‘Visionary leadership’ is one of the phrases most bandied about these days, yet it is almost always an aspiration rather than a description.
A vision of what is possible is a prerequisite to visionary leadership. That vision can come from an individual, but more often it is the product of many people.
The vision that underpins visionary leadership is definitely not the ‘Vision’ that is encapsulated in a neat phrase and sits alongside the ‘Mission Statement’ and its ilk.
A vision needs to be something that people can ‘see’ in a way that makes them want to move towards it. There are seven primary characteristics to powerful visions that I identify:
- Compelling. Powerful visions must draw people, attract them, make them want to take action and overcome obstacles to achieve it. It must feel worth achieving, worth putting real effort into getting there.
- Achievable. A vision will only inspire action if people feel it is realistic and can be achieved, rather than simply a nice but impossible dream.
- Challenging. There must be a balance between having visions that are seen to be achievable, and that also challenge and stretch people. Too far either way and they lose power. However the right balance can inspire people beyond what they think of as their limits.
- Aligned. The vision must fit with the organization and its people, culture, and history. This requires an insider’s understanding of what will makes sense and work within the context, while possible stretching a little beyond.
- Inclusive. Too many visions focus on the interests of a limited group, such as one department or a single organization. Visions need to include the interests of the broadest possible community, well beyond the organization, in a way that everyone can see their value and can support them.
- Distinctive. Every organization is unique, and it is almost impossible to take another’s vision and expect it to be powerful. There is great power in a vision that is clearly distinctively relevant to the organization and people involved.
- Clear. A vision must be readily communicated and understood by a broad range of people. This doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to be simple, but the essence must be able to be captured and conveyed to achieve a common understanding.
Of course a powerful vision alone is not enough.
Leaders need to have the capabilities to co-create compelling, relevant visions with their teams and organizations.
Leaders absolutely also need to have a far broader set of capabilities to get groups to work hard to achieve those visions. There are always many challenges and difficulties on the path to any worthwhile vision. Effective leaders may use a well-articulated vision as a central theme to draw people forward, but they also need to keep teams aligned through the everyday realities and travails that underlie real achievement.