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Setting a Vision: A Lesson from History

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael Abels
August 22, 2019

“Where there is no vision the people perish.” (Proverbs 29.18)

This biblical statement, when applied to political leadership, can be interpreted to mean that without a vision people and their country are destined to wander aimlessly.

But there are historical examples where our Presidents have successfully established a vision that advanced society to new heights. Examples include Kennedy with his vision to reach the moon, Eisenhower with his vision to connect the United States through the interstate highway system, and Obama with a national health insurance system. But we also have examples of serious failures to attain a bold vision for the future. An example that reflects the consequence of a failed vision is Woodrow Wilson and his vision to conclude WW1 with a peace treaty which would bind Europe and the United States through an interlocking obligation, and by doing so, would deter future military actions that could lead to another world war. Because of several missteps Wilson failed in his vision to create the League of Nations that he felt would serve as a bulwark to future world wars. And partly because of this failure, within two decades the world was consumed by World War II.   

Wilson was a visionary President. He referred to the concept of vision in his first inaugural address. His vision saw the people of the United States as a moral force for the world.  While he failed to create an international body to prevent a future war, he did move the United States from isolationism to one of idealistic internationalism. The foreign policy paradigm he built lasted for 100 years, and, the international institution he proposed through the League of Nations served as the foundation of the United Nations and NATO. However, his failure to convince the allies to lessen the economic punishment on a defeated Germany coupled with his failure to persuade the U.S. Senate to ratify the Versailles Peace Treaty with its creation of the League of Nations, proved instrumental in creating the conditions that led to World War II. Why did Wilson fail, and what are the leadership lessons that can be applied by leaders at all levels of government? 

The first lesson is that a successful vision for a desired future must be embraced by most stakeholders impacted by the vision. And, positive investment by varied stakeholders will require compromise. Wilson’s design of his 14 points for peace and the League of Nations was largely his own. While former Republican President William Howard Taft also endorsed a concept of an international League to Enforce Peace, it varied from Wilson’s. Wilson refused to compromise his plan with Taft or with compromises endorsed by other moderate Republicans. 

The second lesson is that when the design of a vision must incorporate divergent interests, it is essential to include in the design process leading stakeholders who endorse alternative paths that could also accomplish the vision. The team formed by Wilson to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles included a Republican representative. However, that person was not influential within the party, and therefore could not influence Republican leaders to accept the final treaty. Alternatively, Wilson could have included former President William Howard Taft as a member of his negotiating team. Taft was a supporter of an international body to mitigate the chance of future wars. His influence within the Republican party could have been decisive in gaining Republican support for Senate ratification of the treaty. If Taft had been one of the principal Americans in negotiating the Treaty of Versailles, the League of Nations, while somewhat varying in design from Wilson’s vision, would probably have generated the Republican support necessary to insure its ratification.

The third major lesson from Wilson’s failure is that visionary processes must be accompanied by a comprehensive and on-going public education program. Wilson was a very centralized manager who did not significantly involve others in the formulation of his proposals. He also did not create a beginning-to-end public information program for educating the public, and through the public, place pressure on the Senate to support the concept of the League of Nations. Because the public did not understand and strongly support the League, opponents were successful in a negative campaign that stopped Senate ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, and through that defeat, the demise of the League.  

Wilson’s historical failure provides today’s leader with three lessons that can be applied to any vision process:

  • Compromising with conflicting stakeholders on process and outcomes is essential.
  • Inclusion of competing stakeholders in the vision process is mandatory.
  • Integrating a comprehensive public information program throughout the planning process is vital for success.

Author: Michael Abels. Career city manager and retired Lecturer in Public Administration, University of Central Florida. Currently adjunct instructor at Stetson University.  Recently published a text-workbook through Routledge Taylor & Francis Group titled Policy Making in the Public Interest: A Text and Workbook for Local Government.  Author contact email is [email protected]. Twitter @ abelsmike

 

 

 

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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