The company visionary is the leader who poses the biggest leadership risk to the business. Visionaries, by nature, are overly optimistic risk takers. After all, they guide the organisation through transitions or difficult organisational eras.
Or, for a start-up they often create products that resonate with customers once they see them, but where the customer themselves would not have thought to ask for such a product. They are the leaders who take a company through the unknown.
It is why they often lead start-ups and turnarounds. Those companies need confident risk takers to change the status quo. These companies often have ‘nothing to lose’ or ‘no choice’. They need to take the right risks or perish.
It is the visionary leader who can encourage and ignite a company to execute the vision.
However, these leaders often fail to follow through and bring their ideas to fruition. This was depicted in a 2019 article in Harvard Business Review entitled Why Visionary Leadership Fails. It notes that “…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.”
In other words, if the vision is not communicated and not executed throughout the organisation, the company is at higher risk for failure. This is highlighted by research from a team of business school professors at Duke, Vanderbilt, and Harvard. The research indicates that founder-run companies are less productive and more poorly managed than chief executives who were not founders.
So, being a great visionary is not enough to be a great leader.
While visionaries see the future and can infectiously inspire others, they can also be overly optimistic and not anticipate where things can go awry.
The obvious choice for one of the greatest visionary leaders was Steve Jobs. From the first Mac to the iPhone, he saw where the world was heading – then willed and motivated the company to get there. One might argue that today’s heralded leader is Jeff Bezos of Amazon.
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The pillars of great leadership
Being a visionary is just one of three pillars of incredible leadership. The other two pillars are ‘managers of execution’ and ‘relationship builders’. Between a well-articulated vision and ‘turning it into reality’ requires what I call ‘connecting the dots’. And, to connect the dots does require execution and relationships.
The leaders who have the ability to connect the dots excel at all three pillars of leadership. Those leaders are one in a thousand at best. Looking at Jobs, he might be the closest. He could communicate the vision, and demand relentless execution, yet he was reported to be an abusive manager.
Walter Isaacson – the former chief executive officer (CEO) of the Aspen Institute, professor at Tulane, and the author of Steve Jobs and other biographies – wrote in a 2012 article in the Harvard Business Review that “petulance and impatience were part and parcel of his perfectionism”.
Isaacson then asked Jobs if he had a tendency to be rough on people. Jobs replied, “Look at the results…we got some amazing things done.” So, Jobs was not a relationship builder. Two out of three leadership pillars can get you very far.
Visionaries who do not excel in either of the two other pillars need to recognise his or her shortcomings and fill in the gaps. It underscores that developing the vision for a company requires introspection and self-awareness by the leader. And, the self-awareness is beyond shortcomings in talent.
Maintaining a balanced approach
Visionaries can be overly impractical and unrealistic about market changes and outside threats. Case-in-point is I have seen CEOs at some start-ups change the vision with each announcement of a competitor. Or, they walk out of a meeting with a prospect to continuously change the strategy.
These leaders are incapable of delivering on one of their most important responsibilities: establishing and communicating a clear direction for the company and then reinforcing it repeatedly.
Their schizophrenic reactions to outside forces destroy the company’s ability to accomplish anything. While a great leader is able to receive new data and adjust accordingly, they need to be able to determine what is real and what is not.
The greatest visionaries have laser focus. They are able to identify a few key objectives and keep the organisation zeroed in on those few.
For some visionaries, they are more in love with communicating a new vision than executing the one at hand.
Therefore, a great visionary is also a great editor. He or she considers options for the company’s future, but gets the organisation to stick to two or three more important things.
A great visionary is inspiring and exciting and leads a company to incredible places. A visionary leader out of touch with themselves is risky business.