The defining competence of leaders is the capacity to imagine and articulate exciting future possibilities. Call it what you will — vision, purpose, mission, legacy, dream, aspiration, calling — people expect you to know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. Exemplary leaders know how to motivate employees by inspiring a shared vision. Doing this means you will have to envision the future by imagining exciting and ennobling possibilities, and enlist others in a common vision by appealing to shared aspirations.

Effective leadership is not simply about the leader having a vision — it’s about inspiring a shared vision, one that all team members clearly understand, buy into and feel a part of.

No matter how accurate and compelling a leader’s vision is, if there isn’t consensus among the people doing the work, that vision will not be realised.

When researchers ask, ‘What kind of information do people want more of from their management?’ the responses are quite consistent. People want, first of all, reliable information on where the company – program, project, product or team – is going, and they want to understand how what they are doing fits into the big picture. It doesn’t make any difference where you are in your organisation; it’s what receptionists want to know from their supervisors, supervisors from their managers, managers from their regional directors, regional directors from the general managers, and what the general managers want to know from the executives they report to.

If you can’t answer these ‘Where am I going?’ and ‘How does my job fit?’ questions for yourself let alone for others, you’re probably experiencing what social psychologists call ‘workplace alienation’. When people are alienated and disengaged in the workplace, it is because they have no idea where things are going, and no sense that what they do matters. If you’re dealing with psychologically healthy people who are in a situation in which they feel lost and have no sense that what they’re doing makes any difference, they are – to use an analogy – like rats in a maze. They will just stop moving. They will try to get out of that situation if they can, and if they can’t, then they’ll simply retire on the job. They will do as little as possible in order to protect themselves and stay safe.

In short, the vision must be meaningful and compelling for each team member. Team members must understand their role in translating the vision into reality and have a clear sense that they are contributing to the fulfilment of the vision.

When you inspire a shared vision you engage people in a conversation about what you are trying to accomplish together and why this matters. You communicate how everyone’s efforts contribute to making the future better than today. You and others are joined together in making something significant and meaningful happen, and that sense of purpose energises everyone.