If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Last week I saw once again the power of a compelling vision. I was working with a media company that consists of four divisions; they have historically operated fairly separately. The CEO has just recently begun to “long for the endless immensity of the sea”—in this case the idea that all four divisions could work together closely, both to leverage each others’ efforts in this new media landscape and to offer a much more attractive vehicle for advertisers.

A few months ago, we worked together to craft a simple vision for this possibility, and strategies to achieve it—but when he communicated it to the organization, it was, unfortunately, buried in complicated corporate speak. The simplicity got lost, and many of the folks in the organization saw it as a no more than a call to “collect wood and assign tasks and work.”

Then, last week, he pulled together the top 50 people in the company to review, respond to and build on the new vision—and over the course of a couple of days I saw them begin to see the possibility of it, then consider whether it might be achieved, then hope that it could be—and finally, to long to accomplish it.

And when they got to that point—when the majority of the people in the room strongly wanted to get to that future state where all the divisions of the company were working together—they started figuring out on their own how to “collect wood and assign tasks and work.”

I see this again and again: with clients, with friends and family, in my own life. Human beings are moved by the clear vision of a hoped-for future. Vision is not goals, or objectives, or financial modeling. Vision is the description of a future that fulfills deep hopes.

  • J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series and now officially the wealthiest woman in Britain, once said in an interview that what sustained her when she was writing her first book in a coffee shop with her baby on the seat beside her, living on welfare, was the vision of walking into a bookstore and seeing her book on the shelf.
  • Richard Branson, when asked what had led him to start an airline when he had no experience whatsoever in that industry, said “I saw so clearly how much better and more fun air travel could be.”
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. galvanized a generation with his vision of a future of racial justice; his “I Have a Dream” speech still pulls on our hearts, almost 40 years later.

And the wonderful news is—we each have that visionary element in us. We tend to believe that the ability to envision the future is a rare thing; that only one person in a thousand has that ability. That visioning is the province of Steve Jobs, Nelson Mandela, Joan of Arc—not for normal folks like us.

But every kid who’s ever wanted a bike for his or her birthday; everyone who’s ever been in love; everyone who’s ever looked forward to a much-anticipated event, thinking through each moment of how they’d like it to unfold: that’s vision. “Visioning” is simply the ability to see and feel the possibility of a future that doesn’t yet exist. And we can all do that.

I encourage you to explore that ability; to let yourself harness the power of visioning within you. You can discover your own version of “longing for the endless immensity of the sea.” And when you do that, as I saw with my clients last week, you will begin to build the “ships” to get you there—and it will seem like an obvious and necessary thing to do. Having a clear and compelling vision unleashes the energy and skill within you to move toward that vision.

Allow yourself to long for a future that calls out to you, and then to build toward that future. And one day soon, you’ll find yourself sailing on the open sea…