Visionary leaders are uncommon, but they share many characteristics. The qualities of visionary leaders include openness, imagination, persistence, and conviction. This article discusses these various qualities of visionary leaders. Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison are examples of great visionaries.
The term visionary leadership sometime gets a bad wrap. This is because the words are used too frequently. Often the words are used without any substance as with this Dilbert video (0:19).
Qualities of Visionary Leaders
There are relatively few people that are universally regarded as visionaries. These might include individuals such as Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, the Wright Brothers among others. While universally acclaimed, they are often disregarded as super-talented genius, outliers that live outside of the range of normal human experience.
Visionary leaders are open to new information
Visionaries possess an unusually large degree of openness to new information. This openness may or may not extent to people. Inflexible people, once they make up their mind, cannot be persuaded, nor do they continue to search for or take in new information.
Not so with visionaries, they are constantly searching for additional information. Visionaries know that each new piece of information might yield an insight that helps solve a problem or create a breakthrough.
In addition, visionaries typically exercise a low degree of deference to convention, historical precedent, or authorities within their fields. While they seek to know as much as possible within their fields, they don’t defer to the judgments of the existing authorities within their fields.
By ignoring or purposeful violating norms with their respective disciplines, visionaries are able to experiment and try things that others overlook or aren’t willing to challenge. As a result of their willingness to experiment and try things, visionaries often are in the best position to make “breakthrough” creative discoveries or happy accidents.
Visionary leaders possess mental mind’s eye
Visionaries often possess the ability to see things with their mind’s eye often long before others. This might include certain observations that unlock the secret to understanding the natural world, trends that are still in their infancy stage (or that haven’t even begun yet), or the possibilities of new inventions, discoveries, products, or even new social or historical movements.
Visionary leaders are highly sensitive
A common quality of visionary leaders is that they are usually sensitivity. This quality of sensitivity can manifest itself as “quirkiness” or even in certain cases as mental illness. Think for example about Van Gogh, Howard Hughes, or John Nash.
However, this sensitivity results in extra information being accessible to visionaries that others to not have access to. Thus, the mark of a true visionary is that they can often see what others cannot.
Visionary leaders make good predictions
What visionary leaders do, however, is to build an accurate conceptual model of the future based on their keen understanding of the present. And then successful visionary leaders bring that model into reality, creating the future.
Thus, the visionary leaders key ability is not their prophetic sight, but rather the gift to predict accurately from the present into the future. When accurate prediction is combined with executive ability to carry out the vision, visionaries literally creates the future. While there is some difference between predicting and influencing the future, possessing the former skill is helpful (and the first step) to developing the later skill.
Visionary leaders have a vivid imagination
Another quality of visionary leaders is that they often have a vivid imagination. Visionary leaders take great care to nurture their imagination and mind’s eye carefully.
Visionary leaders spend their lives following their dreams and seeking to bring them into reality. In contrast, the masses turn off their imaginations as they mature, feeling that imagination is akin to child’s play.
Visionary leaders often reside in two worlds – the external world, the other being a rich internal world of ideas, pictures, and thought.
The reason why visionary leaders are so driven to carry out their dreams is because their dreams are so real and vivid (in their mind’s eye) to the visionary. Thus, clarity of imagination leads to a compelling desire to carry out the vision.
Visionary leaders have the quality of strong conviction
Once a visionary has a worthwhile vision, they must have strong conviction if the vision stands a chance at being brought into reality. Certain visions are extraordinarily difficult to carry out and thus require an extraordinary strong belief in the vision and the visionary’s ability to carry it out.
Several specific traits support the development of the quality of conviction in a visionary leader. One such trait is the willingness to take calculated risks. In order to form conviction, a visionary leader must be willing to lay it all on the line for a worthy cause.
Similarly, a certain amount of discontent with the status quo is necessary for one to be willing to lay things on the line. In addition, an unconventional nature is somewhat helpful in that it tends to make one immune to negative social pressures that are experienced as naysayers constantly doubt the vision and the visionary.
Finally, visionary leaders often possess a sense of personal destiny. If you asked them and they were honest, they’d admit that they always believed that they were destined to accomplish great things, even though they might not have known the details of how it was going to happen. In some sense, this is necessary because the visionary needs to have a strong belief that they have the ability to carry out.
Visionary leaders have the quality of persistence
One specific challenge unique to visionary leaders is best expressed by the warning label on a driver’s mirror, “objects in mirror are [further] than they appear.” Because of the vividness of their visions, visionaries often underestimate the difficulty in bringing the vision into reality or the “distance” between the present and envisioned outcome (as the vision seems so close and obtainable to them).
The other challenge faced by visionary leaders is that they tend to have dreams that are larger and more difficult than average persons, and thus an extraordinary degree of persistence is required.
Visionary leaders must possess the quality or attribute of persistence. Unabashed persistence allows the visionary to push through all difficulties, including the opposition of others, bad fortune, insufficient resources, or dead-ends.
In the end, the difference between a successful and unsuccessful visionary often comes down to drive and persistence.
Resources for visionary leaders
Check out this Ted talk (18:35) by Simon Sinek entitled “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” It will help you clarify your leadership vision. It is probably one of my favorite ted talks ever and has over 2 million videos.
Another resource is the book Creative Leadership: Skills That Drive Change by Gerrard Puccio. This book covers 7 thinking skills (including visionary). This book will help you put “visionary thinking” into context as well as develop the supporting skills to bring your vision to fruition. Much of the content on the site is an elaboration on the ideas contained in this book. It breaks creativity into actionable steps.