No vision, no future: the need for visionary leadership
“Leadership is the quality to translate vision into reality”
In the current VUCA world in which we live, it is difficult for Executive Boards and/or management to lead organisations in a particular direction. After all, society is changing so fast that it is almost impossible to hold a steady course. New leaders often have to find their own way. These leaders have the boldness and courage to break new ground. They are often target-oriented and good at giving direction and guidance. To be accepted and followed as a leader, however, it is also necessary to have a clear vision that is upheld at all times, no matter what happens... And this is a quality that is lacking in our hectic society. So it is time for the visionary leaders to stand up and be counted.
Vision and visionary leadership
We spoke previously about Agility, which is the ability to adapt that (new) leaders must possess. These learning leaders move with our changing society. With their fluctuating leadership style, however, one thing needs to be as steady as a rock: having and adhering to a clear vision.
In addition to Agility, Vision is one of the VUCA leadership principles that create the basis for the success of future leaders and their business results. Leaders must have a vision, they must be visionaries. A visionary leader is a leader that is driven in everything that he does by a clear vision that is woven into the entire company, that is valued throughout the organisation and that is visible in the smallest details, in terms of both the work and the employees.
‘The visionary leader inspires with a vision and helps others to see how they can contribute to this vision; allowing the leader and followers to move together towards a shared view of the future’ – Dennis Goleman, 2002
Effective leaders with a story
Visionary leaders are effective leaders. They acknowledge that the processes, steps and methods of leadership are achieved with and by people. The dynamic changes in today’s corporate surroundings dictate that leaders should involve their team members in the realisation of an inspirational vision. Effective leaders inspire and motivate the people around them to become enthusiastic followers that aspire to the vision at all times.
Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela were well-known visionaries. Leaders with a clear goal in mind. Pioneers of their time, out and out ‘inspirers’. Nowadays their strong visions are still being pursued by their supporters. Today’s visionaries include Steve Jobs and Barack Obama. What these leaders have in common is a convincing story and the talent to convey that story to others. An effective leader must not only be a visionary on paper but must also be good at storytelling.
Storytelling involves telling an authentic story that existing customers and prospects can identify with. A story that attracts potential employees, inspires existing employees and communicates your vision in a unique way. Both internally and externally, you create awareness and empathy for your organisation. You respond to the feelings of your audience. Needless to say, the story must be consistent with your personal and/or professional (corporate) vision. But perhaps the most important thing is that a leader truly believes in the story that he is telling…
Practice what you preach
A groundbreaking vision must contribute to the focus, goal and usefulness of the organisation, both internally and externally. This is at its most powerful when the entire organisation is imbued with the vision and the vision is adhered to on all levels of the organisation: in HR, marketing, advertising, production, etc. It serves as the basis for employing the right people – after all, a person who doesn’t share the same vision doesn’t fit in the organisation. This applies not only to leaders, but also to (new) employees, suppliers, partners, etc.; if they don’t share the same philosophy, it won’t be possible to work with them.
Besides storytelling, authenticity is one of the main attributes of a visionary leadership. Practice what you preach: if you don’t believe in the story yourself, you can’t convey it to others. This can be clearly illustrated with the help of IKEA: a Board member or manager preaches the basic way of life during working hours, but in his free time drives expensive cars, eats in the most exclusive restaurants and lives in an enormous villa. This is absolutely inconsistent with the organisation’s mission and vision. So it is only logical that the curtain will fall for that person in the long term; after all, his behaviour doesn’t match the story. When people behave in this way, they are not credible as leaders.
In reality, IKEA is a good example of an organisation with a successful mission and vision. The organisation’s vision is ‘to create a better everyday life for as many people as possible’. Their mission: ‘offer a wide range of well designed, functional home furnishing products for the lowest possible prices that as many people as possible can afford’. The related standards and values have been implemented throughout the organisation, and the Board and employees also live according to ‘their’ vision outside the organisation.
Every founder is the lifeline of his company, as it were: he has created the company with a particular (groundbreaking) mission and vision: how should it look, how must everything work, what message do we want to get across, what do we stand for? The entire organisation acts according to this ‘owner’s mindset’. Often with a fixation on the front line, which is that part of the organisation that the customer comes in contact with first and which can in most cases deal with the customer’s problem. After all, this is what the outside world sees and this is the company’s image. These qualities are fundamental for what we call the founder’s mentality. In its purest form, the founder's mentality exists in companies that are led by their founder, or companies in which the clear influence of that founder is still perceptible in the principles, standards and values on which the daily decisions and behaviour of the Board, management and employees are based.
IKEA is again an excellent example of an organisation that is driven by a founder's mentality. IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad has even documented his mission and vision in his book ‘The Testament of a Furniture Dealer’ so that he can be assured that his philosophy will also be conveyed and upheld after his death.
A clear vision helps a leader to lead without having to be directive. And this is desirable because circumstances change so fast that you cannot control them as a leader. That is why that vision is necessary. It is the focus on the future, the lighthouse that shows you the way. The vision itself is an established fact, but not how this vision is pursued. It doesn’t matter how you get to your ultimate goal. As Nelson Mandela once declared:
“The ways we try to achieve our goals depend on the context. They change with the circumstances, even when we remain steadfast in our dedication to our vision.”
This certainly applies in the hectic world in which we now live. If the way to reach the ultimate goal was pre-ordained, that would block innovation. People need freedom to find their way. After all, today’s leadership requires flexibility and agility. Everything can change tomorrow and the trick is to move with it without losing sight of the vision. An effective leader focuses on the ultimate goal and is at all times prepared to put up with all the associated bumps and obstacles on the way to that ultimate goal.
But why is visionary leadership so important at this point in time? We live in a somewhat visionless age. But the generation of job seekers now entering the market is very sensitive to a good, strong vision. It is important for them to work in an organisation with a story. They want a job that is meaningful and that gives them the feeling that they can contribute to a higher goal. If there is no vision, the organisation will not attract the right people and the survival of the organisation in that preferred configuration will be endangered. In short: no vision, no future… ?
This is the second article in a series of articles that the Leadership Academy Amsterdam will publish in 2019 about the Leadership of the Future. If you are interested in the first article or if you would like a preview one of the articles to follow, please go to Leadership Academy Amsterdam