Think like a Visionary

Have you ever heard how former North Carolina State University men’s basketball coach Jim Valvano had his players practice by cutting down the net? Once every year, Valvano had each player and coach lifted to collectively cut down the net using golden scissors. This act enabled the team to visualize its dream of being champions. And if you know history, that dream became a reality when Valvano’s team won the 1983 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship in an unlikely, last-second finish.

What does it mean to be a visionary leader?

Visionary leadership is “the ability to take charge and inspire with a compelling vision” according to psychologist and bestselling author Daniel Goleman. The term encapsulates the idea that certain people have bold ideas about what is possible in the world. They see opportunities where others may only see challenges. They innovate, initiate change, and inspire others with a shared vision.

Notable examples of visionary leaders include Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Nelson Mandela, and Malala Yousafzai. Malala was recognized with the Nobel Peace prize in 2014 for her activism on behalf of female rights to education. This came after Malala survived an assassination attempt by a Taliban gunman who wanted to stop her activism. She co-founded a non-profit organization and co-authored a bestselling book that inspired people around the world. Malala’s story is an example of visionary leadership without being in a traditional leadership position.

Characteristics of visionary leaders:

  • Bold and innovative approach to pursue ideas
  • Willingness to take risks to achieve the vision
  • Persistence to overcome challenges and obstacles
  • Charisma and optimism that inspires others
  • Focused on the critical path to success

How does this compare with other leadership styles?

Studies show the best leaders master multiple styles and can adapt flexibly to different situations. The following is Goleman’s list of leadership styles and their expected impact on the work atmosphere:

  • Commanding – Demands immediate compliance (negative impact)
  • Authoritative – Mobilizes people towards a vision (most positive impact)
  • Affiliative – Creates harmony and builds emotional bonds (positive impact)
  • Democratic – Builds consensus through participation (positive impact)
  • Pacesetting – Sets high standards for performance (negative impact)
  • Coaching – Develops people for the future (positive impact)

As you can see, the Authoritative (visionary-related) leadership style has the most positive impact in situations where an organization is off track and requires a new vision. Note that it helps to have others around the visionary leader who tend to the details. The Authoritative style tends to be less successful when leading a team of experts or more experienced peers.

How can you become a visionary leader?

We all have the potential to be visionary leaders. You can lead your team to victory by creating a shared vision of success like coach Valvano. You can be an advocate for injustice and breakthrough improvements like Malala. You can create something new that disrupts the status quo and makes your world better. Be bold, willing to take risks, persistent, optimistic, and focused.