Reaching the top of the organizational chart is a proud achievement, often the result of long obedience in the right direction. But leadership comes with a lot of pressure. It’s the difference between riding a bus during a storm and driving it – no one can see very far down the road, but it’s your job to set the course.
That’s why vision-casting is so critical for leaders. On any given day, there are scores of issues worthy of our attention. Leaders must make sense of the opportunities and threats on the horizon and cut through the confusion. A well-crafted vision unifies your organization and keeps everyone focused in the same direction.
As I reflect on my 20 years as CEO of World Vision U.S., I am grateful for the dramatic way God guided me to cast a bold vision for the organization right from the start. Sixty days after taking the job, I sat in a hut in Uganda, staring into the face of the AIDS pandemic. A 13-year-old boy with my same name, Richard, told me about his struggle to raise his two younger brothers after their parents died of AIDS-related causes. He told me he loved to read the Gospel of John “because it says God loves the children.”
God used my shock, my heartbreak, and my newcomer’s naivety. I demanded that World Vision do much more to help Richard and the 12 million orphans like him – that we make this crisis our primary focus, challenging churches in America and around the world until we turn the tide of AIDS.
As I reflect on my 20 years as CEO of World Vision U.S., I am grateful for the dramatic way God guided me to cast a bold vision for the organization right from the start.
My raw response to Richard ultimately shaped a 10-year strategy. The experience was a crash-course in leading as if lives depended on it – because they did. Here’s what worked:
- Define reality: By reading the times and prayerful discernment, a leader must determine what’s worthy of organizational focus. By the late 1990s, AIDS was already a major crisis, with 33 million HIV-infected people, most of them in the developing world where the virus was spreading fast. It threatened to unravel decades of World Vision’s development work. And innocent women and children were disproportionately affected. I felt we risked far more, as a faith-based organization, if we did not respond. After all, James 1:27 defines religion as caring for “orphans and widows in their distress.” So I had to cast a vision about our Christian responsibility to fight AIDS, providing a compelling case of facts and biblical truth.
- Mobilize the team: Your organization – managers down to the rank-and-file – will carry out the vision, so you need to convince them first. You might think this would be easy at World Vision, with an issue as serious as AIDS and with such compassionate, world-aware employees. But even we can be distracted by the day-to-day, eclipsing the reality that across the globe, a fire is raging out of control – and we’re the fire department. I remember one of my staff saying, “We’re too busy for AIDS,” meaning that there were many other ministry priorities. I had to lift their eyes to the higher reality and help them understand the urgency. And when staff embraced the vision, there was tremendous esprit de corps and sense of purpose.
- Embody the vision: A leader must model personal commitment to the cause. It can’t be faked. After that first encounter with Richard, I returned to Africa many times, not just to learn but to enter into the pain of AIDS. World Vision founder Bob Pierce’s famous prayer strongly resonated with me: “Let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God.” Our hearts must be broken and re-broken to stay tender to God’s purpose. And once the cause gets under your skin, settle in – a vision is more than a “cause du jour.” For years, I talked about AIDS in every speech, every conversation with partners and donors, and every time I spoke to employees. When the leader’s words and actions embody the vision, you shape the internal culture as well as your organization’s external impact.
Our hearts must be broken and re-broken to stay tender to God’s purpose.
We must never forget that God’s vision for his beloved people is so much bigger than ours. I count it my life’s privilege to have played a small role in his plan to change the world – demonstrating the love of Christ in the world’s most hurting and hopeless places.
Richard Stearns is the longest-serving president of World Vision U.S., leading the organization since 1998. He recently announced his retirement from World Vision at the end of 2018. The former CEO of Parker Brothers and Lenox is also the author of the award-winning book The Hole in Our Gospel. Stearns was named as a Christian Leadership Alliance Consul, the organization’s highest honor, at The Outcomes Conference 2018.
World Vision update (May 31, 2018): World Vision U.S. announces new president and CEO: Edgar Sandoval