What Is a Visionary Leadership Style?

Today, visionary leadership isn’t just a buzzword from textbooks. It describes a specific style of leadership focused on moving a company forward to an important future. It’s such a key part of business management that visionary leadership is typically included among the core leadership types necessary for success.

It’s not always obvious what visionary leadership looks like, or if your organization has it. In the right circumstance, visionary leaders can be encouraged and can grow along with the company, from team leaders to executives making the big calls. We’re diving into what leaders with vision do, how to recognize them, and how to foster them in a workplace.

Diverse team attentively listening to a presentation by a female colleague with charts.

What is a Visionary Leadership Style?

The concept of visionary leadership has been around for decades, including under other names like transformative leadership. Visionary leaders have a specific view of the future in mind, and that often comes with big ideas about where the business could go, and how it can thrive.

When visionary leaders start making decisions, they can enact broad changes, and lead a company into an entirely different phase. These leaders are typically marked by key abilities like inspiration, excellent communication, creativity, and bold collaboration.

Visionary leadership is typically grouped with other styles of leadership that apply to teams, departments, or entire organizations. That may include authoritative leadership, which focuses on making fast decisions and giving commands, or delegating/laissez-faire leadership, where leaders assemble a team that can work well without as much input from the top. By contrast, visionary leadership focuses on strategic, long-term goals and getting employees excited about those goals. 

It’s no surprise that many organizational leaders want to claim the title of visionary leadership. It sounds impressive and makes it seem like they’re the idea person, the one responsible for success. That may lead some to take credit for the ideas of others, or to become so stubborn over particular ideas that they alienate others.

True visionary leadership can be a little harder to find: Let’s take a look at some important characteristics of these leaders, and examples of the kind of work they have done in the past.

The Characteristics of a Visionary Leader

What kind of leaders are known as visionary leaders? What sort of people can grow into visionary leaders as they gain experience? These characteristics are some of the most important to watch for: 

Creativity: These kinds of leaders love to think outside of the box. They’re interested in pushing beyond the current state of the organization in all kinds of ways. That often means these leaders aren’t afraid to shake up the business’s current hierarchy, processes, and core competencies. Their creativity also allows them to see new solutions that others don’t think about.

Optimism: Visionary leaders are inherently optimistic thinkers. They’re always looking forward into the future and thinking about ways to make things better. This focus on improvement and finding the best possible perspective can be very inspiring to others. This is one of the big reasons why visionary leaders are so good for company morale, and can attract others to their cause.

Inspiration: The ability to inspire others is key to visionary leadership. These leaders can win other people to their vision and convince decision makers to try something new. They’re able to generate buy-in across entire teams, departments, and organizations. It’s easy for them to express their ideas about the future, and why they’re beneficial for the company and the employees who work there. This often goes hand-in-hand with emotional intelligence and genuine enthusiasm.

Boldness: Visionaries aren’t afraid to take risks and speak up. They’re bold enough to take the first steps in making an idea into reality. Before they become leaders, they’re often the people who are willing to voice their opinions and talk about the system rather than go along with it.

Persistence: Not all big plans work out right away. These types of leaders are inherently persistent, able to continue after failure. They don’t let failed plans get under their skin, or obsess too much about what has gone wrong. Instead, they tend to move forward and try again with patience until they succeed in their goals.

Adaptability: Visions need to have a certain amount of flexibility. Visionary leaders need to adapt with changing times, and be prepared to alter parts of their plans that don’t work out. This type of leadership fails when leaders become too stubborn, or are unable to adapt their plans to unforeseen circumstances. Instead, visionaries are open-minded and happy to change if it means their vision has a better chance of success. 

Examples of Visionary Leadership

As mentioned earlier, not everyone claiming to be a visionary leader qualifies for the role, and not all visionary leaders are perfect. These are real-world examples of effective visionary leadership in practice and how it can transform companies. 

Martin Luther King Jr.’s Inspiration

As his famous, “I have a dream” speech indicates, MLK Jr. was a master of visionary leadership that led him to become the architect of the civil rights movement. He was an expert at both inspiring people to follow his vision, and collaborating with journalists, politicians, and local leaders—even if they didn’t always agree with him. Along the way, Martin Luther King Jr. laid the framework for concepts like civil rights, social justices, and how to enact broad change in the United States. 

Jack Kahl’s new Duck Tape colors

Before Jack Kahl, duct tape was a greenish, uninspired product that was valuable for its utility but not much else. Kahl wanted to do things differently: He purchased a tape company, rebranded it to “Duck Tape” and started selling bolder, more interesting colors. This quickly became a staple of the market, and Kahl’s company soon claimed 40% of the total duct tape market

Nick Woodman’s Big Idea

Nick Woodman is an excellent example of a venture-based visionary leader with a striking idea: Create a strap-on camera that can record your adventures while you’re having them. The result, after lots of work, was the company GoPro, which became immensely popular for just those kinds of inventions. Today, most people will automatically call a strap-on camera a GoPro regardless of the brand – something that wouldn’t have happened if Woodman hadn’t had such a concrete vision to follow.

Shantanu Narayen’s Changes at Adobe Systems

Narayen was CEO of Adobe Systems at a tricky time. The company had become known for its annual releases of Adobe software that included important updates and new features that creators needed to stay current. But it was becoming clear that physical, disc-based sales were on their way out, and needed to be replaced with something more flexible. Narayen took a big risk and decided to move the company to an SaaS, subscription-based model instead. This adaptation took an immense amount of work, but was largely considered a success for Adobe and a big reason the company is still so important today.

Why is Visionary Leadership Important?

As we saw in some of our examples, many organizations need visionary leaders to exist in the first place. These leaders are often founders and cofounders who are well-placed to start companies with a specific goal in mind. This also means that visionary leaders often have a lot of say when it comes to the company culture, how employees are recruited, and what the business values most. 

That leads to another reason visionary leadership is so important in the beginning stages—these leaders need to inspire not only workers, but investors like venture capitalists who will enable the organization to grow. A visionary leader’s excellent communication skills put them in the best place to win funding and support for the company. 

Visionary leadership is also vital to help keep ahead of the competition and follow the industry’s latest best practices. Without visionary leaders, companies may become afraid of change and start to stagnate. If their competitors are busy trying out new ideas and embracing change, stagnating companies will quickly become outclassed. Leaders with vision and influence can prevent this by encouraging a company to move ahead. That’s more important now, as many industries are experiencing changes faster than ever.

Finally, if a business does get stuck in a rut or goes through hard times, visionary leaders are often the exact solution that it needs. These kinds of leaders often make a name for themselves by pulling their businesses out of bankruptcy and into future success, or fixing long-standing problems that no one else knew how to address.

The Top 6 Vision Leadership Skills

Visionary leaders often have natural skills, and can learn other important skills during their time in the workplace. These skills in particular can help leaders turn their visions into a reality. The good news is that skills like these don’t need to be inherent. They can be taught and learned, and leaders can become better at them over time. 

Excellent at goal creation: Visionary leaders are naturals at gap analysis – understanding where the business currently is, and where it should be in the future. They excel at creating important and exciting goals to move the company forward. Without these kinds of goals, companies can stagnate and eventually slip behind the competition.

Strategic planning: Visionary leaders think about the big picture, and are very good strategic planners. They have the ability to choose an overall direction for an organization or department, and can avoid getting bogged down in the details. These leaders watch the company as a whole and all its moving parts, then chart a path ahead for the entire group. Strategic planning also needs to be long-term: Leaders should be comfortable thinking years ahead, and starting large-scale initiatives that will take plenty of time to complete.

Effective communication in many forms: Along with inspiration, vision leaders should be skilled in many different forms of communication to effectively share their goals. That’s especially true as work from home and web conferencing have gotten more popular in many industries. From writing convincing emails to sharing a livestream presentation, communication is paramount for visionary success.

Organization: Since leaders with visions have a lot on their plate, organization is a key skill. They must be able to juggle many different contacts and keep close track of new developments in their projects. That calls for superior organization, and the right tools to enable management. That also means that leaders need to be able to understand when they need help organizing, and find the right solutions for keeping a new project under control. That leads us to another very important skill.

Smart time management and delegation: Visionary leaders don’t always have the time or know-how to put all their plans into practice. That’s why they need excellent time management skills, and the ability to delegate when necessary. These leaders work best when they’re able to work with a team that has the experience to help out. They’re skilled at scheduling and balancing their time, focusing on their strengths and asking others for help whenever it’s needed.

Collaboration with others: In addition to delegating tasks, vision-focused leadership requires in-depth collaboration with others. As ideas move to reality, they need to be discussed, structured, and restructured. That can require a lot of input from different sources and partners: Leaders must be able to easily collaborate on their projects, and have mastery over collaboration tools that their organization uses. 

Training Managers to Be Visionary Leaders

Do you have a manager or potential leader in mind who could be a powerful catalyst for change in the organization? Are you trying to become more of a visionary leader yourself? These training tips can help encourage this kind of leadership in the workplace.

Give responsibility: Visionary leaders need the ability to put their ideas into practice. That means providing them with responsibility over a project or specific area of expertise. Otherwise, they may not get a chance to shine. 

Communication training: Communication can be taught, and many leadership courses have a focus on active listening, empathy, framing, transparency and similar techniques. These are all very important for visionary leaders to master, and can help them bring visions to reality (as well as improving many other communication skills). More opportunities to speak and write to others are also important for visionary growth, so provide leaders with communication responsibilities.

Developing a network: Those with the potential for visionary leadership need a strong network of support. Help them connect with other business leaders and talented, experienced workers in the company. This is an excellent point to incorporate a mentorship program or similar type of one-on-one training. 

Market and industry studies: Visionary leaders need to be closely connected to the current state of the industry and market changes. This helps them plan for the future and shapes what their vision looks like. Make sure visionary leaders are linked up to analysis reports, thought leadership activities, and market updates so they’re well-placed to create change. 

Align with company goals: One problem that visionary leaders can run into as they grow is misalignment with the company. If their own vision is different from what the organization is trying to do, these leaders may breed dissatisfaction and dysfunction instead of helping. Visionary leaders need to align properly with the company’s current strategy, and when possible, should have a voice in strategic discussions. If they have a fundamental difference of opinion on the company’s direction and cannot hope to change it, they may not be a good fit for the company.

Arranging feedback: Visionary leaders need to learn how their enthusiasm and ideas come across to others, especially to those with different kinds of personalities. It’s important for them to seek feedback from those they are communicating with, and receive honest opinions about their style, clarity, attitude, and other important points. 

Are you looking for more resources on encouraging visionary leadership in the workplace? KnowledgeCity’s leadership training courses are an excellent place to begin. These courses are designed to provide maximum knowledge and training in bite-sized pieces that don’t have to interfere with a person’s schedule or take too much time out of their day. Users can consume the lessons on the go, while waiting for a meeting, and in many other ways. 

To learn more, take a look at our courses on leadership, which include unique offerings like our eBook on Creative Thinking Skills for Business Leaders.

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