It’s one of the most critical long-term success factors and challenges for any organization:  A clear, embraceable vision that’s shared by the team and delivered consistently to customers time after time.

Vision is what every successful company thrives on, yet it’s one of the hardest things to truly communicate and achieve. For most leaders, the roadblocks to formulating and sharing an inspiring vision that rallies the troops and gets you to market quickly are many — and the resistance to change within the organization in order to achieve that vision is often even greater.

Too often, it falls to marketing alone to translate that vision into a brand and in turn, information that goes to customers. Far too many leaders believe brand is a “marketing thing” and only about image and messaging.

And so, far too many brand efforts are exercises in futility and a big waste of time and money. The leaders don’t understand that not only do they need to put the brand “out there,” they also need to drive the position and the expectations for delivering on that position through every part of the company.

In truth, the brand is the soul of the organization. Sure, it needs to be embraced by the grassroots level. But a brand won’t succeed and really thrive to its potential unless it’s also nourished, protected, embraced and lived by the leaders of the organization, as well. After all, they’re the ones who model the behavior and set the direction for the rest of the company.

Leaders need to be involved in the effort from the very beginning to make the connection for how the vision applies to what it is the team will do every day.

John Seely Brown from the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center once said simply that “Leaders make meaning.” And as writer and speaker Tom Peters insists, they use compelling stories, coherent themes and soaring messages to paint a picture of where we can — and must — go.

While they need marketing sitting at the table to help the translation, leaders need to be involved in the effort to establish the current situation and the rationale for change … and show what might happen if the change isn’t made. They need to explain how the brand is translated into operations. And they need to be waving the flag for small successes as the brand experience takes root throughout the company.

Specifically, here are key roles for the organizational leader in any brand effort:

1. Provide context

In the old days, research and development came up with new product ideas, sold the business case to leadership, and eventually handed the plan off to marketers to introduce it to potential customers. Marketing didn’t have much of a chance to impact the product or the business strategy.
But today, marketing is often the direct connection in engaging customers and prospects. They can provide real data and real stories that can help create opportunities quicker. If they truly are stewards of the brand, marketers need a “seat at the table” with the top echelon of the company to help construct an authentic brand experience for customers and employees — to make sure that the message out in public matches the experience employees deliver.

2. Create opportunities

Leaders are in a unique situation to see the landscape not only as it is, but what it could be. They can take people who aren’t sure where they’re going, envision the destination, and then get their help in getting there.

As Tom Peters put it, the old navigational maps simply said “Here be dragons” in the unknown realms around the edges. It wasn’t until a leader saw a chance at something else that the world moved forward.

3. Lead change

Not many people like change. But good leaders are particularly adept at seeing where they have to go and creating a path for getting there…sometimes pushing, sometimes pulling…but always inspiring.

The leader in any brand effort that requires change to a new way of thinking or acting needs to communicate well. The leader must establish the current situation and provide a rationale for change. That should include business issues, competitive issues, market changes, and customer issues.

Key to that communication is outlining what might happen if change isn’t made, but also providing a vision for what staff’s world will look like after the change has taken place. Be sure to consider the scope of change, what success looks like, how it aligns with business strategy, who’s impacted, and what won’t change.

Remember that internal buy-in doesn’t happen from the top-down, no matter how hard a leader waves the flag. Rather, the acceptance of change and buy-in for the brand occur at a grass-roots level. To ensure multiple points of view, get a cross-section of the company involved — from boardroom to switchboard. Ask them about the company, the competition, customers, and what they think “winning” looks like. They’ll begin to take ownership not only in the process, but also in the brand and the vision.

4. Set the tone

If involved from a brand effort from the start, leaders can have a huge role in setting the tone for the effort — not only how things are going to sound to customers, but also on internal expectations and how culture will be impacted.

Leaders know when to push their organizations and when to ease up. They can bring disparate points of view together. They can give permission to experiment and even possibly fail. And they can figure out how to operationalize and fund the effort when no one else can figure that out.

What’s more, they can talk about impact on day-to-day activities, behaviors expected, and how to give appropriate feedback.

5. Provide clarity

When everyone else is getting bogged down in the details, leaders can re-establish the vision and provide consistency for the long-term effort.

With their global view, leaders instinctively know how a change will impact the company inside and out. They can challenge their teams to find a better way or help them avoid obstacles altogether.

Because most leaders are great storytellers, they can help make the abstract real on an operational, personal level for their teams. They can lend key perspective throughout the process.

6. Adapt

When the bumps or roadblocks eventually come, leaders can push their organizations to find a new way to accomplish the goal. They can adjust funding, move timelines, and prod key players like nobody else in the organization can. They also know when to call it quits and accept the responsibility or blame for it if the team is going down the wrong road.

7. Cheerlead

Leaders articulate the importance of living the story. They communicate through their words and actions the long-term business benefits of the brand.

That’s key throughout the life of a brand. But it’s especially so during times the team may struggle.

It’s imperative that the leader also be the head cheerleader. Not in some fake, over-the-top sort of way. But by sharing success stories. Pointing out the “wow” kind of efforts. Illustrating each step along the way the accomplishments achieved and how they’re important to the overall effort. And pointing out those on the staff who start embracing the brand in their actions.

That’s the type of “making meaning” that John Seeley Brown meant. By constantly pointing out “on brand” efforts and successes, the leader greatly enhances the chances for success.

8. Embody the brand

Like it or not, the leader is largely reflected in the brand, and vice-versa. How the leader chooses to engage others and conduct business goes a long way toward truly living the story of the brand.

Peters points out in his Reimagine! book that some of the best over the past few decades have been Steve Jobs at Apple, Bill Gates at Microsoft, Sam Walton at Walmart, Richard Branson of the Virgin Group, Georgio Armani and Oprah.

Some built the brand around themselves, others aligned well with the brand and the vision. Either way, all of them eventually came to embody and uphold the spirit, characteristics and character of their respective brands.

They. Made. Meaning. And that’s job #1 for a leader of the brand.