Visionary Leadership: What Does it Mean to be a Visionary Leader?

As the name suggests, visionary leadership is about foreseeing a vision for the future and giving it shape. Be it in a business or non-profit entity, or even an entire nation, a visionary leader has a clear picture in their mind about where they would like to take their organisation and how they would go about it.

In this article, we’ll explore what visionary leaders do and what the visionary leadership style consists of and how to use it to inspire your team members to success.

What is Visionary Leadership?

A visionary leader is an individual who has a vision of how the world should exist and then takes steps to get there. They inspire their people to believe in and commit to their vision, channelling the energy of the entire workforce to achieve it.

While visionary leadership is usually associated with flamboyant personalities such as Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, it is in no way restricted to such big names. By definition, visionary leaders are not satisfied with the status quo and instead see better ways of doing things.

For example, Amlan Ganguly, an Ashoka, and Director of Prayasam, a non-profit organisation, works tirelessly to transform disadvantaged communities in India through the participation of the communities’ children.

His vision of creating self-sustained communities with the youth being the drivers of change has inspired his associates to become visionary leaders in their respective areas of work. He has single-handedly inspired others to lead positive change.

So, it takes discipline and commitment to work unwaveringly towards a vision each day.

10 Characteristic Traits of a Visionary Leader

Leaders who subscribe to the visionary leadership style are tasked with moving the company into a broader direction, whilst promoting unity and tenacity to steer the organisation through times of uncertainty or change.

Often, when an organisation is looking to chart a new path of growth, a visionary leader is brought on board to steer the changes.

So, what is it that sets apart visionary leaders from others? Here are 10 of the most defining character traits of a visionary leader.

Seeing the Unseen

Visionary leaders have an uncanny ability to see the order in chaos. With their ability to see the big picture, they can rise above the seemingly chaotic environment, and see things with a bird’s-eye view.

They can find opportunities when all doors seem closed and opportunities during times of upheaval.

It was perhaps Abraham Lincoln’s vision of a just and equal society even in the face of a strongly entrenched system of slavery and the risk of political hara-kiri, that encouraged him to give all his efforts into giving life to his vision, even if it meant sacrificing his own life and career for the cause.

Visualizing the Vision for Others

A visionary leader is also a great storyteller. Not only do they inspire commitment from their team the, they convince everyone at large that this is a shared vision that is worth putting everything into.

President Obama’s call for “Yes we can!” resonated with millions of Americans and helped to channelize their energy towards building a better USA.

As Steve Jobs said, “If you are working on something exciting that you really care about, you don’t have to be pushed. The vision pulls you.”

Pairing Vision with Reality

Visionary leaders do not merely set forth a vision. They also lay out a clear path to achieve it.

Each vision is broken down into its various components and a chronological map is created with regards to when and how each of these components shall be fulfilled and how they will finally tie back together to give shape to the vision in its entirety.

Emotionally Intelligent

Emotional intelligence is one of the defining characteristics of visionary leaders. In order to drive the entire organisation and its employees towards a certain vision, making people believe and commit to this vision requires an enormous amount of interpersonal skills.

The leader must first be self-aware, understanding their own emotions and ways of reacting to various situations.

Having mastered self-awareness, visionary leaders are in a great position to empathise with the team in order to engage them positively and inspire others without being forceful and confrontational.

Innovative and Risk-Taking

Visionary leaders are often tasked with driving a major and visible change in an organisation. This is largely because creativity and innovation are inherently within them. They bring new ideas to current problems and inspire innovative change.

Visionary leadership does not shy away from taking risks. Known for their out-of-the-box thinking, a visionary leader is willing to fail to achieve the goals they can see in front of them. As the saying goes, higher risks entails greater rewards.

With their focus on the big picture for the organisation as a whole, a visionary leader must take certain risks. They instil this into their teams, opting to get a few things wrong as they learn to be better every day.

This is why Steve Jobs inspired his employees at Apple to innovate and continuously strive for better products for their consumers -helping create the legacy we see in Apple today.

Focused and Persistent

Visionary leaders show exemplary resilience in the face of adverse situations. This style of leadership banks on the ability to focus almost singularly on the big picture and to find opportunity in all difficult situations – to keep going and working through problem after problem, until they have achieved their vision.

Another aspect of this persistence is the constant push towards excellence. Visionary leaders know that in order to maintain a sustained competitive advantage, an organisation would constantly need to reinvent itself in the terms of products and services it provides.

Sir Alex Ferguson, the legendary Manchester United football coach, demonstrated this extraordinary skill as he consistently reinvented his teams over a 20 year period, whilst remaining at the top of their game.

He repeatedly rebuilt his entire squads, during the process of winning 13 league titles, 2 European cups as well as a club world cup.

Strategic and Organised

Without an organised and strategic mobilisation of resources, even the most well-formulated plans could go haywire. In addition to focusing on the future goals of the business, a leader must not lose sight of the present conditions and what needs to be changed to reach their vision.

Keeping abreast of the business environment helps leaders make effective strategic decisions, regarding the future path for the company and to adopt an organised approach to drive the business towards the desired objectives.

When Texas Commerce Bank embarked on a complete transformation of all its processes, they soon realised that their target of $50 million cost-out was not inspirational enough and the change project soon started to waver.

When they listened to this feedback, they remobilised their leaders to change the message, inspiring them to “eliminate what annoys customers and employees.”

Charismatic Communicators

Regardless of the size of the team or organisation that they are leading, visionary leaders across the board are almost invariably exceptional communicators.

While on one hand, they can clearly articulate their message in order to help the other party clearly understand what they wish to convey; on the other hand, they are great listeners. They make others feel valued and respected while participating in conversation, taking on board their views and ideas, too.

This characteristic trait immediately generates immense respect for the leaders among the employees and helps to cement their dedication to the vision.

Unbounded Optimism

Visionary leadership is synonymous with optimism. In the absence of such optimism, we can’t really expect them to chart a way to achieve their vision.

Sir Winston Churchill is one of the greatest optimistic leaders in history. He was skilled in the language of motivation.

Despite the British losing the war at the time, he was able to turn them around to believing in his vision for Britain’s future. His famous speech about fighting the Germans on the beaches is still used in motivational speeches today.

Sense of Responsibility

For all their risk-taking and optimistic ways of functioning, visionary leaders, almost invariably, have a strong internal locus of responsibility.

On one hand, they take up the responsibility to get a job done within the stipulated time, they inspire their team, empowering them to take responsibility to get things done, without ever blaming them for mistakes. You can hardly find such leaders blaming the situation or other eventualities for their failures.

If they have dared to dream and to share the dream with others, they are equally brave to face the nightmares.

Possible Setbacks for the Visionary Leadership Style

There are also certain pitfalls of this style of leadership that prospective leaders must be aware of.

Too Many Unrealistic Ideas

Visionary leaders may tend to suffer from the problem of the many. Even before the team has achieved one goal, the leader is already brimming with several more.

Many a time, these ideas turn out to be too unrealistic and a lot of resources are spent on them before the mistake is realised and this can set the company back in terms of a sustainable competitive advantage.

Fixation on the Leader’s Vision

Visionary leaders usually display an immensely charismatic persona. While this is instrumental in giving shape to their vision, it often leads to over fixation of the leader and their ideas. This has two potential drawbacks.

First, it often leads to the sacrifice of the present-day needs of the company, for the future vision that the leader has laid out.

Second, while the entire team is focused on the leader’s vision, a more viable and well-rounded idea by another team member may go unnoticed.

Organisational Whiplash

While a visionary leader is highly innovative, they often tend to lead the team in a completely different direction whenever motivation strikes to give life to a new idea. If done too frequently, this can negatively impact organisational productivity, focus and performance. It can have a cascading effect on employee morale and a loss of direction for the entire organisation.

Failure to Communicate the Vision

Visionary leaders can immaculately picturise their idea in their mind. So much so, that some may find it difficult to comprehend how others do not share the same clarity of vision.

The reality is that they may fail to communicate their vision clearly. If you’re a visionary leader, ensure you practice your communication skills, so you can improve in delivering unambiguous messages.

Failure to On-board Talent

A visionary leader is usually so confident of their inherent abilities to drive the business towards growth and prosperity, that they often overlook the need to onboard new and talented employees who could inject a stream of fresh thoughts and ideas into the team.

Thus, the teams under such leaders can sometimes run the risk of becoming obsolete and anachronous to the current demands of the business.

How to Mitigate These Shortcomings

This can be done both at the personal as well as organisational level.

At the personal level, prospective leaders need to temper their visionary traits with a focus on reality and take up a collaborative style of leadership, involving the employees both in the formulation of the vision as well as in achieving it.

However, this is more easily said than done.

Since the shortcomings are often characteristics features of visionary leaders, it is often a better idea to have a countervailing force in the form of a co-leader, who would be a hardcore rationalist, focusing almost singularly on results and taking ongoing projects to their logical conclusion before diving into a new project.