Ed Koch on Creating a Vision

Aug 15, 2019

By AMA Staff

Every leader has the capacity to be visionary. A true visionary is someone who recognizes a need or opportunity and, regardless of conventional wisdom and skeptics, does something about it. Vision isn't forecasting the future, it is creating the future by taking action in the present to prepare for it.

The ability to accommodate a vivid, imaginative conception of what you want to see happen can be powerfully motivating. Communicating in ways that instinctively appeal to people is an important part of turning your aim into reality. Put simply, a vision is "an image of your desired future," and it is always described in the present tense.

Keep in mind that creating a vision of your desired future can be met with great resistance, especially in the political arena. But no matter the resistance, I never allowed it to restrict my creativity or get in the way of achieving the vision I had in mind. That's not to say I've been inflexible, but you don't go into creating a vision with the notion of being immediately pliable. I don't mind walking alone if it means I am retaining my authenticity, particularly in reference to what I believe in.

Visioning is not some artsy concept, at least not for me. It is basically how to get from here to there. The "there" may well be many years off. That would be strategic thinking. The "there" might also be relatively close, and that would be tactical thinking. If you are always focused on the task in front of you, you may miss a glorious opportunity to achieve better results by not looking at the bigger picture.

My vision can be perceived as demanding excellence from myself and others. I am an ordinary man, but I am a hard worker with boundless energy. I don't think I was looking to tap into my leadership skills when I started participating in Greenwich Village politics in 1956, but two key lessons I have learned along the way are (1) create a vision and stay with it, and (2) don't take no for an answer.

Crafting your vision requires you to draw on your beliefs and your mission. You'll assess the concept of what it is you're trying to do, figure out ways to implement it based on your beliefs, and get to the place of realizing it through your hard effort. Politicians do this all the time. The first question to ask yourself is, "What is doable?" The second question is, "What else should I strive for?"

Sometimes the process can be frustrating because you are carving out something new for yourself and your business. The best advice I can give you is "Be Not Afraid," as the Roman Catholic hymn goes.

The positive aspects of creating a vision are that it takes you out of very limited thinking, provides a direction, and identifies your purpose. When I was in office, I hired the best and the brightest, whether they had supported me or not. I did not fear hiring people who I believed were smarter than I am. I knew many smart people could not actually accomplish their goals and execute their strategies whereas I had the talent to do so.

When leaders or employers map out an image of where they want the company or organization to go, it quite often produces an increase in efficiency and production. Employees and staffers are encouraged and receive a boost in their confidence when you take them into your confidence. I did that with the top people in my administration. One example from when I was mayor was adopting a balanced budget a year ahead of time. This was an idea proposed by a deputy mayor after he heard it mentioned by a reporter. It was an improbable task, although some would have said impossible, but I liked it and implemented it.

One of the best questions to ask yourself when mapping out your vision is, "What are my goals?"

Setting Goals and Objectives
Setting a goal allows you to be more specific about your vision. You simply decide where you want to go by determining a direction. How you can measure that goal is your objective, because you're breaking the goal down into tasks that are measurable and time-oriented. Sometimes I did not always have the luxury of time on my side to set goals or perform the best methods for achieving those goals. Nonetheless, when I look back and measure my accomplishments, I think I've done quite well.

I did wonder why, early on in my first term as mayor, the vendors used by the city were so bad. When I asked, I was told that good vendors would not sell to us because we didn't pay them on time. I called a meeting of our top ten agencies, which made 80% of the city's purchases, and asked how we could get better vendors to sell to us.

One commissioner said, "We are now decentralized, so we must recentralize and pay all bills from one agency." She volunteered to do that. Another person, the OMB director, said, "No, we should not centralize. Instead, I need to buy some computers to handle this." I said, "If you do, how long before we pay on time?" He replied, "Two years." I clapped my hands and said, "No, what I'm going to do is publish every month which commissioners pay on time and which do not, in rank order."

They were unhappy with that and said so. I replied, "Get ready, I'm giving you thirty days to shape up, and I will publish the names in sixty days," which I did. When one commissioner saw his name in the papers as number ten, the worst, he came rushing in to me and said, "It will never happen again, Mr. Mayor." "How can you be sure?" I asked. He replied, "Because I called in my comptroller and told him if I am ever again number ten, it's your ass." He was never at the bottom again.

Creating a Mission Statement
Many strategic business consultants say that creating a mission statement is a reflection of your purpose and function. Some people need to put this in writing for themselves and their employees.

My purpose and function as mayor was to reverse the city's declining fortune and make it once again the international capital of finance, commerce, communications, and culture. I personally have never created a mission statement, nor did we have one that hung in the mayor's offices similar to the mission statements posted in the hallways of companies and hotel lobbies. I preferred to inspire employees by talking to them individually and in audiences.

People trusted me. I believe motivating others is done simply by setting the example for integrity, courage, common sense, hard work, and dedication. Overall, mission statements often motivate those people who are connected to the organization or campaign. Another maxim that I kept on my City Hall desk was, "If you say it can't be done, you are right, you can't do it."

Adapted with permission of the publisher from Buzz: How to Create It and Win with It by Edward I. Koch and Christy Heady. Copyright 2007, Edward I. Koch and Christy Heady. Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association. For information about other AMACOM books, visit http://www.amanet.org/books/

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