How to Be a Visionary Leader

Learn to spot early signals of change.

By Dori Meinert Nov 1, 2015
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HR Magazine November 2015When we think of corporate visionaries, we often call to mind larger-than-life personas such as Steve Jobs, Sheryl Sandberg or Oprah Winfrey. Perhaps that’s why few leaders think of themselves as proficient at what George H.W. Bush famously called “the vision thing,” even though developing a clear picture of the future has long topped executive polls as the most critical requirement for the job.

While it’s true that some people have more natural talent than others in adapting their organizational strategy to accommodate relevant events and trends, developing vision is a skill that can and should be learned, says Rob-Jan de Jong, an Amsterdam-based professor of an executive leadership program at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

“I believe it’s one of the most important qualities of leaders—the ability to lead and engage others with your future-oriented, purposeful picture of the future,” says de Jong, author of Anticipate: The Art of Leading by Looking Ahead (Amacom, 2015). “In fact, it’s the core skill that separates leaders from managers.”

Unfortunately, however, business leaders often spend so much time grappling with today’s problems that they don’t devote enough thought to preparing for tomorrow’s challenges.

To become a visionary leader, you must develop two key skills:

Seeing things early. The sooner you notice something that will impact business conditions, the faster you can react—which gives you a strategic advantage. But sometimes it’s hard to distinguish the signal from the noise. Train yourself to spot changes and imagine their future impact on your industry and customers.

“Make a practice of recording your innovative thoughts,” de Jong says. “Make this a routine habit; physically post your ideas on the wall of your office. Not only will they become integrated in the way you think, but they’ll also start to shine through in the way you lead.”

With practice, you are also priming your behavior so you’ll get better at picking out relevant information.

“Over time, you’ll become known as the one with the interesting ideas, and people will come to see you as a person who always looks ahead,” he says.

Connecting the dots. After gathering innovative ideas, think about what they could mean for the future of your organization. Be conscious of your own biases. It’s a natural human desire to imagine future events in an overly positive way.

De Jong suggests creating multiple future scenarios. “Don’t just home in on the vision that’s most desirable for you,” he says. Include possibilities that may not be pleasant to consider. That’s what he calls “responsible visionary leadership.”

When considering possible outcomes, ask yourself: How would your organization fare if this version of the future panned out? How would you respond? How can you prepare?

Large companies might have teams that conduct such scenario-planning, but beware the dangers of groupthink. Even with a formal future-planning process, it’s still important for leaders to keep an open mind and be willing to change course if need be, de Jong says.

Those who want to develop their vision will likely encounter many obstacles, including a reluctance to let go of old ideas and the fear of being wrong. What de Jong calls “short-termism”—the pressure to emphasize short-term results over the long-term outcome—is probably the most troublesome, especially since leaders are often given incentives to think that way.

“The value of a vision, which is mostly concerned with the long term, has therefore depreciated,” de Jong says. “Some even make a mockery out of it, considering it something for dreamers and idealists, not for hard-nosed, results-oriented realists as they are. So ‘vision’ has developed an image problem over time, and that’s a real shame.”

That reminds him of something the late Yogi Berra once said: “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.”

Dori Meinert is senior writer/editor for HR Magazine.

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