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What is Visionary Leadership?

Cash Lambert

Managing Editor

Today’s business world is spinning at the speed of now. Whether you are a CEO, employee or entrepreneur you’ve experienced it. Mountains of data updated every hour are available on customers and their behaviors — “these need to be checked now.” Pivotal industry changes happen in the now, leaving companies and their strategies reeling. The constant distraction of social media is showcasing what happening right now — and if you haven't seen it or heard the news, you and your company are behind. 

With so much focused on the changes happening at the speed of now, how do companies balance knowing when to pivot or when to stay the course? Moreover, how do they achieve not just business goals, but a vision? 

What’s needed is someone who can motivate employees to stay focused and achieve a vision of the organization. 

But this is not simply a leader. This is a visionary leader.

What Is a Visionary Leader?

To answer the question of what is a visionary leader, we need to first define visionary leadership.

A visionary leader casts a vision, helps others to see how they can be a part of turning that vision into reality and leads the collective movement towards the completion of the vision. 

Let’s break down the three parts of this definition. 

Casting A Vision

This is what is a visionary leader is: someone who casts a vision, a long-term goal that, when achieved, separates your organization, it’s products and its process from everyone else. 

The vision not only explains where you want your team to be 5 years from now in terms of metrics such as profitability. It details how you will bring change to your industry and your customers — for the better. 

Help Others See The Vision

In order to turn a vision to fruition, a visionary leader needs the help of others. This may require the help of a few employees or even thousands spread across different timezones. 

The visionary leader doesn’t just share the vision with others; he or she also shares how the team is going to reach it — how much time it will take, what it will entail, and how each person is integral to the mission. 

In order to do this, a visionary leader has to create or redesign systems and processes to ensure that employees are prepared for the work. Creating a different process may not immediately pay off, but it has the potential to have significant long-term implications for success in the near future. 

By frontloading this work, your business won’t be left scrambling to catch up in the coming years when the industry shifts. We’ll take a look at specific examples of this — for example, how Netflix shifted it’s business model and is now an industry leader thanks to that visionary change — later on in the article. 

Move Together To The Completion Of The Goal

It is the role of a visionary leader to cast the vision, help others see the vision, and monitor the steps to the completion.

This requires creating and maintaining achievable goals and mile markers throughout the process and motivating employees to reach these on or ahead of time. 

It also requires a balancing act: if a process isn’t working near to what was expected, and the visionary leader is responsible for creating and pitching a solution in the form of a pivot to the company. 

Are You A Visionary Leader?

Now that we’ve answered what is a visionary leader let’s move on. Here are some questions to ask yourself to see if you’re a visionary leader. Remember to be honest — you can’t develop yourself if you don’t admit you need development.

Take a minute to think about and write down your answers.

  1. Are you constantly thinking of ways to innovate your job, team, or organization?
  2. Do you love or loathe change?
  3. When you fail — do you try again, or do you move on to the next thing so you don’t spend any more time on a failed task?
  4. Do you consult data or “your gut”/”Intuition” when deciding how to take action?
  5. What is the furthest ahead that you’ve pictured when evaluating how a hypothetical process will turn out?

Now that you have your answers, below is how a visionary leader would have answered the questions.

  1. Are you constantly thinking of ways to innovate your job, team, or organization? Yes
  2. Do you love or loathe change? Love
  3. When you fail — do you try again, or do you move on to the next thing so you don’t spend any more time on a failed task? Try again
  4. Do you consult data or “your gut”/”Intuition” when deciding how to take action? Data
  5. What is the furthest ahead that you’ve pictured when evaluating how a hypothetical process will turn out? While this varies on the project and when the expected result will happen, this can range from 90 days to 5 years.  

If you have different answers than the above, then you may not be a visionary leader quite yet — and that’s ok). It’s critical to understand what is a visionary leader before moving forward.

Next, let’s discuss how being a visionary leader can accelerate your career — and how not being one can be a detriment.

How Can Being a Visionary Leader Help Your Career?

Knowing what is a visionary leader and being that visionary leader can have a significant impact on your career.

Short Term

Employees don’t want to just work for a company for a paycheck. And business owners don’t want to hire an employee to just punch the clock. An employee wants to find a company that they feel they are part of something bigger with purpose, and business owners want to find a worker who believes in it. 

All this to say that a visionary leader can attract an all-star team of people who are willing to work with them on a high level to achieve their vision. 

Thus, being a visionary leader can accelerate the growth of the company. 

Long Term

Being a visionary leader at one company, such as a startup, can attract the can springboard you to success at another, more established, company. 

How Can Not Being A Visionary Leader Hurt Your Career?

Not knowing what is a visionary leader can hurt your career, whether you’re an entrepreneur or an employee. 

The truth is that employees want to know where their organization is going, and how it’s going to reach that point.

Regardless of personality types — for example, someone who prefers a structure in their job or someone who “goes with the flow” — employees want to know what their purpose at the company. 

Without a visionary leader, employees won’t know where the company is going. Someone needs to cast and communicate the vision so the organization, and its employees, can be successful. 

This ensures everyone is being proactive instead of reactive.

When employees know the vision, they can use that vision to guide their decisions, both inside and outside of their role. The vision helps them understand how they can execute the vision for the organization. 

For example, some business owners incorporate incentives in an employee's contract. This not only adds extra financial motivation for the worker to reach goals — the employee’s goals are aligned with the companies, and growth increases.

When you don’t communicate the vision, and employees don’t know their role in executing that vision, they will feel like they’re “just taking orders”. 

It de-values the team’s efforts instead of motivating them to work together.

Visionary Leaders To Learn From

Because experience is the best teacher, let’s look at the experience of how visionary leaders changed their industry and the lives of their customers. 

Reed Hastings

While many may not know the name Reed Hastings, it’s a surefire bet that you have heard of the company he founded: Netflix.

Reed Hastings founded Netflix in 1997, and the vision behind the company was ahead of its time. Instead of driving to local video stores to rent movies, consumers could have movies shipped to them for a low price. It instantly saved time and made it easy for the customer. 

But, like all visionary leaders, Hastings wasn’t done innovating. In 1999, he laid the vision for the company's new business model. Instead of a DVD-rental-copy business, Netflix shifted to become a streaming service. 

Why the change? Netflix was already successfully establishing itself with the DVD-by-mail business. Plus, at the time, streaming didn’t exist. What’s more, most people weren't even familiar with the term! 

Hastings saw what the future could be, and prepared his company to meet that change head-on. Today, Netflix boasts over 150 million subscribers worldwide and is the go-to streaming service for entertainment.

Had Netflix stayed a DVD rental copy business, it would be like the other business in that industry: out of business. 

Billy Beane

Billy Beane was the manager of the Oakland Athletics from 1998 to 2016. His story and leadership methods were so fascinating that they were detailed in a book and a subsequent film — Moneyball. 

In 2003, the Athletics had the third-lowest salary cap in baseball, meaning that they had the third least amount of money to pay players in the league. Because of this, they couldn’t sign talented players demanding high salaries. 

Instead of doing what they always did, Beane cast a vision. He, along with his team, started analyzing baseball players differently. Instead of relying on scouts (who would say a guy “just has it”, where “it” is an undefinable quality that you can’t measure), they started relying on a statistical analysis of players. They researched and found which statistics were worth paying attention to. 

This new model changed the way the team recruited players. Instead of pursuing major names and relying on “gut feelings”, they relied on a vision and data that determined the value of a player by his stats and not his name.

This formula not only gave them a winning record in the following season — the team reached the playoffs two years in a row, even with significant payroll limitations. 

Their baseball players — on contracts of only hundreds of thousands of dollars — were beating other teams who’s players were on million-dollar contracts. 

This way of thinking caught on like wildfire. It changed the way other baseball teams chose players, and soon every team who wasn’t using Beane’s method of evaluating and signing players were left in the dust, relegated as a dinosaur. 

Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger

Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger aren’t household names, but the product they created is. The chances are, you’ve used it in the last hour: Instagram.

Back in 2010, Facebook and Twitter were dominating social media. It seemed as though there was no room for any other social media site.

Systrom and Krieger wanted to create another social network, so they started an app that let people check-in at places that their friends would see online called Burbn.

Through their research, they discovered other apps already in the market that had similar functions to their app, so they pivoted cast a new vision and decided to focus on mobile photography.

Undeterred, they decided to develop a product that focused on communication and connection through images. In 2010, they released the app under a new name — building Instagram —  with the vision of connecting people all over the world through their photos.

Nine years later, Instagram has over 1 billion users and is the go-to social media app. 

How To Become A Visionary Leader

Now that you know the answer to the question of what is a visionary leader and the impact a visionary leader can have, you have to ask yourself how you can become a visionary leader. Even if you already consider yourself one, this section can serve as a refresher. 

Below are some practical tips you can start using now to develop yourself into a visionary leader.

Learn About Your Industry Outside Of Your Organization

When you look at opportunities only from within your organization, you are seeing a small percentage of your industry. 

Subscribe to industry magazines, attend conferences — do everything to learn where your industry currently is and more importantly where it is heading. 

Build Relationships Outside Of Your Department And Your Office

This is what is a visionary leader does: connects unrelated dots and turns them into a long-term goal. 

To do this, spend time with members of your organization that you haven’t, such as the middle managers of other areas, to gain perspective and information to see if you need to make any changes to your current process. 

Also, build relationships outside of your office with similar businesses in and outside of your industry to further learn about their processes and their strategy. 

Use Data To Make Decisions

With all the data available in the world, relying on “your gut” and “intuition” is not a proven method anymore. 

You need to analyze where the market is trending and where it is headed. You need to get feedback from your customers (focus groups, online surveys, etc.) to find out what they are looking for in an organization to develop where you need to head.

With constant change and competition, teams need leaders who have a long term goal that is exciting, motivating, and innovative. Your employees and your organization need you to think 3 steps ahead of everyone else as Reed Hastings did. 

Never Stop Learning

Commit to being a lifelong learner — through reading books and articles, watching online courses, and speaking with others that can help you. 

Visionary Leadership

You’ve already completed the first step — learning what is a visionary leader.

Now it’s important to determine what your next step will be, depending upon your career currently as well as your trajectory.

As you craft your vision, remember that you — thanks to visionary leadership — can be a part of a future success story that changes its industry as well as the lives of customers. 

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Written By

Cash Lambert

Cash Lambert is WealthFit's Managing Editor. He is the author of Waves of Healing: How Surfing Changes the Lives of Children with Autism.