Visionary Leadership – What is it? Pros/Cons? Examples?


During my fifteen year long career as a leader in business, I have met some fascinating visionary leaders and I have been part of creating several long term visions. It is incredible how a good vision with well trimmed communication can motivate large amounts of people. This article explains the visionary leadership style with its characteristics and pros and cons. All topped off with a few practical stories from my career as a leader.

What is visionary leadership?
Visionary Leadership is built on inspiring and motivating people to pursue a long term vision. Communication, transparency and goal setting is crucial. Visionary leadership can result in lack of short term focus and lack of accepting ideas from others. Nelson Mandela and Henry Ford are some examples on Visionary Leaders of history.

Visionary leaders inspire. Visionary leaders transform. Visionary leaders disrupt industries.

Feel free to watch this short video introduction to visionary leadership. Just remember that it is merely scratching the surface and continue to read this article for an in-depth understanding of the visionary leadership style.

It may seem counter intuitive to discuss visionary leadership. After all, a leader by nature is expected to be a visionary. Vince Lombard, former head coach and general manager of the Green Bay Packers, once said, “To me, a leader is a visionary who inspires others. This definition of leadership has two key dimensions: creating a vision of the future and inspiring others to make that vision reality.”

Sadly, this is often not the case. Lack of vision is often cited as one of the reasons for business failure[1]. Even when a vision is present, promising organizations often breakdown at the middle management level because the vision of middle managers doesn’t align with the overall strategic vision of the organization[2].

Consequently, the merit of visionary leadership rests on the leader’s ability to have a clearly articulated vision that aligns with the company’s objectives and influence all members of the organization to promote this vision. Doing this requires a clear understanding of what visionary leadership is and how best to apply it to an organization.

What is Visionary Leadership?

Visionary leadership was first coined by Daniel Goleman in 2002. It’s a concept that relates to Goleman’s perspective on conditional leadership where certain leadership styles work best under certain conditions.  He defines visionary leadership as “the ability to take charge and inspire with a compelling vision”[3] and postulates that this type of leadership is best used “when changes require a new vision or when a clear direction is needed.” He also categorizes visionary leadership as an authoritative leadership style. (Please note that there is a difference between being authoritative and applying an authoritarian or autocratic leadership style.)

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 members of the organization. A great visionary leader manages to communicate and market the vision in such a way 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. How the vision is explained is crucial for successful deployment and implementation of it. Visionary leaders often use powerful metaphors, scenarios of story telling to ensure the spread and buy in of the vision. (Click here to learn more about some of the problems with downward communication.)

What are the Pros and Cons of Visionary Leadership?

As with all leadership styles, visionary leadership also comes with advantages and disadvantages. Generally, the long-term aspect of the vision often means that short term activities are deemed less important.

The Pros of Visionary Leadership

  • There is a clear idea of the overall goal that everyone is working towards
  • Temporary setbacks don’t deter either you or your team from achieving the overall vision
  • A visionary leader can focus the team’s energy on what ultimately matters to make that overarching goal a reality
  • Visionary leaders are proactive and can often foresee challenges
  • Visionary leaders value innovation and creativity and help your team to thrive in these areas
  • The risk-reward tradeoff is clear; visionary leaders aren’t afraid to take risks that will push the organization closer to the overall goal
  • Place high value on acknowledging worker’s achievements and making them feel valuable since their work impacts the organization’s vision
  • Inspire unity and getting everyone on the same page

The Cons of Visionary Leadership

  • Such great emphasis is placed on the future that the visionary leader often loses sight of the present. There is less emphasis on the smaller details that impact the day-to-day operation of the organization.
  • The vision may be lost if its too intertwined with the personality of the leader and proper succession planning is not carried out effectively
  • There is a fixation on the leader’s vision which leads to other potentially good ideas being tossed aside. There isn’t an objective outlook on the need to either revise the vision or abandon it altogether for something better.
  • A visionary leader can easily get a team excited about a project but often loses this momentum because there’s no follow-through.
  • Team members aren’t held accountable.

The article continues below this Infographic Summary of the visionary pros and cons.

Visionary Leadership Advantages and Disadvantages, infographic. Feel free to use the image as long as you link to this page.

How to best apply a Visionary Leadership Style?

There are six fundamental principles in visionary leadership that you can apply regardless of your personal leadership style. Some of these things may not come naturally to you so you may need to partner with someone who can complement you if that is the case.

Create a comprehensive visionary statement with a detailed plan of action

Visionary leaders are great at creating vision statements and inspiring team members to buy-in. What they often lack is follow-through and holding people accountable. It’s important to sit down with your team to create a comprehensive vision statement so that the organization has adequate direction. (To get the most out of the team members, read this for inspiration: Why should leaders always speak last?) A good vision statement should have the following characteristics:

  • The statement should preferably be no more than two sentences
  • The vision statement describes a unique outcome that only that organization can provide
  • It should have clear and simple language that is easily understood by all
  • The vision should be realistic and not an impossible dream
  • Finally, the vision naturally needs to be aligned with the core values of the organization

Once the vision statement has been documented, key players within the organization should be identified to lead the charge in executing the key pillars of the vision. So, when applying visionary leadership, you and your team should:

  1. Identify focus areas
  2. Assign time-bound objectives for these areas
  3. Determine the key teams responsible for achieving those objectives
  4. Outline a strategy for tracking performance and periodic revision of the objectives

These steps will help mitigate the all too common risk of the vision being too “fluffy” for actual progress to gain traction. If concrete actions are not put into place, the vision will likely remain a vision and never become reality.

Address issues within the organization

Great visionary leaders are often proactive with addressing issues related to the overarching vision before they even materialize. However, there is more to the organization than this big vision and it’s important not to lose sight of that. You should get regular updates from mid-level managers to determine the pressing daily issues within the organization and how these issues impact staff morale, productivity and performance. This doesn’t mean that you should become a micromanager. Instead, you should be aware of what’s happening and only intervene when absolutely necessary. This ensures continued traction towards the vision as well as providing progress on short term operational matters.

Transparency and communication is essential

Achieving buy-in is only possible through clear communication and this is one of the strengths of a truly visionary leader. Transparency, however, is not a visionary leader’s strength. You should be as transparent as possible with your team members. For instance, Greg Crabtree, author of Simple Numbers, Straight talk, Big Profits mentioned the importance of sharing business’ financials with staff. Some leaders hide these numbers thus leaving team members unaware of the organization’s true numbers. In visionary leadership, it is important to be as transparent as possible to further enable buy in and understanding of the vision.

A good visionary leadership will also share the progress towards that vision: Are we getting somewhere? Is the Vision more likely to become reality now than it was six months ago? (The transparency and communication aspects are some of the big differences between visionary leadership and charismatic leadership.

Visionary Leaders are emotionally intelligent

Visionary leaders are known for their strong emotional intelligence; it’s one of the things that helps them inspire change. Howard Gardner, a psychologist, defines emotional intelligence as “the level of your ability to understand other people, what motivates them and how to work cooperatively with them.”[4]  Effective leadership requires the ability to understand who people are, why they do what they do and how to inspire them to be the best versions of themselves. Try to set an inspiring vision and sell it to an audience that you neither know nor understand – that would be a certain road to failure. (For more information, consider reading: Is empathy important in leadership?)

Visionary Leaders display optimism

Optimism defines a visionary leader (sometimes to his or her detriment when there is over optimism). There are times when the outlook seems bleak and staff feel discouraged. Do you join the pity party and make them feel worse or do you stand strong and say, “Yes, we can do this!”? Your ability to remain optimistic through all stages of business growth helps determine the longevity of the organization. By display of confidence and belief in the vision, the leader can affect the likelihood of success by ensuring high motivation among the people who are working on realizing the vision.

Great visionary leaders are proactive and plan for the long term without ignoring the short term
Great visionary leaders are proactive and plan for the long term without ignoring the short term

My experience of visionary leadership

I have worked for leaders with all kinds of different levels of visionary leadership traits. One of my previous bosses was so visionary that the rest of the team constantly had to pull him back down to earth. Visionary leadership was a strength of his, but it was so strong indeed that many other ideas and need for short term focus were neglected, just as described among the disadvantages of visionary leadership above.

Another of my previous manages simply had no vision. Period. This was fine since he had hired quite many mid level managers who were more of visionary leaders than he was himself. I think this person simply did not care too much of visions, and hence he failed to see how important a strong vision can be for others.

During my years as a leader I have always had doubts on the visionary side of me. It has always been surprising that I have often received high grades or scores on my visionary leadership capabilities in different surveys answered by peers and direct reports. After a few of those surprises I embraced the notion of myself being at least somewhat visionary and that my self doubt within this area might actually force me to work even harder on supplying good visions. Perhaps this self doubt has always been an enabler, resulting in good visionary leadership in the end?

Some of the good visionary leaders I have crossed paths with over the years have often been charismatic and inspiring. The people around them starts to believe more in their own capabilities as well as their purpose thanks to this inspirational effect. These leaders have often been great at shaping teams and making the team members believe in each other as well.

The right level of visionary leadership

The key is to be just the right amount of a visionary as a leader. Enough to shape a great vision and inspire people so that they can achieve more than they thought possible, but still not extreme enough to totally forget the short term and more tactical activities of the organization. Look into the future, but never forget where you currently are. If you imagine scoring a goal in soccer, you will most likely have to kick and pass the ball numerous times in the short term to position yourself and your team to provide that last kick that ensures the goal. If you expand the time horizons, then this analogy can be applied for organizations and their success as well. I am lucky to have experience having a leader that delivered on this level of visionary leadership as well. He was pretty impressive in action when he was busy motivating, speaking and inspiring others.

I found that once you reach the vision you were part of creating as a leader, the confidence people will have in you for the next vision will be even stronger. This is only natural and logical. In that case you have proven yourself as a leader and that you are capable of realizing your visions together with the team.

On the other side of the scale, I have worked with a leader who was too visionary. He was focused on his visions that many operational and short term issues were ignored. Some of his long term visions were also very unrealistic, making it difficult for people to buy into them.

Who are examples of Visionary Leaders?

Henry Ford (1863-1947)- Founder of Ford Motors

Ford understood people. He once said, “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” His career began as a chief engineer for the Edison Illumination Company and, while working there he raised a small amount of capital from his family and friends to buy the parts needed to build his first vehicle.

He soon began selling vehicles for profit and left Edison Illumination Company to form his own business. His employees received the highest hourly wages in the industry at the time and helped him create and successfully execute his vision of an efficient assembly line. His team supported his vision, knew that he cared about their needs and interests and helped him build one of the most successful automobile companies of all time, Ford Motors.

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)- Anti-apartheid Advocate and Former South African President

Mandela grew up in an environment where racial discrimination was the norm. It was a norm he refused to accept. He had a vision of a country where racism was history and South Africa could experience constitutional democracy. His resolute focus and willingness to act as a martyr for the cause inspired many others to support the end of apartheid while he was imprisoned.

Elon Musk (1971 – present) – CEO of SpaceX and Tesla

Musk is known for revolutionary ideas that disrupt industries. He doesn’t follow the status quo and is always going against the grain to achieve success. His ideas may seem ludicrous to some, but he has led teams of highly inspired and creative people to achieve the seemingly impossible.

Visionary leadership vs Charismatic Leadership

The visionary leadership style has some similarities with the charismatic leadership style. The key similarity is the belief in the long term vision and that other things are less important in comparison. Both of the styles are built around strong communication skills and methods.
Some of the key differences are:

  • Charismatic leadership is built on a vision mostly set by the leader, whereas a vision is created by the leader together with other team members in visionary leadership
  • Visionary leadership does not require charisma, whereas charismatic leadership definitely requires charisma.
  • A visionary leader uses empathy and emotions to communicate and sell the joint vision, where as the charismatic leader uses these for creating a strong personal bond with people.
  • The biggest difference of them all: Charismatic leadership is built on the persona of the leader as the core foundation, where as visionary leadership is built on the vision. If a visionary leader needs to replaced, the vision can remain and the organization will likely continue to strive towards it. If the charismatic leader leaves, that organization will be leaderless.

Summary on Visionary Leadership

Visionary leadership is one of six leadership styles described by Daniel Goleman. It has several strengths but also several weaknesses because there just like all leadership styles. It’s best used when a leader needs to take charge and inspire a substantial change in vision. The aim is to inspire team members to effect change and achieve the organization’s overarching goal.

Nevertheless, a visionary leader must be cautious about a fixation on the big vision since this can lead to the finer details being neglected. There also needs to be clearly defined roles and a sense of accountability so that strides made towards the vision aren’t lost. You should strive to embody the positive traits of a visionary leader while still keeping the organization moving forward on a shorter-term basis.


Sources:
http://secretstotheirsuccess.com/leadership-styles/daniel-golemans-visionary-leadership-style/
https://fortune.com/2014/12/05/6-principles-that-made-nelson-mandela-a-renowned-leader/
https://www.shoutmeloud.com/elon-musk.html

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/mikemyatt/2012/01/12/businesses-dont-fail-leaders-do/#3e0f9d6c97a4

[2] https://hbr.org/2019/02/why-visionary-leadership-fails

[3] http://mchnutritionpartners.ucla.edu/sites/default/files/images/HBRLeadershipGetsResults1.pdf

[4] https://www.success.com/the-importance-of-emotional-intelligence-in-leadership/

Carl Lindberg

Carl is a global business leader that has led 1-2000 people and had financial responsibility of 200-500 MUSD. During his career, he has led employees in twenty different countries and has lived in three continents.

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