“You should be able to see the freight train coming out of the mist!”

Joe Scarborough says that was the one lesson his college torts professor drilled into him.

Aiming that lesson on his Morning Joe talk show (MSNBC, September 17, 2012) toward political leaders who are blindsided by disruptive events during an election campaign, the former congressman said:

“When you put together your argument to win a case, you’ve always got to ask, what if…? You’ve got to think ahead! What’s your plan B?”

In a corporate setting, forward thinking is called vision.

It’s the prospect, if not the promise, of blue sky ahead. It's how the leader gets everybody focused on winning performance. It's clear, it’s actionable, and it’s achievable.

That is, of course, unless unanticipated clouds move in to negate the view. What if the leader’s view is compromised by uncontrollable forces? What if corporate vision veers off-course? What is plan B?

In his books on disciplined leadership, Peter Synge tells the story of the band of explorers hacking their way through jungle brush, following the leader who's showing the way to reach a favored destination. His vision of a route to reward comes into challenge. The trail he's on is blocked by trees or entangled by vines he had not anticipated.

The leader calls a rest. He takes responsibility, as leaders do in the interest of followers. He climbs the tallest tree, reaching the highest point to enable him to look above and beyond the canopy that hovers above his route. He studies the situation, slides down from the tree and gathers his troops around him. "Wrong trail,” he tells them. “I thought we were headed right. But we need to make an adjustment."

Vision reset is the standby part of leadership.

Steve Jobs faced vision reset when his outlook for the iPod began to blur. The Apple leader had told followers in the early 2000s, a pocket-size music device would be a winner. He was right. Apple’s product moved from concept to remarkable reality. By 2005, the iPod was far outselling Apple’s Mac computer as its top revenue source.

According to the biography by Walter Isaacson, Jobs looked again into the future and saw a what-if: What if phone companies figured out a way to play music on phones, to make it easy, good quality and fun to do? While a lot of people were carrying iPods, even more people were or increasingly would be carrying cell phones. Would they want to carry iPods as well as cell phones?

Jobs thought not. He told his board that if phone companies got smart or got lucky or both, the iPod would be rendered unnecessary. It was time to leap frog competitive thinkers. And so Jobs came down from his high/long-view station and met with his followers.

The result was a revolutionizing plan B. The pace-setting iPod, still young and strong, still driving sales, keeping employees focused and customers happy, would be replaced … with … something … to be determined.

You know the outcome. The replacement trail led to the iPhone, unveiled and into the market, moved from vision to hand-held, in 2007.

What is the corporate communicator role in all this?

Vision is the starting place for the leadership communication process. The corporate leader’s view—there is the goal we can achieve—must move along the execution trail—these are the strategies and steps by which we will achieve—with the help of communication strategies.

Communication connects vision to mission to ideas to action.

Energizing, collaborating conversation inside the organization and with external stakeholders will result in clear information, mutual understanding of what’s needed, what’s being delivered and—when the circumstances merit—what must be adjusted to the reality of new contexts.

And there could well be a vital vision role accessible to the chief communication officer. Through her team’s ongoing listening to and engaging in conversations with stakeholders, she could be among the first in the C-suite to detect what Scarborough’s college torts teacher told him to watch out for: the freight train coming out of the mist.

E. Bruce Harrison
EnviroComm International