Recently, I've found myself doing two things I don't usually do: thinking about Academy Award acceptance speeches, and sympathizing with Matthew McConaughey.
For those who had better things to do in early March, here's a brief recap: McConaughey caught a great deal of flak for the speech he gave in accepting his (well-deserved) Best Actor Award. While most acceptance speeches are instantly forgotten, McConaughey's lived on in the spotlight of public derision because he more or less said that the person he most admired and most wanted to emulate was ... himself. In fact, he pretty much declared himself his own hero. To make matters worse, the two actors who won Best Supporting Actor and Actress -- Jared Leto and Lupita Nyong'o -- gave extremely gracious, self-effacing speeches that only served to highlight McConaughey's apparent narcissism.
I say "apparent" not because I don't think McConaughey is narcissistic; most actors are. (To be fair, most non-actors are, too.) The reason I use the qualifier is because he was actually trying to express a valuable idea -- not that he admires himself as he currently is, but that he tries to live up to a potential version of himself 10 years from now. He envisions the kind of person he would like to be in a decade, and then pursues that vision. And given that he's gone from being a lightweight actor in forgettable action movies and underperforming romantic comedies to a heavyweight with an Oscar to his credit and a growing reputation as one of the most talented performers currently on the screen, it seems like it's working.
Firms can engage in this kind of long-range planning, too. How big would you like to be in five years? In 10? How many offices would you have, and where? What new services would you offer? What will your next generation of leaders look like? If you imagine what your perfect firm will look like in 10 years, then you can plan how to make it happen and start working on it right now. The point is not to admire your firm as it is now, but to start building the kind of firm you would admire.
One of the earliest steps in creating your ideal firm, of course, is letting people know what it will be like. And here McConaughey offers another valuable lesson: Essentially, he expressed a great idea really, really badly.
It's easy to forget that the words actors say are most often written for them by someone else, and so it's often a surprise to discover that they are not always eloquent or witty or even capable of stringing words together to form a complete sentence. McConaughey meant to say that he imagines how he would like to be in a decade, and then works toward that ideal person; what's more, he tried to suggest that it was a process that would need to be repeated, and that each decade would call for a new vision of himself and new struggle, that you must always strive for something better and never rest on your laurels.
That's what he meant to say. What came out was, "I'm my own hero."
The lesson here is not that actors shouldn't write their own scripts (though they generally shouldn't), but that you need to be sure that you're communicating what you mean to, and that people understand it the same way. The most brilliant long-term vision in the world won't succeed if your staff and partners don't know about it, or worse yet, if they misunderstand it because you haven't explained it properly. They may not understand how it will work economically, or they may worry about whether there's a place for them in your vision, or they may believe that your vision runs counter to their perception of the strengths and values of the firm as it currently stands -- or they may just think you're a megalomaniacal narcissist.
In the end, it's up to you not just to create the vision, but to communicate it clearly so that others can see the same thing you do. Ben Franklin was right when he said that if you fail to plan, you're planning to fail -- but he might have added that failing to communicate can be just as bad.
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