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How to Carry Out Your Leader’s Vision—Even When Your Own Boss Won’t 

When your boss isn’t carrying out their boss’s vision, where does that leave you?

I’ve seen this scenario many times, particularly when the company owner or CEO is a person of vision rather than of action. They’ll make some decisions, but they mostly prefer to have ideas, set a direction, and have their people execute on their vision. When that works, it works very, very well. The conceptual or visionary top leader says: “Here’s the big picture. Now you all go find your opportunity in it.” Every leader a level down says, “Okay, team, here’s how we’re approaching this vision. Here’s what it means for us.” Dedicated employees feel inspired and bring their best game. Between the terrific ideas and the committed action, things are great.

The crucial alchemy requires that leaders below the visionary level break down the abstract ideas and turn them into plans. Nonactivist leaders may not pick up the torch, though, even after they fake their assent in front of the CEO. They may prefer the status quo or an alternative vision, and they might not communicate clarifying details and operational plans to their teams. Much worse, some of them could disparage or discount the CEO’s vision, telling their team to stick to the work they’re already doing. Sometimes the vision gets stalled because functional leaders don’t work well together. They might retreat to their functional roles, staying heads-down doing whatever has worked for them in the past, rather than collaborating to develop workable new plans.

Connect the Top and Bottom of the Pyramid

It’s a shame when the entire lower half of the organization can see that there’s no appetite to implement the leader’s vision, even if they like that vision better than the current direction or prefer an aspirational stance to the humdrum current approach. Often, it’s the top and bottom of the organization that get excited about the idea of serving stakeholders better or innovating in ways to preserve the environment, while mid-level leaders care more about making budgets and maintaining outputs. 

When there is a lack of executional will, what can someone at the director or manager level do? They might like to please the CEO or owner, but rarely have direct contact with them. Their day-to-day success may depend on senior leaders who don’t want to change, and they feel disheartened when they don’t see these leaders demonstrating commitment to the organization’s future. They hear no ongoing buzz about “the great things we’re going to do here.” Everything becomes rote work with little meaning, which is detrimental to both individual and organizational success. When employees no longer know what to believe in or they feel like their only purpose is to satisfy their bosses’ need not to fail, it leads to disengagement, presenteeism, burnout, and turnover.

And it’s never a good day when the visionary at the top realizes that there’s no progress being made. 

Turn Your Concerns into Exploration and Opportunity

If you’re a director or senior manager who finds yourself in this situation, what are your options? You may feel responsible for driving change and know you could be held responsible for ensuring progress, but the senior team that theoretically owns the planning portion of the strategy isn’t working on it and has no interest in your pursuing it. It may not feel safe for you to step up. But if you think of this as an exercise in career development, you may be able to enrich your job experience and make a greater mark on your organization. 

Is there any aspect of the top leader’s vision that you could carry out from where you are? Look for some small part of your work that inspires you because it reflects the new vision and is under your control, and try to work on that. What could you do that’s exploratory and moves people forward? Can you join forces with other directors or set up a skunkworks and only talk about it once your developmental efforts have achieved results? 

Ask Your Boss to Get with the Program

You can even look for a way to make a case to your own, unmoving boss. After the CEO shares the big picture at an inspiring town hall meeting, if you see no tangible evidence of any action, you can say something like, “Boss, I don’t know what your plans are or what our piece of [the CEO’s vision] will be. But I know we need to be working on something, so I’ve prepared these two proposals for you—you can think about possibly moving forward with one or both.” Of course, this means you’ll have come up with ideas about the actions you and your team could take in service to the vision, and for your boss’s sake, you’ll want to confirm that you still expect to make budget!

It’s not the job of mid-level leaders to drag the organization forward while senior leaders dig in their heels. But when great ideals are completely detached from business strategy or decisionmakers with access to resources don’t direct them toward inspiring goals, people on the frontlines can feel like there’s no room for them to achieve. When their hopes are dashed, they may turn back to the everyday grind and think about when to leave. So it’s worth it for lower-level directors to take a chance on stepping up and standing out.

Onward and upward —

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