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What Does it Take
to be a Truly Visionary Leader?
What more can be said about our leaders these days, as one scandal after another comes tumbling out of the closets in Corporate America and Washington, D.C.? Indeed, a recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll found that both corporate executives and government officials were among the least trustworthy of all occupations (teachers and small-business owners ranked as most trustworthy).
These things might have us wondering whether we have any true leaders left at all, much less truly visionary leaders. And yet such truly visionary leaders do exist, and they can be found in both expected and unexpected places. Some of these individuals are more prominent and more broadly visible, while others work their visionary leadership more quietly or in a more focused corner of the world. But they’re out there, and they look to both contemporary and historical visionaries for inspiration, wisdom and courage to continue on the visionary path.
What makes a truly visionary leader?
The word "vision" is used so frequently that it can seem challenging to fully appreciate the concept and those who have (or nurture) it. We might immediately think of the term as it’s used in political campaigns – "the vision thing," or in corporate bureaucracy – "our vision and mission statements," and not be moved at all by it. The term has gone from inspired concept to deadened sound bite. In a world where "vision" has been used so often (and too often inappropriately), what does it mean to be truly visionary?
Real vision and true visionaries can lift us out of the muck and mire and into the higher realms of human potential and possibility. As Agape International founder and spiritual director, the Rev. Dr. Michael Beckwith, said, a visionary helps awaken and direct the inner strength of the people (Utne Reader, February 2002). How, exactly, does one go about doing that?
Whether intentionally or not, the visionary thumbs his or her nose at what's accepted by the hoi paloi, and doesn't settle for the norm if the norm is mediocre, or worse, dehumanizing or destructive. They don't allow themselves to be hypnotized by the lemming mindset or the mass hallucination about what's popular or "normal". Instead, they are interested in pulling people up; they invigorate and stir a greater possibility. To be visionary, regardless of the era in which we live, is to envision another possibility – or even that there is hope and possibility at all. Then the visionary, in some way, spreads the seeds of that vision – those possibilities – so that they might take root in others and find their way into our common reality. She might write or speak out, create a new type of product or company, express a vision artistically, or find another avenue of expression – these are all just means for spreading vision seeds.
The true visionary walks the fine and often challenging line between the inspired world – intuition, reflection, the Divine-inspired – and the material world of action, effects, systems, powerful special interests, ego, status quo, and tangible results. The visionary is a conduit between those two dimensions of higher thought and our physical reality. He must connect with a source of inspiration and courage that emboldens him to let a specific vision "speak out through him" even though others might disagree, since an illuminating vision often casts light on current imperfections, arousing the ire of the protectors of the status quo. She is the one who, in trust or faith, leads the way along a new road, though she herself can’t see but a few steps ahead and may feel uncertain. For this reason, a visionary is what Oscar Wilde called a dreamer who "can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world."
And yet the visionary perseveres, usually through a wide variety of challenges, uncertainties, personal short-comings, and setbacks, taking her place among fellow visionaries who sow vision seeds of individual and collective potential. For most of these men or women, the path of service is also one of spiritual progress, where they themselves learn, develop and serve spiritually, in hope of contributing something useful to those around them.
What or who inspires the visionary? In addition to her strong connection with a higher wisdom – whether that higher wisdom is termed a calling, a passion, or Divine inspiration – a visionary can find comfort, courage and inspiration from others who have walked ahead of her, or who are walking with her, on this path.
Examples of true visionaries, past and present
Many of the people ultimately recognized by their contemporaries or historians as visionaries or inspired leaders appear (at least for at some point in their lives) to be relatively normal. Few announce to the world, at age six, that they’re going to be a visionary when they grow up. "Visionary" doesn’t seem to be a job title that these men and women set out to acquire.
Instead, many of these men and women seem to encounter circumstances that stir up closely held passions, values and talents, and they rise to the occasion. They’re confronted with an opportunity, or string of opportunities over time, that motivate them to summon up their best in hopes of creating an improved set of circumstances. They walk the path that appears before them, day by day, month by month, and ultimately their steps come together in a movement or body of work that is recognized by others as inspired. Usually, many other people benefit from their decision to take up the challenge.
Contemporary Visionary Leaders
Historical Visionary Leaders
Applying your own lessons from the legends
The short list of truly visionary leaders included above is far from complete. There are many other visionaries – both contemporary and historical – that could serve as models to inspire and encourage. Who would you add to this list?
Again, it is important to realize that, though these men and women may be judged in hindsight – after their actions or, in the case of historical figures, their lives – they were very much like your neighbors, coworkers, friends – even yourself – when faced with the opportunity to set out on the path for which they ultimately became well-known. They persevered through uncertainty, personal fears about their ability to carry out the mission before them, setbacks and harassment.
For a regular dose of current-day visionary leaders, I highly recommend subscribing to Hope Magazine, which features a selection of people – widely known and less known – who are quietly yet intently and courageously sowing seeds of light, possibility, positive transformation and, yes, hope. A subscription to Hope is one of the best ways to spend twenty dollars and get much more in return.
Many more articles in Authenticity in The CEO Refresher Archives