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Vision that Compels

When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C., 50 years ago this August, he did not deliver an action plan. He offered no strategies or tactics for the civil rights movement, no timeline or assignment of responsibilities. Instead, he painted a picture of a desired future – a "beautiful symphony of brotherhood" that King and his audience longed to hear. In giving voice to this shared vision he compelled people to act.

Vision that Compels

That's how mission-driven leaders and organizations lay out our most important goals. Goal-setting begins with the articulation of vision that answers these questions: Where are we headed? Where do we long to go? And why does this matter? Of course, our goals should be realistic and measurable, for we want to be able to achieve these objectives. But vision comes first. The outcomes must be worthy of our output.

How do we know if the goals measure up? In our planning with leaders and organizations, we test each goal with two questions: Is it provocative? And is it practical?

By provocative we mean the goal will stretch us, take us to a new place, require effort beyond what we presently do. Practical, however, is just as important. By practical we mean two things: First, the goal is within reach; and second, we have practiced this way before, which is to say there is something in our experience which points to the reality that we are capable of living into this goal.

My friend Kathleen Atkinson talks about good leaders being provocative and evocative. Evocative is about drawing out the aspirations and gifts of others. To evoke is to bring to awareness a truth that is already present; to evoke is to reveal another reality.

When Martin Luther King said "I have a dream," he provoked and evoked. His provocation was to challenge the status quo: "No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." His evocation was to draw out an understanding of how life could be lived in America: "I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." His vision led to goals that were practical, because here and there people did practice this way, because people had experiences, however rare those experiences might have been, when this alternative way was just as real.

"This is our hope," King said. His vision is still provocative, and still evocative. That's how it is with shared dreams. They keep calling us toward fulfillment, toward the day when our highest aspirations will be realized and, as King said, "all flesh shall see it together." Shared vision draws us out and onward, compelling us to act today.