A railroad crew was making repairs to a section of track when a train rolled up on a parallel track. Several men in suits disembarked from one of the passenger cars and began inspecting the work that was being done. A tall man in a blue suit looked over at the crew and nodded. He began to smile and walk toward them.

"Ted, is that you?" he asked of the crew's chief.

"Yes, it is," the chief replied as he shook hands with the visitor. "It's good to see you, Dale!"

The two men chatted briefly, inquiring about each other's health and families. Before they parted, they shook hands again and promised to keep in touch. When the man in the suit walked away, a member of the crew asked the chief, "Was that Dale Willis, the head of the railroad?"

"Yes, it was," the chief replied.

"It seems like you two are old friends," the man said.

"We are," the chief replied. "We started out together on this job on the same day 20 years ago."

"So how is it that you're here laying track with us?" someone asked.

"Well," the chief replied, "I had a vision of working for the railroad, while Dale had a vision of running the railroad."

And if Ted is content working for the railroad, his vision was realized. Dale's vision, on the other hand, set him on a path that he could accomplish only through a step-by-step plan to move ahead. This story from the inspirational magazine Bits & Pieces perfectly illustrates the importance of vision.

A study done by Fortune magazine examined 120 entrepreneurs over a three-year period. They were asked, "What do you need most to be a success?"

The study, led by J. Robert Baum, then an assistant professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, pointed to the necessity of vision when reaching one's goals. The people who succeed are the ones who have a vision and clearly know where they want to go.

The American Marketing Association did a study several years back and asked 500 CEOs what their companies needed to survive the next five years. Eighty-one percent said creativity and vision. But of the 500 CEOs, the same percentage of them said that their company was not doing a good job of fostering those things.

I suspect that part of the problem is that many companies don't know how to formulate a realistic vision. They confuse it with goals and objectives, which should come out of the corporate vision.

A vision that inspires people to action doesn't come out of a single afternoon brainstorming session. Every member of your team needs to spend time asking questions about the organization, your industry, customers, competitors, trends — everything that affects the success of your vision. You must build a foundation of learning before you can go forward.

Don't base your vision on where you are today, but on where you want to be in five years, or 10 or 25. Think about the direction you want to take and the obstacles you will have to overcome in order to succeed.

Mackay's Moral: Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@mackay.com.