contemplating visionary leadership pros and cons by staring at a plant optical illusion on a beach

The Pros and Cons of Visionary Leadership

It was the hundredth time I’d heard her say it: “I’m starting my college and doing international speaking engagements. Then I’ll have my own TV channel and leadership conference. Oh, and I’ll be doing world tours every year with my band…” 

This friend was several decades older than me. And had no real business success behind her. 

Her claims were hard to believe. In fact, they always made me cringe whenever I heard them… which was almost every day. 

I’d think, and sometimes say: Dial it down! Get grounded! Start with something small like a meetup out of your home like normal people would do…  

This person was a visionary… but one totally out of balance. 

You see, for all the visionary leaders that succeed, many more thousands fail. Why is this? 

Well it’s a style that’s the most fantastic if used in balance with other traits. But it can be one of the trickiest – even most dangerous – styles of leadership if not grounded properly. 

If you’re looking to understand the pros and cons of visionary leadership – you’re in the right place! 

What is the Visionary Style of Leadership? 

By now there’s been a TON of research into leadership styles, and the visionary style of leadership has been analyzed, demystified, and understood inside and out. 

I’m a big believer in defining terms, so let’s start there. 

A quick look at a dictionary tells all. Definitions of visionary run the gamut from positive to negative. 

On the plus side, Merriam-Webster tells us it’s an adjective meaning: “having or marked by foresight and imagination” 

Then, the Collins dictionary tells us it’s someone with “strong original ideas, about how things might be different in the future, especially about how things might be improved.”  I also like this one: “a person of strong and creative imaginative power and, often, the ability to inspire others.”

But when you scroll down through all of the British and American versions of the word, you also start getting a slew of negative associations such as: “unrealistic” and “impractical” “existing only in the mind” and finally “a person whose ideas, plans, etc. are impractical, too idealistic, or fantastic; dreamer.”

So, that’s “visionary”.

Next up is leadership. Merriam-Webster defines leadership as “capacity to lead”. 

Okay, what does to lead mean?  Let’s look. 

The first definition is straightforward: to guide on a way especially by going in advance.” But “to lead” can also mean to serve as a channel for (example: a pipe leads water to the house).”

Visionary Leadership

Putting these words together, “visionary leadership” seems to mean guiding others through a focus on the big picture, in a way that’s often inspirational. 

On the darker side, it represents leading others over a cliff, like the legendary Pied Piper… mobilizing others toward a vision that’s not well thought out or grounded in reality. 

Daniel Goleman on Visionary Leadership

Daniel Goleman is the author of Primal Leadership, a book that describes his 6 Leadership Styles. (He also wrote the book Emotional Intelligence).  

According to Goleman, Visionary Leadership is just one of the 6 Leadership Styles. It’s a perfectly valid and effective leadership mode, as long as it’s used appropriately, in the right kind of context or moment.

Goleman maintains the visionary leadership style should be used in turn with other styles, not treated as a fixed identity.  

He says that visionary leaders are heavy on the big picture: “Visionary leaders articulate where a group is going, but not how it will get there – settling people free to innovate, experiment, and take calculated risks.”  

In his book he further elaborates that the core of leadership in general is emotional in nature. A leader helps others regulate their emotions (they’re the most watched) and they set the tone and overall messaging for the group.

“At its root, then, the primal job of leadership is emotional.” Goleman says in Primal Leadership

Who is Visionary Leadership For? 

Visionary leadership is a hat that can be worn by anyone when they need to inspire and mobilize others toward a big picture. 

The Harvard Business Review published revealing research about just how essential it is for management at all levels of an organization to embrace the visionary leadership style: “Visionary leadership is not just important for senior managers; it also matters for middle and lower level managers, who play a key role in carrying out strategic change.” 

But the key is that, for an effective organization, visions across managerial levels must be aligned. Without that alignment, a group can’t proceed in a productive or cohesive direction.

So again, this leadership style is for everyone! But if you want to really steer a ship somewhere, you must make every effort to get others on board with your vision.

Let’s look at visionary leadership pros and cons now. 

Beautiful Pros of Visionary Leadership

Vision – what’s not to love about it? It’s the stuff of dreams, poetry, magic, and great things.

It’s inspirational to yourself and others. In fact, “without vision the people perish.”

At their very best, visionary leaders use their gifts to envision and express the very best of human spirit, human nature, and possibilities for life on this earth. They’re blessed to touch an ideal and showing a possibility and pathway for making it real.

Generally emotionally positive, influential and engaging to others, these leaders are often charismatic. They’re able to impart a sense of meaning to others, and captivate others with their presence. People look up to them, even want to be like them.

Again, like Goleman says, they’re setting the emotional tone and helping define meaning and direction for their group.

Practicalities: When and Why It’s Effective

Goleman describes: “Knowing the big picture and how a job fits in gives people clarity; they understand what’s expected of them. And the sense that everyone is working toward shared goals builds team commitments: People feel pride in belonging to their organization.” 

The visionary leadership style used appropriately is great for building teams. It can unite people and get them working in harmony towards the same goals. It also allows for creativity, as the path for attaining group goals isn’t prescribed. 

This style is most well known for inspiring long-term goals, but it can also communicate the need to avoid certain situations. For example, a visionary leader might explore the following questions with their team: “What would happen if we got every single one of our orders wrong?  What if we never sold anything? Why is that something we should try to avoid?”

In fact, it’s a good idea to “paint a picture” for anything big you embark on as a team. 

For example, you can ask: “Why are we starting this new project? What are we trying to do? Why is it important?” You want to elicit answers from your group, and make sure people are clear on the “why” behind everything you’re doing.

It also goes back to psychologist Ellen Langer’s 1977 study that highlights the power of the word “because.” It turns out people are orders of magnitude more like to say “yes” to your request if you simply explain your reasons to them.

Cons of Visionary Leadership

Along with the pros, the visionary leadership style has plenty of cons too.

Most of the downsides tend to happen when someone gets “stuck” in visionary mode for too long. When that happens, visionary leaders eventually become ungrounded and lose touch with reality.

In fact, they can become so absorbed in their vision, they neglect and take for granted the other parts of their life. “Without thoughtful planning, leaders can experience both physical and mental-health issues as a result of their work, and their relationships with loved ones can deteriorate,” says the Harvard Business Review.  

At their worst, they’re not clear on the steps for achieving their grandiose visions. Imagine a self-appointed visionary saying “I see us all living in a colony on Mars within the next 2 years.” Of course, that’s an intriguing idea. But the logical next question is “How?”

Unbalanced visionary leaders won’t have an answer… but they’re still insistent about the possibility. They can’t shake the vision!

The visionary leadership style isn’t appropriate for moments when the focus needs to be on short term results.  Leadership that doesn’t back to the granular details of budgets and day to day operations at a certain point has lost its way.

It also has to be robust enough to handle when conflicting visions sprout up on a team. If competing visions aren’t reconciled, then most likely the organization won’t reach its potential.

How Effective Visionary Leaders Communicate

According to data scientist Noah Zandan, effective visionary leaders have a specific way of communication. 

Effective visionary leaders have actually bridged the gap between brilliant ideas scribbled in a notebook and – communicating them with the public in real time. 

Many people picture descriptions of the future when they hear the term “visionary”. But the most effective visionaries speak largely in the present tense. Says Zandan, “They communicate 15% more about today and 14% less about tomorrow versus the average communicator.” 

And he relays this data point about Elon Musk: “He uses 4 times as much present tense versus future tense as compared with the average communicator. He’s always talking about now.” 

Next, the world’s top visionaries communicate 20% more clearly than the average communicator.  They’re not highly complex. How do you measure this clarity? Zandan says, “It’s fewer syllables per word. It’s fewer words per sentence. It’s a really clear topical cause and effect.” 

Finally, effective visionaries use 60% more second-person pronouns like “you” and “your.” They also use 38% more perceptory language, describing how things touch, smell, and feel. 

Why Some People Get Stuck in “Visionary” Mode (My Story) 

Effective visionary leaders also know how and when to switch gears into one of the other leadership styles. They’re aware of the pros and cons of visionary leadership and they stay versatile. They don’t get stuck.

But why DO some people find themselves stuck? We can quickly at my own story as an example.

I found myself stuck in visionary mode for years and years.  Fortunately, the only person I was really trying to lead was myself, so not too many others were harmed in the process. 

A lot of self-analysis over the years, plus some insight absorbed from others, finally showed me the truth.

My fatal flaw for so long was that I was afraid to let go of the big picture.  Afraid that if I let go of it – it would disappear, be forgotten, & never come to pass.

But, too often, that fixation, & the underlying fear, kept me from taking action.

And it made me ineffective, as obsessing on a final outcome really doesn’t help it happen any faster. 

By the way, a lot of this fear came from a culture that praised me for talent not for effort.

Indeed, from a young age I was praised as a “great writer” a “genius” an “artist”…

Which ended up being a surprisingly toxic label to put on a young person, as it set up a massive and paralyzing fear of failure within me.

“What if… people got it wrong?” I’d think deep down. “What if I show what I have inside and – it turns I’m not any of these things… If that’s the case, then who am I?”

(Probably a boring failure, my mind would fill in…)

All Ideas and Zero Output

I was so preoccupied with the idea of being a “genius” (read: afraid of showing myself in case I really wasn’t one!) that for too long, I was all ideas & almost zero output.

I simply knew that my “all-seeing”, visionary nature would be rewarded and my greatness would be revealed to all… somehow… eventually…

During these years, I was a professional idea-gatherer, if there was such a thing. I accumulated vast piles of notebooks full of notes, quotes, drawings.  I desperately intended to have something larger to show for them “one day”, but I just never could figure out what…

In the meantime, I kept dreaming…. And stacking notebooks. 

A full-on visionary… waiting for the leadership part to kick in, somehow…

Troubleshooting guide for Visionaries 

We’ve looked at the pros and cons of visionary leadership.

Now, let’s just accept that – it is what it is. Maybe you’re doing your best to stay balanced, but you find yourself frequently in the visionary mode.

That’s all good! Let’s do some troubleshooting of common imbalances that arise.

Honestly most of the time, the solution comes down to getting more grounded in yourself and in your leadership skills, starting with self-leadership. But let’s a elaborate a bit more on each common problem. 

Are you too in your head?

One thing I’ve learned in life is that fixating on the final outcome doesn’t work.

It’s great to be able to soar up into the eagle eye view of what could be, and necessary to some extent.  But the real work of creating is done by *losing yourself*.

Or rather by forgetting about the big picture entirely, in favor of the repetitive process of weaving the weft and warp, over and over and over again.

Eventually, after hours, days, weeks, whatever – you look up — and lo and behold you are about a third, maybe halfway done….

That’s life.  That’s projects, work, health, relationships, financial accumulation.

We are so programmed to be an instant gratification society that we too often lose sight of the slow, gradual, cumulative way so much of life works.

So – be willing to get a little bit lost in the moment. Whenever you can build your “trust muscle”. Or rather, build the habit of trusting that if you let go, you will always find your way back to the bigger picture again. It will still be there!

Do you feel misunderstood? 

I speak as someone who has worn as almost a badge of honor & identity for so much of my adult life that I was a “big picture thinker”, a “visionary”. 

Which is actually kind of genuinely cool to an extent. But then I would wonder…. Why do I have so little to show for it?  Why do I feel so consistently misunderstood & misinterpreted by people? Why don’t they respect what I have inside that I have a great mind and great ideas?

I eventually realized the answer to these questions is simple:  People are not mind-readers!

For the most part, they need to be shown not told.

As

And certainly not made to mind-read and guess. As author Wallace D. Wattles says in his book The Science of Being Great, “The world needs demonstration more than it needs teaching.”

So, a visionary I was… but as a leader, or someone making an impact on the world, I felt like a failure.

Something was missing…

The solutions?

  • Again, show not tell.
  • Focus on the basics of leadership, especially social skills.
  • Also, make efforts to find your people.

As a visionary, you probably have a sensitivity to life… and that’s okay. You’re not the only one! Find other people that value what you do and then focus on showing up for them regularly. Not just to “lead” them, but just to be a human with them. To be social, to be a friend. Healing that part of yourself that feels weird and misunderstood may serve you much more powerfully in your life than anything else you could do.

Are you lonely? 

Remember that being “a leader” does not place you above others. Instead, remember leadership is an inherently emotional and relational affair! 

I challenge you to try to find more depth and joy in your service to others. 

Remember that visionary leaders are effective when they can reach in and create a genuine dialogue with other people. 

In fact, it might more helpful to think in terms of influence rather than leadership – since the former brings to mind less of a hierarchical dynamic.

Consider building from the foundation of the pyramid and just showing up with people more. It’s the same advice as for feeling misunderstood. Try to find your people, those who value similar things. Reach out to family and people from the past if that’s an option.

Don’t discount the power of showing up regularly in front of the same people over and over. Fondness often grows from familiarity. And simple proximity to others, is how we most often weave the fabric of society. Whether it’s a coworker, a neighbor, or a mailman, we get to know people as we see them regularly, over and over.

Embrace the human condition. Accept our common humanity, how “we’re all in it together.” Drop the sense of being overly “special” that comes from your visionary qualities – and look for what’s special in nature, people, and the world around you!

Are you broke? 

Try putting the vision down and focusing on the short-term for a change. Take “massive action” – or even better, imperfect action. In a word, hustle!

Money-making plans are lovely, good, and essential. But at a certain point you’ve got to pare your plan for world domination down to bite-sized chunks. Make sure you can get from point A to point B and point C before you become too excited about point F… let alone point Z!

Like I keep saying in general… At a certain point in the plan you’ve got to forget the plan – put your head down and work!

And especially always bring things down to the level of other people – and numbers. Do other people in your target audience understand and get what you’re doing? Are they engaging with you and your brand regularly? What are some markers you can set up to measure that engagement?

Think of these questions like a grounding practice. And keep in mind that sometimes the next steps you take should be going out and getting a job to improve your cash flow.

Make a habit of thinking practically and going step-by-step. That approach will tend to serve you much better than trying to leap up the mountain in a single bound!

The General Solution to Visionary Imbalances

We’ve now seen the pros and cons of visionary leadership over and over, from a variety of different angles.

The overarching solution for someone stuck in an imbalanced visionary mode is to learn to trust in the big picture. That if an idea is truly meant to be realized, it will still be there, even if I let go.

In my case, I’ve had to learn to stay in the present moment, like an artisan repetitively planing some wood, or working on a spinning pot. I surrender to the grind and to the often repetitive nature of the actual work required to accomplish the big picture.

And I’ve learned to respect that an important part of the big picture is maintaining my health, connection to Spirit, and personal relationships. So time must be allocated on a daily basis for these areas of life too.

Again, this requires trust. 

And it occurs to me that spending more time in the moment, and in deep trust, in things like repetition, service, and ritual – and simply not overthinking things so much –  is a wonderful way to live.

Humility and a Change in Attitude 

I also had to humble myself. I don’t know everything. I’m not a magical sage or oracle who “just knows.” 

And I made the conscious choice to adopt more down to earth approaches, like the idea of “learning by doing” and “everything is a test.” 

Which was basically inviting in and involving the real world more!  

Associated ideas:

Power of Now, Mindfulness 

Chop Wood, Carry Water

The Tao of Leadership Takes Both Yin and Yang

All of that said, a wise coworker reminded me that – after the vision, must come the plan.  A plan, a strategy, becomes the intermediary between the glorious Vision and the rote work to achieve it.

Without a plan, without grounding action steps in the real world, in real life — visionary leaders fail.

A peaceful, productive approach to life requires using both sides of our brain. In this case the left brain of critical thinking and structure, supports the right brain with its intuitions, visions, and longings, and link to embodiment.  

This brings us both effectiveness in the real world, and peace of mind as we know we’re on track with our soul’s dreams and sense of purpose.

Look deep within for your vision, and go from there.

The result is greater sustainability of our projects and the efforts we’re making towards them.

What are the biggest Visionary Leadership Pros and Cons to you? 

I’d love to hear more about your thoughts and experiences with this topic.

What are the the most brilliant pros or the darkest cons of the visionary leadership style, as far as you’re concerned?

Please, please – leave a comment below!

 
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