Researchers design test for visioning ability

September 10, 2000

Erie, Pa. -- Two Penn State researchers have fine-tuned a test measuring one of the key components of leadership: the ability to shape a long-range vision for one's company, church or local school district.

"Leadership experts define vision as an individual's ability to summon a vivid mental image of his or her organization's future, not only in brick-and-mortar terms, but ultimate strategic direction and long-term success," says Dr. Peg Thoms, associate professor of management at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College.

"To the best of our knowledge, our scale for measuring visioning ability is the first to be validated officially," she adds. "We are currently sharing the scale with a Fortune 500 insurance company, which will be doing the training as part of leadership development and incorporating our entire visioning approach into their strategic planning process. They will also use the visioning ability scale, testing its validity as a selection tool for future company leaders."

Truly successful leaders have the innate ability not only to have a dream but make others see that dream. Such a vision is necessary for transformational leadership, say the researchers. Thoms notes, "However, for that vision to work, it has to be based on utopian expectations, not current limitations. Visions cannot be strictly realistic; otherwise, they do not impel people to move forward into the unknown. This explains the failure rate for strategic planning, which often begins with a list of limitations."

Dr. Dawn G. Blasko, associate professor of psychology at Penn State Erie, adds, "The capacity for visioning varies from person to person, but our research suggests that visioning per se is something you may be born with."

The researchers created a Visioning Ability Scale of 12 questions that over the years, they have administered to five survey groups in all. Directions in the Visioning Ability Scale ask subjects to create a positive image of their organization as it would appear in the future. The scale then asks them to rate their agreement with 12 statements related to the image they created..

The 12 statements include the following: "I can clearly imagine how large this organization will be" and "I can clearly imagine the type of organization it will be." The researchers used a 5-point scale with 1 meaning "strongly disagree" and 5 "strongly agree."

"We gave a preliminary version of the scale to 50 college students enrolled in an introductory management course," Blasko says. "The second pilot group in 1994 was made up of 120 business managers representing a wide variety of industries in Columbus, Ohio. The business managers were asked to complete the scale prior to a leadership workshop on how to create an organizational vision. In our study, they were given a visioning projection period of seven years."

In 1998, the researchers tested 3 sets of college students, who were asked to visualize leading their organizations in 6 months. The first sample consisted of 170 undergraduate students taking management and psychology courses. The second sample of 411 college leaders were enrolled in a week-long national leadership training program conducted at various locations nationwide. This group of participants were selected because they were leaders in college organizations ranging from fraternities to service clubs to athletic teams. The third sample was comprised of a 480 college leaders attending the same training program the year after data for Sample 2 was gathered.

The questionnaires were completed anonymously, and the researchers were unknown to participants in Sample 2 and 3, according to Thoms.

"We tested the validity of the Visioning Ability Scale by comparing its scores with long-established measures of personality (although not all tests were given to all groups). The Underwood & Froming Scale, for instance, was used to test positive outlook or attitude toward life, which strongly influences how well a leader can create a positive image of an organization. The findings showed that visioning ability significantly correlated with positive outlook," Blasko says.

The study participants also took tests measuring degrees of personal optimism, future time perspective, vividness of mental imagery and controllability or ability to manipulate a mental image.

"We employed the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire to measure potential for transformational leadership, one component of which, inspirational motivation, assesses whether a person believes that he articulates an appealing vision of the future," Thoms notes. "We found that scores for the Visioning Ability Scale were clearly correlated with the self-ratings of inspirational motivation."

Blasko notes, "In order to validate our own test, we gave the last three groups additional psychological tests, already known in the field, which weigh personality traits linked to visioning ability. We discovered that our subjects who scored high on visioning ability also tended to match this personality profile."
The Penn State researchers published their findings in "Preliminary Validation of a Visioning Ability Scale" in Psychological Reports.

EDITORS: Dr. Thoms is at (814) 898-6434 or; Dr. Blasko is at (814) 898-6108 or at by email.

Penn State

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