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Transformational vs. Visionary Leadership – CEO Reflections #16

Updated August 20, 2022 by Carl Lindberg

I have encountered both transformational and visionary leadership during my career as a CEO. Both styles are great and very useful in modern leadership. This article shows the key differences, the similarities, and a general comparison between visionary and transformational leadership.

What are the similarities between Transformational and Visionary Leadership?

Both transformational and visionary leadership are great for uniting people toward a shared long-term vision. Both styles build loyalty and trust in the leader through an emphasis on communication, transparency, and the use of Emotional Intelligence.

What are the differences between Transformational and Visionary Leadership?

Transformational leadership and Visionary leadership come from different leadership style frameworks, and on top of that, visionary leadership has less focus on developing people and higher risk for overlooking short-term operational concerns.

Keep on reading for brief introductions of both the transformational and visionary leadership styles. A more thorough comparison between the two styles comes after that. I also recommend you to read about the Six Leadership Styles by Goleman, a framework that I have used successfully in my job as a CEO. You can find that model and many others in our leadership styles portal.

Introducing Transformational Leadership

The following is an extract from our main article on transformational leadership.

Transformational leadership creates substantial change for team members as well as organizations. Expectations, aspirations, perceptions, and values are transformed into something better. Transformational leadership develops the team members and motivates and inspires them to reach extraordinary success.

This change improvement journey, or transformation, is facilitated by an ideal embodied by the transformational leader who is a strong moral example in working towards the team’s benefit and a positive change in organizational culture. In addition, the transformational leader actively promotes challenging the status quo and opportunities for growth and improvement in team members and in general.

Team members are very loyal to their transformational leader, who they trust, admire, and respect. This belief in the leader, coupled with the leader’s aim towards improvement for the team, results in very motivated team members willing to perform out of the ordinary.

Transformational leadership requires a lot of skill on the part of the leader and a substantial investment of time.

For additional information, refer to our in-depth article available here: Transformational Leadership.

Introducing Visionary Leadership

The following is an extract from our main article on visionary leadership.

Visionary Leadership is when a leader inspires others to pursue a long-term vision. Visionary Leadership builds on participation, communication, and goal setting. A visionary leader can lose short-term focus since all efforts are focused on the vision. Nelson Mandela is an example of a visionary leader.

A visionary leader truly understands the big picture and sets a long-term path for the organization. When applying a visionary leadership style, the long-term vision is also properly communicated and explained to the organization’s members. A great visionary leader manages to communicate and market the vision so that members of the organization feel inspired and understand how they will benefit from its realization. This is often much more difficult than it sounds, especially if there are many layers in the organization where the vision can be misconstrued, diluted, or misunderstood while cascaded downwards (downward communication). How the vision is explained is crucial for successful deployment and implementation of it. Visionary leaders often use powerful metaphors, scenarios of storytelling to ensure the spread and buy-in of the vision. Improve your communication by reading our article How to improve leadership communication skills.

Visionary leadership can help unite a team in executing a long-term strategy. Visionary leaders are known for assessing challenges and change requirements well and not giving up due to a few short-term obstacles. Visionary leadership centers around creativity, innovation, and appropriate risk-taking.

If gone too far, visionary leadership can lead to overlooking details and the short-term necessities of the organization. There is also a risk that the vision becomes too interconnected with the visionary leader, making succession planning difficult and increasing the risk of drifting into charismatic leadership, which has its own article in our leadership styles database. Overly visionary leaders are typically very good at getting people excited to do new things but less good at following through and handling all the details required for completion, that is why it needs to be balanced with the other five styles in the Goleman framework. (Join our newsletter and get some of my secret tips for each of the Goleman leadership styles.)

For additional information, refer to our in-depth article available here: Visionary Leadership.

Transformational vs. Visionary Leadership: Differences

The most significant differences between visionary leadership and transformational leadership are:

Different framework approaches

Transformational leadership comes from the full range leadership model together with the transactional and laissez-faire leadership styles. Transformational leadership has four different stages or levels, namely Individual Consideration, Intellectual Stimulation, Inspirational Motivation, and Idealized Influence, making it a palette of leadership on its own. Visionary leadership is one out of six leadership styles by Daniel Goleman, together with affiliative, commanding/directive, coaching, pacesetting, and democratic leadership. These styles are all meant to be used together and using combinations of democratic, visionary, coaching, and affiliative leadership covers a similar range as transformational leadership would if all the four levels are used. All of them have their own articles in our leadership styles portal, together with many other models and theories of leadership.

Development of people

Transformational leadership is more geared toward developing people and their skills. This element of people focus and coaching is somewhat lacking in the visionary leadership style but is instead found in its sibling style, coaching leadership.

Tunnel vision risks

Visionary leadership has higher risks for tunnel vision and short-term control loss since transformational leadership is a bit wider in its approach. The additional levels of empowerment of others included in transformational leadership also help to ensure that the team itself handles short-term details.

Transformational vs. Visionary Leadership: Similarities

The most considerable similarities between transformational leadership and visionary leadership are:

Belief in the leader

Both styles result in followers believing and feeling loyal towards their leader if done right. This is partially due to the strong dependency on Emotional Intelligence that both these leadership styles elicit.

Long term vision

Transformational and visionary leadership are built around a future state vision that differs from the current. It might be a major growth journey, a turnaround, expanding into other countries, or something else considered a significant change. Both styles are well equipped to unite people to work toward the execution of that long-term vision.

Fit well for handling change

Both visionary and transformational leadership are well suited for handling change. They can both be rather inappropriate in situations where the status quo is a goal in itself. Most organizations and institutions need to change together with the world around them, but there are exceptions to this norm. Entities that build on high levels of bureaucracy pointed at defending the status quo would not fit visionary and transformational leadership well. Better than employing transactional leadership, the more directive sibling of transformational leadership, also a part of the Full Range Leadership Model.

Strong communication and transparency

Both styles build on providing frequent communication to team members and keeping them all up to date and informed. The high level of information help to drum up innovation and creativity from a larger crowd. This coupled with a lot of transparency and explaining the reasons and the why behind the vision help to inspire and motivate the followers.

Conclusions: Transformational Leadership Vs. Visionary Leadership

These two leadership styles come from very different theoretical frameworks making them less straightforward to compare. However, the transformational and visionary leadership styles have a lot in common, especially when it comes to communication, inspiration, and motivation to pursue a long-term vision. In addition, both styles depend a lot on Emotional Intelligence and continuous improvement. Still, visionary leadership needs to be coupled with its sibling styles in order to provide additional team bonding and team member development.

Both styles are excellent for modern leadership, and you would benefit a lot from learning more about them and understanding how to implement them in your role as a leader. Just remember that you should never dedicate yourself to using a single leadership style since the key is to use different styles depending on your situation.

Refer to our in-depth articles on transformational leadership and visionary leadership for references.

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