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  • Writer's pictureThomas E. Anderson, II

Vision + _____ = ??? Rethinking Visionary Leadership to Futureproof Your Organization

Picture this. The proverbial visionary leader has emerged from the war room with a new plan to set his organization on a new course. He steps out in front of a crowd filled with employees, senior managers, and shareholders. (Steve Jobs comes to mind). He starts casting a picture of the future created during a vision journey that he took...all by himself. His job is to communicate the vision to his subordinates. Their job is to implement it.

The lone visionary approach contains residue of the days of “great man” leadership. Moreover, this approach cannot keep up with the external pace of change, fueling the whirlwind of activity within the organization. Times have changed and organizations are evolving. The visionary approach to leadership must also change with the times.

Sure, the lone visionary approach has proven ineffective in many cases. But the following question provides another reason to reconsider visionary leadership.

Is it ethical to force employees to implement a vision they didn’t help create?

It depends on who you ask.

All employees desire to participate in the vision development process alongside their leaders.[i] Millennials want to be involved and engaged in vision development and strategy creation. What better way to engage employees in going the extra mile for the company than to involve them in the vision development process?

A Paradigm Shift in Visionary Leadership

Visionary leadership is experiencing a paradigm shift. First, a collective visioning process is gradually replacing the “telling” approach of the lone visionary. Leaders can move to higher levels of collective visioning by generating buy-in, testing stakeholder reactions, inviting input, and collaborating to co-create a shared vision.[ii] Vision development used to function as an isolated, one-off event resulting in a vision statement. Now, more leaders are working with internal and external consultants to extend the process throughout the organization’s life cycle. The paradigm shift includes integrating the vision into employee behaviors.[iii] Vision integration is critical to success as it recognizes the organizational dynamics that preceded it. Instead of superimposing the vision on these dynamics, the vision-based grounds the future vision in the current realities.

A buzz exists around learning organizations. Gary Oster proposed “one must see differently to think differently to do differently.”[iv] At its essence, vision is the ability to see. An employee’s mental models, worldview, and biases shape their perception. Middle and senior managers’ positions—both on key issues and within the org chart—shape their perspective. Thinking differently starts with the ability to change their perception and adopt a new point of view, even if only temporarily.

20/20 Vision?

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 caused leaders across industries to rethink their businesses. In response to lockdowns, service-based companies, schools, and churches raced to move operations online, if at all possible. Manufacturing companies worked around the clock to flesh out scenarios, implement rotation schedules, and reevaluate workplace policies.

Few organizations had envisioned such a scenario, and many were unable to transition seamlessly. Gravity Payments used this as an opportunity to leverage employee insight (i.e., the ability to see as individuals) to rescue the organizational vision from utter peril. CEO Dan Price and upper managers decided to pull everyone together. They explained that financial losses caused by the pandemic and shutdowns create a 55% decline in revenue, exceeding the threshold of their contingency plans.[v] After painting a picture of where the company would be in three months without intervention, leaders asked employees what the company should do.

Many employees volunteered for temporary pay cuts according to what they could afford. They decided to lean into their current market and brainstorm ways to help small businesses weather the storm, incentivizing stakeholders who referred new business from their networks.

Gravity Payments’ crisis response exemplifies the missing step in visionary leadership—where senior leaders align managers and departments with the emerging preferred future, using strategies to generate early buy-in. Their response leads to another conclusion:

Now is the time to rethink the traditional visioning process.

Jeff Kohles and colleagues introduced a revolutionary idea: vision is an innovation that employees can either accept or reject.[vi] Only when followers “perceive the vision as compatible to their jobs, do they take the next step and integrate the vision as a guide for their work.”[vii]

Vision + __________= ????

Leaders can mobilize a stakeholder approach to vision using creative-thinking techniques. Michael Michalko’s Brutethink technique pairs a random word with an organizational challenge to elicit new solutions.[viii] A consultant can facilitate visioning meetings to explore gaps between the vision and organizational components. Possible factors include culture, values, operations, mission, purpose, strategy, leadership style, skills, structure, job design, and competency models. The McKinsey 7S model combined with the futures wheel provides a tool to structure this process. Possibilities for stimulating dialogue and novel solutions are endless.

References [i] Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2017). The leadership challenge: How to make extraordinary things happen in organizations. Wiley. [ii] Hines, A., & Bishop, P. (2015). Thinking about the future: Guidelines for strategic foresight (2nd ed.). Hinesight. [iii] Kohles, J. C., Bligh, M. C., & Carsten, M. K. (2012). A follower-centric approach to the vision integration process. The Leadership quarterly, 23(3), 476-487. [iv] Oster, G. (2011). The light prize: Perspectives on Christian Innovation. Positive Signs Media, p.189. [v] Schomer, S. (2020, December 2). He asked his team how to avoid layoffs. Their response thrilled him. Entrepreneur. [vi] Kohles, J. C., Bligh, M. C., & Carsten, M. K. (2013). The vision integration process: Applying Rogers’ diffusion of innovations theory to leader–follower communications. Leadership (London, England), 9(4), 466-485. [vii] Kohles, J. C., Bligh, M. C., & Carsten, M. K. (2013). The vision integration process: Applying Rogers’ diffusion of innovations theory to leader–follower communications. Leadership (London, England), 9(4), 466-485. [viii] Michalko, M. (2006). Thinkertoys: A handbook of creative-thinking techniques. Ten Speed Press.


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