At first people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done, then they begin to hope it can be done, then they see it can be done – then it is done and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries before.
– Frances Hodgson Burnett, 19th century American writer
Thomas Kuhn, the noted American professor of the philosophy and history of science, is best known for his work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which sold over 1 million copies in 16 languages. The book challenged conventional thinking that scientific change was strictly a rational process. It also popularized use of the term “paradigm,” as the mental model or framework scientists use to explain laws of nature. Paradigms are essential for learning and continuously improving upon theories and their applications.
However, paradigms are also very limiting. According to Kuhn, “What a person sees depends upon what he looks at and what his previous experience has taught him.” Many scientists – especially those with the most time and training invested in an established scientific discipline – resist new paradigms that challenge their established view of how the world works. They often ignore or just don’t see new contradictory evidence that doesn’t fit their paradigm.
Ironically, many organizations like to talk about “thinking outside the box.” Yet the role of managers is typically to improve on the accepted paradigm, or what is “inside the box.” They focus on what is, and work hard to enhance it. That’s extremely important and vital to orderly processes and systems that consistently deliver high-quality products or services. Leaders, on the other hand, are more inclined to smash old boxes or paradigms and construct new ones. Kuhn found that scientific paradigms don’t build on previous ones, they sweep them away. That’s often the case with new organizational paradigms as well. Strong leaders focus less on improving what is (established products or services, for example) than on seeing what could be.
Just as the terms “management” and “leadership” are often used interchangeably, goals and visions are often perceived to be the same thing. They are not. While both are critical to success (and are therefore highly interconnected), the Goals/Vision chart shows that the management act of goal-setting is quite different from the leadership act of visioning.
|Appeal to our intellect||Engages our emotions|
|Results and timeframes||A desired future state|
|Builds a business case||Kindles a cause|
|Pushes performance||Inspires and aligns|
|Targets and objectives||Images and feelings|
|Solves problems||Imagines possibilities|
|Logical progression||Irrational “skyhooks”|
Although goals and vision are different but co-dependent, visioning without goal-setting and action is daydreaming. And goal-setting without the broader context of an exciting vision is drudgery.
O. A. Ohmann, an executive at Standard Oil, coined the term “skyhook” to describe the vision and courage required to develop a new paradigm. “It came in the heat of a discussion with a group of business executives attending the Institute of Humanistic Studies at Aspen, Colorado. As we debated the limits of the rational and scientific approach to life, it occurred to me that science appears rational on the surface, but at its very foundation typically lies a purely intuitive, nonrational assumption made by some scientist. He just hooked himself on a piece of the sky out there and hung on. It was a complete leap of faith that led him.”
Successful entrepreneurs are good examples of strong leaders who use vision to build new paradigms. Entrepreneurs know that there can only be experts on what was or is. There are no experts on what will be. One highly successful entrepreneur declared, “I am not a disciple of research – unless, of course, it agrees with me. Otherwise, it’s useless.” Successful entrepreneurs are leaders with vision who predict the future by inventing it.