ethnic and economic diversity in their student population, along with budget cuts and mounting expectations in test scores.

We were spending some time having different people stand up, and in two minutes or less, tell a story or mention a hero in the district that would reflect their district's vision of "providing a place where every child would succeed."

The principal of one of the larger high schools in the district stood up and talked about a young African-American boy who had just graduated from their school the month before. He had spent six years, from middle school through high school, in their district. He stood out from the other kids because he was homeless. Homeless by choice.

He had had numerous offers for housing from family and friends. But this kid did not want to be separated from his mother, so for nearly six years he woke up every morning in the back seat of a car. He walked across the parking lot to a nearby Wal-Mart and washed up in their restrooms, then took two city buses to arrive at school before the first bell rang.

He ended up graduating with a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Scholarship, a full ride to a four-year college of his choice. Somewhere during his junior year, some of the parents got wind of his situation and rallied to get the mom some occupational training and job placement, found an affordable apartment and put down the first and last months rent. They then furnished the apartment right down to a refrigerator filled with food.

The story took two minutes. By the end of it I was ready to quit my job and go to work for that school district!

Here's the deal. No one goes into education for the big bucks paycheck. That one story, those two minutes, worked in a powerful way to reconnect all those overworked and underpaid educators, to the core reason why they went in to this line of work in the first place. You could see it all over the room, in the faces of those people. Tender smiles, nodding heads, re-energized to return to the issues of diversity, budget and expectations with a renewed sense of purpose and hope. It was a creative and compelling way to remind people of the vision. Two minutes.

Heroes, the right ones, help us fight the encroaching celebrity culture that can destroy even the best organizations. That not so subtle elevation of the jocks and the cheerleaders, that leaves everyone else feeling like a second-class citizen, a minor contributor, and third page news.

Heroes give flesh and bones to the vision. They help people see it, right in front of their eyes. And the best heroes make everyone else in the organization believe that they too can be one. That "hero-hood" is not reserved for the select few, the beautiful ones. And that maybe, just maybe, vision is a collection of heroes that point us in the right direction.

Nancy Ortberg served as a teaching pastor for eight years at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. She is a founding partner of Teamworx2, a business and leadership consulting firm that provides fast-paced, practical, and compelling sessions to leaders and their teams.

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