Visionary Leadership

July 2, 2018 — Leave a comment

“There is no more powerful engine driving an organization toward excellence and long-range success than an attractive, worthwhile, and achievable vision of the future, widely shared.”

~ Burt Nanus, Visionary Leadership

Merriam Webster dictionary defines visionary, in relation to leadership, as: having or marked by foresight and imagination, a visionary leader, a visionary invention, able or likely to see visions.

Burt Nanus in Visionary Leadership stated that visionary leadership was in short supply today, and that was published in 1992, I think for the most part, it’s still in short supply in 2018. Who are today’s visionary leaders that can match the visions of history’s leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. What leaders today, either public or private, is pursuing what seems to be impossible? Is their visionary talent natural, Divine Guidance, or can leaders learn how to be more visionary?

First, vision starts with a dream, or an actual vision. Elon Musk of SpaceX and Tesla, developed his visions from the hours of research he puts towards a subject. What makes his visionary skills unique is that he can imagine his designs in 3D, and make changes in his mind, and he has a photographic memory.  Elon Musk’s dream is to populate Mars, and he risks his fortune, health, and relationships, in order to achieve his dream.

America’s Founding Fathers had a dream of liberty, they were angry about Great Britain’s repression. They pursued their dream of liberty, or maybe it was Divine Guidance to practice the religion of their choice. They signed the Declaration of Independence knowing that if the United States lost the Revolutionary War, they would either be executed or imprisoned as traitors to the Queen.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta built her Missionaries of Charity through a vision she said she received from Jesus Christ. She believed in her vision so much that whenever she would pray for something it would materialize in some way, she called it Divine Providence, with enough faith, anything is possible. That vision turned into a Roman Catholic religious congregation which had over 4,500 sisters and was active in 133 countries in 2012, and is still growing more than 20 years after her death.

Vision starts with connecting what is going on right now with what you, or an organization, aspire to accomplish. A vision is always about the future, but it begins with the here and now. In order to start with now, leaders need to take an honest look at their area  of responsibility and figure out where the gaps are that prevents you from moving toward the vision, and then start to fill the gaps. Just don’t let the gaps discourage you from developing a vision. And if you already have all of the resources needed to achieve your vision, then it’s not much of a vision, is it?

Burt Nanus in Visionary Leadership outlines how vision works in context to leadership. The right organizational vision, when communicated properly, will move people to action. But selecting and articulating the right vision, is the hardest task and the truest test of great leadership. But when casting the vision is done correctly it can unleash powerful forces within your organization. To understand why, consider the forces that are unleashed;

  • The right vision attracts commitment and energizes people. Do employees work toward the vision because they get paid to, or because they fully believe in it and pay doesn’t matter? If people only believe in the vision because they get paid to, will they actually give 100%, or even 70% to help achieve that vision? Organizations that inspire their employees to achieve something that helps the community or the world, will work harder to achieve it. It brings me back to Elon Musk, even though he has a very high authoritarian style of leadership, people still follow him because they believe in his vision. They’ll work 80+ hours a week and face demeaning reprimands if goals are not meet, because they want to be part of Elon Musk’s vision of building a colony on Mars with SpaceX, or decreasing the dependency on fossil fuels by building electric cars (my favorite is the Roadster) or solar panels with Tesla.
  • The right vision creates meaning in workers’ lives. Leaders who have a vision that will attract people with the same values because they find more meaning in their work. People will commit more to that vision if they find a higher purpose in what they do. How did Mother Teresa build such a large ministry, she had a vision that attracts followers who are looking for more meaning in their life. Organizations that have a compelling vision that gives their employees meaning for their work, will get employees to be more engaged, which means more productivity, and higher profits, or donations.
  • The right vision establishes a standard of excellence. How does your vision statement define the organizations standards? The vision needs to provide people with the ability to measure how they’re doing in comparison to the vision. The vision also provides stakeholders a way to evaluate the organization’s worth to the larger society. Elon Musk’s standard of excellence is high, he demands 100+% from his employees, if they need to work 80 hour weeks to meet a goal, then they better do it or have a valid reason why they didn’t, and what they plan to do to get it back on track.
  • The right vision bridges the present and future. When organizational leaders are forced to focus on daily operational commitments, the right vision helps them to link the present operational activities to the vision. When the vision is part of the organizations daily vocabulary, not only do the managers, but all employees, can see how their daily tasks contribute to the accomplishment of the vision. That is why it’s important for leaders to help their followers to understand how their daily work relates to the vision. It reminds me of when someone asked the NASA janitor back in the 1960’s what his job was and he responded, “It’s to put a man on the moon.” The janitor understood that if he didn’t do hthe best job he could, he would impact that vision.

When the leader of an organization develops an inspiring vision and communicates it with enthusiasm, followers are empowered to move toward achieving the vision. As Burt Nanus states, “Developing and promulgating such a vision is the highest calling and truest purpose of leadership, for people instinctively “follow the fellow who follows the dream.””

Visionary leaders fail when their vision doesn’t include other people, or the vision is more important than other people. Great achievements do not happen by just one person, but a group of people. You can read a number of success and failure stories on how leaders reach a high level of success, and then they lose it all due to a character flaw. When leaders lose their ability to influence followers, they lose the ability to achieve their vision.

What are the qualities and abilities of true visionary leaders?   Here’s a couple of bullet points I pulled out of the number of references I read. Visionary leaders must:

  • Create strategies that are “outside the box” of conventional thought.
  • Be willing to take initiative and stand for something they believe in.
  • Be ready to take the responsibility of leadership.
  • Be ready to accept criticism and doubt, even from those closest to them.
  • Anticipate change and be proactive.
  • Focus on opportunities, not problems.
  • Listen and learn from other points of view to fine tune the vision and develop action plans.
  • Give followers a sense of hope and confidence in achieving the vision.
  • Work to unite–rather than divide– people.
  • Create specific, achievable goals and initiate action.

The most effective visionary leaders are responsive to the real needs of people and helps them to design their own futures. They inspire people to be better than they already are and helps them to identify what Abraham Lincoln called, “the angels of their better nature.”  Visionary leaders have the ability to sense the deeper spiritual needs of followers and link their current demands to these deeper, often unspoken, need for purpose and meaning.

To top visionaries keep communicating their vision to create a strong energy field which turns the vision into physical reality. You need to energize people around the vision, the more people thinking about achieving it the more power, or energy, the vision gets.

An example of a visionary leader from my local community of Bismarck/Mandan ND is Sister Kathleen Atkinson. I reflect back to when I first heard talk about her vision in 2011. In 2012 she started Ministry on the Margins and it keeps growing. The vision starts with an idea to add value to others, and with enough passion, it grows.

How important is it to develop the skills to be a more visionary leader? The Forbes article, “If You Want To Be ‘CEO Material,’ Develop These 15 Traits,” states having a vision is number two on the list, right after passion. But of course, without a compelling vision, you wouldn’t have passion.

Is one of the reasons why employees are so disengaged at work because there isn’t a vision being communicated to give them meaning for their work? If all they’re doing is showing up to work for a paycheck, then they may not inspired to give 100%, maybe only 50%, just enough to stay out of trouble.

Is your organization pursuing its vision? Do the employees even know what the vision is? What I find surprising is when the top leaders don’t even know what it is. If leaders are unfamiliar with the vision, how do they make daily operational decisions that could either negatively, or positively impact the organization?

“Where there is no vision, the people shall perish.”

~ Proverbs 29:18




  1. Visionary Leadership, Burt Nanus
  2. The Leadership Experience, Richard L. Daft
  3. Leadership and Performance Beyond Expectations, Bernard M. Bass
  4. Elon Musk, Ashlee Vance
  5. Mother Teresa In Her Own Words, Mother Teresa
  6. Visionary Leadership,”  The Center for Visionary Leadership
  7. “If You Want To Be ‘CEO Material,’ Develop These 15 Traits,”  Forbes Magazine

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