If You Have a Vision – Or If You Are Developing One

by Stuart D.G. Robinson

The full standalone article can be accessed online here or downloaded in pdf format here (pdf, 444 kB). A complete package consisting of the present reader’s notes including the annotations as well as the article itself with added line numbering can be downloaded here (pdf, 752 kB).

Reader’s Notes on Stuart Robinson’s Article about Visions

by Alan Ettlin

In a series of conversations, I have had the pleasure of discussing Stuart Robinson’s recent article on corporate visions with him. These talks have been quite enlightening to me and have revealed many additional insights into Stuart’s thinking about visions: in particular, their immense significance in corporate settings, including their impact on the health of organisations and individuals.

I now understand even better why people repeatedly comment on Stuart’s pioneering and visionary work, i.e. his ability to anticipate fundamental topics decades before their importance becomes obvious to the corporate world and indeed society at large. Previous examples of this foresight include the need for inter-cultural competence and inter-cultural conflict conciliation in business and politics, the importance of the furtherance of cultural and ethical neutrality in the fields of psychotherapy and consultancy, as well as the necessity for adequate expertise in dealing with the serious health implications of living in an increasingly multi-ethical world.

Below, I provide a synopsis of Stuart’s article before sharing some thoughts about individual passages taken from my conversations with him. I hope that these notes might be of interest to other readers by providing a glimpse into some of the deep and complex interwoven fabric of thoughts which underlie his writing.


At the beginning, the reader is presented with four key questions which serve as a structure for the sections which follow:

  1. Why do individuals and organisations seek and create visions?
  2. Why are visions inextricably linked with the health of individuals and organisations?
  3. Why do we feel uneasy about visions and visionaries in general?
  4. Why do the impact and sustainability of corporate visions depend on having the ‘right’ culture, ethics and strategy?

Before engaging with these questions, a few preliminary thoughts are provided, such as the definition of the term ‘vision’, which is given to be an answer to questions which are fundamental to the human condition. In the course of the article, the immense significance of the role of visions is highlighted and showcased nicely at the beginning with inspirational examples from CERN and the ICRC.

Concerning the question as to why individuals and organisations seek and create visions, Stuart begins by proposing that truly powerful visions explicitly address the human quest for meaning. Visions can also evoke strong positive emotions in what is labelled “collective affirmative passion”. They often emerge when people are answering their own fundamental questions, and are often readily adopted by others who are seeking answers to similar questions. While the significance of addressing such questions may vary depending on one’s circumstances, the underlying quest for meaning is deeply ingrained in all human beings. Stuart deduces that the thirst for answers to fundamental questions – and consequently for adequately captivating visions – remains a vital, necessarily unquenchable need in people’s lives.

The article continues by showing how, in a corporate context, employee performance and loyalty are linked to the answers provided by corporate visions and why the provision of an affirmative corporate vision is an ethical obligation and task for senior management. The fact that corporate visions are generally strongly influenced by the personal visions of their creator explains why one often finds poor levels of genuine buy-in within organisations and even within senior management.

This finding begs the question of how truly powerful visions can be crafted in such a way as to truly captivate an organisation’s main stakeholders and gain their loyalty. The article goes on to highlight the importance of aligning a corporate vision with strategy, culture and ethics in order to generate a powerful positive effect rather than negative spirals of cynicism, apathy and scepticism towards management.

The section is concluded by considering why many managers are reluctant to create visions themselves and why they are wary of visionaries. Stuart illustrates various aspects of these interrelated questions in examples from Alphabet Inc., Schindler Group AG and H. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd.

The second main question dealt with in the article addresses why visions are inherently linked to the health both of individuals and organisations. The theme of the significance of truly captivating visions in people’s lives is revisited and directly linked to their well-being through contemporary insights from the field of psychology. Stuart then emphasises the importance of anticipating how people might perceive the motives and ethics of vision-creators, a point which he drives home impressively in relation to the tragic suicide of an internationally renowned visionary and CEO.

Next, the article revisits the theme of why many people feel uneasy about visions and visionaries. Initially, the paradox is explored that whilst there is substantial literature which portrays charismatic visionaries in a negative light, nevertheless millions of people do indeed follow such visionaries and seem to benefit from doing so. One reason given is the need of many humans to receive affirmation from a higher authority. This argument is widened by considering examples of visions given by Pope Francis both of a personal nature and in relation to the Catholic church. An important finding in this discussion is that visions seem to gain captivational power – and indeed obtain faith and the affirmative passion mentioned above – when they contain what Stuart calls a “mystic, wonder-full element of doubt”. A deeper examination reveals how society plays a subtle game of outwardly professing a strong belief while inwardly retaining a deep element of doubt – as indeed the very definition of “belief” implies. An aspect of this game is the pretended positivity underlying many visions, which contributes to the widespread wariness towards visions and visionaries. The significance of the belief in visions is illustrated by the thought-provoking analysis of an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy which concludes the treatise of the third question in the article.

In the last section of the article, Stuart discusses how the impact and sustainability of corporate visions depends on the level of alignment between corporate strategy, culture and ethics. After showing why, in today’s society, the task of creating a captivating vision for an organisation’s heterogenous stakeholders is far from trivial, three clusters of decision-making challenges are outlined which require particular attention:

  1. which creation process should be followed, including to what extent past visions and present stakeholders should be considered;
  2. who are the primary addressees of the vision, what are the veritable motives and ethics of the creators, and which special considerations may apply for large and heterogenous organisations;
  3. how should implementation be planned and to what extent is there a need for a visionary leader.

Two intertwined examples accompany the remainder of the article: one centres on the lyrics of American singer-songwriter Alan Jackson, the other studying the fascinating development of Volkswagen’s vision as the group’s diesel emission scandal unfolded. In particular, the ethical implications and interdependencies are considered, together with ramifications for personal and corporate health.

These thoughts are finally wrapped up in a dramatic finale with revealing conclusions drawing on previously mentioned examples.


Line no.
15-36: CERN and the IFRC are clearly examples of non-commercial organisations where one can readily recognise the link to “the world’s most powerful visions” (line 9) and the fact that these visions directly address fundamental why-questions.
Importantly, there are also commercial organisations which do not immediately evoke a comparably “visionary” or idealistic aura, but which do have their own powerful vision statements and do indeed provide explicit answers to fundamental why questions. As the reader will go on to see, having one of the most powerful visions in the world can only be achieved by beholder’s judgement and, given this fact, prerequires a truly visionary purpose.
79: While the implicit fundamental why-question “Why does being human make belief in an omnipotent God an inadequate answer?” might seem like a long shot at this point in the text on first reading, it can be understood as an invitation to engage with the thoughts presented in the following sections – in line with Stuart’s style of writing which generally invites one to think a long way ahead. Stuart’s article is one of those texts which can be appreciated at different levels, ranging from the more immediately tangible to the genuinely fundamental and radical. For me, it was revealing to return to this statement after engaging with the article in its entirety. My real take-away was recognising how, at a meta-level, Stuart’s way of thinking catalyses courage for one’s own genuinely visionary thinking – which can be an immensely valuable asset when creating one’s own personal or corporate visions.
81 There are, obviously, different ways of approaching and attempting to answer the fundamental why-question (I deliberately use the singular form here, since, as we will see, the apparent multiplicity of this kind of questions can be understood as one). One finds various examples in religions, in humanitarian fields, such as highlighted in the Henri Dunant example, and in science, e.g. CERN. The multiplicity of such possible approaches is a link to the topic of multiethicality which is explored in later sections. The human need to seek answers to fundamental why-questions is explored in the thoughts presented in section 1.
85: The question “why are we human?” encompasses elements of the related questions “what does it mean to be human?” and “what makes us human?” but adds a deeply philosophical element referring to the very meaning of life, a theme which is elaborated in the context of the significance of visions in the paragraphs starting at line 142. At the same time, the question plays with possible “humanitarian” connotations of “human”, hinting back to Henri Dunant’s final question “where has humanity gone?” and further serves to motivate the question of why individuals and organisations seek and create visions discussed in section 1.
53-56: For the purpose of this article, Stuart uses the words “vision” and “mission” synonymously. In other contexts, it may well prove to be helpful to distinguish the two terms by using a choice of the numerous – and, especially in the case of “mission” often conflicting – definitions used in practice.
99-105: The change of perspective offered in this paragraph is a recurring element in Stuart’s thinking: the interpretive authority lies with the beholder rather than with the creator of a statement with potential claim to being a vision. The evoked effect is pertinent, rather than the creator’s original intention. It is therefore presumably in the creator’s interest to make a statement which causes the desired effect (in this case of being a vision, or even visionary) – within the intended beholder-group, as is explained in the second part of this paragraph. This said, a question worth considering is under what circumstances is it meaningful to declare the visionary nature of one’s own vision statement.
122-130: Whether visions are core elements of the human condition or not is a question which cannot be answered in an absolute manner. By all means, it establishes a reference to “why are we human?” asked a few lines above and gives a hint towards a potential answer. Considering the question from a self-determined perspective, in-line with Enlightenment thinking, which has left its mark on Western societies, the premise of being able to choose whether to create or follow a vision does indeed make us human. Importantly, this does not hold true from numerous other perspectives, e.g. those drawing on predetermination.
134-141: In what I feel is a key sentence right at the beginning of the first section, Stuart proposes that additionally to providing elements of answers to the fundamental questions of life, truly powerful and visionary visions evoke strong positive passion in their beholders. In my understanding, this is the very same feeling which grips one when one truly believes in a cause and feels endlessly energised and enthusiastic in furthering it. Interestingly, while trying to bbv Consultancy, bbv Group AG, Blumenrain 10, CH-6002 Luzern www.bbv-consultancy.com describe this powerful feeling, I feel I have naturally been drawn to the word “believe” – as Stuart will explain later in the article (introduced within the example about Pope Francis, cf. line 566ff), the act or state of believing contributes significantly to truly powerful visions. Stuart introduces the term “collective affirmative passion” for this feeling. The constituent term “collectiveness” reinforces the earlier point of the relevance of a vision’s beholder-group and the impact of its magnitude.
172-177: As seen above, the appeal and consequently the adoption of a given vision is what qualifies it as a vision in the first place. When individuals adopt a vision because they have been asking fundamental why-questions, the likelihood of the vision in question being seen as truly visionary (cf. line 107ff) surely increases.
196-208: The “thirst of human nature for seeking (…) why-answers in the form of visions” which will “remain indefinitely” resonates in various passages of the article. Significant instances include the following:

  • 420ff: “having a vision, or being able to contribute to someone else’s, is something central to their [people’s] personal well-being”.
  • 630ff: the “inkling of doubt” which remains with fundamental why-questions is what generates our perpetual desire “thirst” to pursue the corresponding answers and is also the “catalyst of individual and collective affirmative passion.”.
  • 717ff: the “ultimate unanswerability” of why-questions gives sense to sentient human beings and drives our quest for answers.
224: At this point in the text, Stuart for the first time uses the singular form to indicate how one fundamental why-question leads to another and hence they can all be understood as one, cf. line 630ff. The fundamental why-question takes on various forms and centres around “why are we here?”, but also “why am I here?” and “why are we human?”, cf. also line 85 and the corresponding annotation above.
224-228: The questions which many owners may ask about their companies have the character of existential questions (cf. the discussion in lines 142ff), at organisational level. The topic of owners shaping the answers to these questions and shaping corporate visions, as opposed to their knowledge-craving attitude portrayed here, is explored in lines 270ff.
228: While the text explicitly refers to “employees”, corporate visions are typically crafted with a broader range of stakeholders as addressees. The article first discusses employees as one of the most important stakeholder groups and returns to other stakeholders later, either implicitly or explicitly, cf. e.g. line 291ff, 727ff or 790ff. In line 827ff, the question of how to select those stakeholder groups to be the primary addressees of a vision is included in one of the main clusters of challenges proposed as having paramount importance in vision creation.
264: Note Stuart’s distinction between “work ethic” (i.e. the belief that work is morally good) and (potentially work-related) ethics. The two concepts are linked in line 266 when it is suggested that the provision of a vision may be an ethically-grounded obligation.
267-269: Possible reasons for the avoidance of this ethically-grounded obligation are explored in lines 316ff.
287-290: The underlying premise here is that followers follow out of their own free will – if and when such a concept may apply – and that they do so due to the vision itself. Alternatively, one could imagine implicit followers of a vision who become associated with the vision-creating entity for some other reason than the vision itself and henceforth may be erroneously perceived as true “visionary” followers.
As a possible extension of the statement provided, the questions asked about a well-crafted vision by (potential) followers, such as employees and other stakeholders, can in my own experience often be at least equally revealing.
291-294: The nature of loyalty may vary significantly between different stakeholder groups, depending on their relationship to the vision-giving entity. Capturing the potential loyalty of e.g. employees and clients is relatively straightforward, whereas it may be less immediately obvious and subtler for other stakeholders.
298-315: These lines provide a partial answer to the question “Why do the impact and sustainability of corporate visions depend on having the ‘right’ culture, ethics and strategy?” which is dealt with in more depth in section 4.
300-302: The soul of an organisation is given by Stuart as its veritable culture and ethics. This definition expands some alternatively-held views of “organisational soul” by integrating the oftenneglected aspect of ethics, which – as numerous examples have revealed in recent years (including some in the article) – is crucially important.
325-327: The explanation for the wariness which many managers feel towards visions and visionaries is discussed in line 445ff (“dis-envisionment”), 469ff (“risk of being psychological damaging”) and of course throughout section 3.
328-333: It is interesting to become conscious of the fact that Larry Page states his own personal vision for the organisation Alphabet Inc.. This raises the question, to what extent it is acceptable for individuals to influence an organisation with their own personal visions – and how this may be legitimised within the organisation, clearly differing from the situation where a vision is created explicitly by fully legitimised representatives of an organisation. The potentially momentous impact of individual’s visions on an organisation is touched upon repeatedly in this article – e.g. very explicitly in the Swisscom example starting at line 489. The impact of individuals’ personality structures on such visions is discussed in line 270ff above.
343: An envelope in geometry is a curve in a plane – or (hyper-) surface in higher dimensions – which tightly encompasses (is tangent to) all curves within a family of curves being investigated (i.e. their “boundary”).
358: The “mystic” element emanates from the phrase “push the envelope”, i.e. the journey into terra incognita.
359: “paradigmatic balance” is a term coined by Stuart which refers to the equilibrium achieved between seemingly opposing paradigms. For example, in Larry Page’s quote, a balance is struck between mathematics and poetry. Starting at line 1216, the article discusses the balance of different ethical paradigms.
378-386: While the potential to generate affirmative confidence is highlighted as a characteristic of Schindler’s vision statement, its remarkable lack of specificity, as alluded to in Stuart’s remark “… and possibly leaves the answer subtly open for individual interpretation”, could be seen as detrimental to such an intention.
445-453: The “abused positive faith in others” may also refer to the alter ego of a person who created a vision which he or she subsequently becomes “dis-envisioned” with.
566-580: The discussion of the impact of the personal vision of an organisation’s figurehead on the organisation itself is continued here. As stated in lines 581ff, the Pope’s authority within the Catholic church is undoubtedly very strong and differs from the role played by many figureheads in corporate settings (cf. lines 249ff for possible arguments to the contrary). Note the distinction between Pope Francis’ personal vision for the Catholic church and his own personal, self-referential, vision – the two of which at first sight seem quite different.
581-588: The promised reward is, of course, salvation – the attainment of which can be seen as the Church’s approach to addressing the fundamental why-question as discussed in lines 605ff (and first alluded to in line 81, cf. the corresponding annotations above).
612-613: Stating that “adequately credible visions” receive faith leads to asking the question of what the veritable motives of the vision-creator may be (cf. lines 834ff and 1100ff). Having faith in a vision leads to loyalty (e.g. employee loyalty, cf. lines 236ff and 291ff). Importantly, the same psychological mechanisms seem to apply both to a religious setting (as in the example of Pope Francis) and a corporate setting.
632-635: The “mystic element of the human condition” is one of the “core elements of the human condition” referred to in line 127.
669-680: Based on the societal game we are playing, we should be aware of the unattainability of pursued visions. Nevertheless, we may get dis-envisioned when a vision “fails to materialise” – potentially with all the described implications. The sweet spot in terms of energy appears to lie at the very border between believing in a vision and being aware of its unreachability.
696-726: With the selection of the quoted passage, Stuart highlights one element of the Divine Comedy relevant to the topic of visions, namely the belief in the salvatory vision given by the Church.
727-729: In this final paragraph of section 3, an explicit reference back to the health-relevance of visions and the guiding question of section 2 “Why are visions inextricably linked with the health of individuals and organisations?” is made based on the findings of the immediately preceding paragraphs.
738-746: It can be deduced, that in many contexts corporate visions can take the place of visions provided by religion in former times.
757-770: The link between the loss of a vision which conveys identity to an individual (cf. lines 471ff) and depression is used to reinforce previous arguments (cf. e.g. lines 419ff and 464ff) about the significance and challenging nature of creating visions.
790-807: Up to this point, the article has elaborated on the potentially huge significance of visions and the effects which the giving and following of visions can have on individuals and organisations (cf. e.g. lines 191ff referenced in this paragraph). This paragraph (based on the fictive but altogether realistic example organisation introduced in lines 771ff) explicitly sketches the varying degrees to which corporate visions impact on stakeholders of different predispositions.
1109-1114: The growing society of individuals who each hold a personal vision based on self-defined ethics stands in contrast to other individuals and societal groups which have the need to adopt external visions and ethics (cf. above). This raises the question as to how not only societies and organisations can handle these different perspectives but also individuals confronted with the same dilemma inside themselves.
1217: The paradigmatic balance referred to here is concerned with the equilibrium between taking a mono-ethical and a multi-ethical approach for vision- and strategy-creation.
1292-1298: This passage referring to the increasing pervasiveness of service-orientation motivates the change of perspective (altero-referentialism) encouraged by Stuart for such organisations, cf. also the Hoffmann-La Roche example, and, in particular, lines 396-407.