Nelson Mandela smallTuesday the world celebrated Nelson Mandela Day, a day that brings people together to live the values of the late South African leader in honor of his birthday. He often used a quote attributed to author Joel Barker, and it’s one of my favorites: “Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision is merely passing time. But vision with action can change the world.”

The best leaders not only create their vision, but also inspire others toward action. Mandela not only set an audacious vision, but also convinced others to make social justice their collective dream. He understood that the ability to dream makes us uniquely human. He then inspired those around him (and generations to come) to unleash their own dreams and change the world. Because of his extraordinary leadership, South Africa – and the world – will never be the same.

In a similar vein, we have been touched by The Dream Manager, a book that showcases a crucial role of leadership – to recognize the dreams of those we lead and inspire them to achieve those visions. As The Dream Manager’s author, Matthew Kelly, suggests, “Dreams are invisible, but powerful. Think for a moment about electricity. You cannot see it, but it keeps everything going.” In his book, he shares an allegorical story of a janitorial company with a massive turnover problem. To reduce the problem, this hypothetical company adopts a simple premise – that the future of your business is intertwined with the future of your employees. The company hires a “dream manager” to work with its employees. The dream manager first helps the individual employees identify their dreams and then holds them accountable to realizing those dreams – of buying new homes, advancing in their careers or providing storybook holidays for their families. The dream manager finds that the best way to engage employees in the company’s dreams and goals is to first engage them in their own personal dreams and goals. Through this work, the employees become more engaged, identify solutions to company problems and start working as a team. The turnover problem ceases. By the end of the parable, the company has multiple dream managers, who even serve employees’ families, and inspires other companies to follow its model. Kelly notes that “most people spend more time planning their annual vacation than they do planning their lives.”

And, as we experience turnover issues within companies – for-profit and nonprofit alike – employee engagement is key. Highly engaged employees have two things in common: 1) they believe in a future bigger than the past, and 2) they believe that they can do something each day to bring about that bigger future. We also work with clients on finding jobs or overcoming trauma, but shouldn’t we also be asking them about their dreams for the future?

As many of us reflect on Nelson Mandela and his belief that leaders should “lead from the back and let others believe they are in the front,” Kelly suggests (and we wholeheartedly agree with) the following framework for “managing successful dreaming” within an organization:

  • Write your own Dream List, which can help you create your own Personal Strategic Plan. See my related blogs on energy vs. time management and life lessons for samples from my own strategic plan.
  • Spend 30 minutes each morning visiting with your team. Take a sincere interest in their work and lives. If they work in the office, look at how they decorate their space to find out what drives them and keeps them inspired.
  • Keep an Open Door and Open Mind, which is a tenet for any good future-thinking culture. Ideas come from everywhere and often those on the front lines (whether they are employees or customers) have the best solutions, but never get asked.
  • Organize a team Dream Session, which allows each person to share their personal and professional dreams with one another, seek assistance and become accountable to the team for achievement.
  • Use employee performance reviews as an opportunity to understand each employee’s dreams and explain the dreams of the company or department. Then, connect the dots between the two.


This week, as we reflect on the greatness of Nelson Mandela, we must all look within ourselves and ask what contribution we can make to keep our dreams and the dreams of those around us alive. Nelson Mandela was the ultimate “dream manager,” and we owe it to him to continue supporting one another in our collective dreams for a better future. If you have experiences in helping your team and/or clients realize their dreams, we’d love for you to share them.


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