How to be a visionary - part I

Leadership Blog

Mike Straw

Written by Mike Straw

How to be a visionary - part I

McKinsey & Co has identified ‘Visionary’ as key to leaders’ make-up, but can you learn to be visionary?

To be an effective leader of the agile businesses likely to be more successful in today’s uncertain and high-velocity markets, McKinsey &Co has identified four facets to the leader’s role. They must be visionaries, architects, coaches and catalysts all at the same time. This VACC model is powerful, it resonates with many of our clients and we subscribe to it wholeheartedly. Indeed, we often find ourselves working alongside McKinsey to implement these behaviours.

But how can a leader become more visionary? Can it be practised or is it innate? Can you decide to be a visionary? And, if so, what steps can you take to do so? The answer to all of the above is yes. There are those who are naturally visionaries – we can all identify with our own examples. But they are most likely to be unconsciously applying concepts which others can consciously adopt. Working with leaders and teams of all sizes and across all sectors we have distilled some core thinking that helps them implement McKinsey’s model.


I have lots of ideas – am I a visionary?

First, it is important to understand what makes a visionary. Conventional wisdom would suggest that it is someone who has a vision, an idea or maybe lots of ideas. Someone who acts on gut feel to instinctively lead others by a force of character and deep self-belief. It can also be tied up in the articulation of corporate goals and mission, or even the inspirational sentences written of office walls. But many people can have ideas, and it is relatively easy to craft a slogan or even a strategy. Having an idea itself, however good, does not make you a visionary.

A visionary is also more than a manager who sets stretch targets. It may be a good idea to set a goal of achieving 125% of this year’s targets for sales, productivity or whatever other metric you measure. But this is not visionary – it is just eking out more of the same by doing the same things faster, harder or for longer.

Our definition of visionary is an individual who can clearly see a new future beyond what the organisation believes is currently possible. They can see a breakthrough – a higher possibility than one allowed by conventional thinking and approaches. The ideas they have will dramatically move the business onto a different path and create an entirely new context for the business. What separates a visionary from a maverick or purveyor of pipedreams is their ability to focus in on and challenge the assumptions which are preventing them from existing in this new future.


What are the practical steps to becoming a visionary?

Visionaries must first learn to identify the context they and their organisations operate in and be able to consciously step outside of it. Context is decisive. It unconsciously governs the assumptions and decisions individuals and organisations make. It defines what is seen as possible and impossible. So, the first step for a visionary leader, counter-intuitively, is to be fully aware of the current context governing their organisation.

Being fully engaged, and on-board with an organisation is often seen as fundamental to leadership. But to be visionary, leaders must embody the paradoxical state of being both fully in and fully out of the organisation. They are always curious and always questioning – why do we do it this way; why can’t we change that? Only when they are able to step outside of the context will they fully appreciate it and see beyond the self-limiting assumptions that every business adopts.


Always listening

Challenging your assumptions and those of the wider teams and organisation, opens the door to visionary ideas. But visionaries are also empathic. They understand why others do not, or cannot, see the future in the way they do. They listen closely and talk into the little voices in the heads of those around them to help reveal their context too. They must be present in the organisation to ignite conversations and inspire who teams to take on the vision. This is what McKinsey means when it suggests that visionary ideas emerge from the organisation rather than in the boardroom. Ideas are important, but the visionary leader establishes the new context in which they can propagate and grow.


Bold declarations

Finally, the visionary leader must declare the vision. They have to publicly own the vision and be seen to inhabit the future it reveals. Declarations cannot be half-hearted, quiet or private, they need to exist on the grand stage for all to see. This complete commitment to the vision sets the direction for the whole organisation, overcomes the assumptions and the context that seek to limit it, and is the critical first step in enrolling others to support and follow the vision.


Becoming Visionary

It is possible to become a visionary. Learning the techniques of breakthrough thinking that allows you to identify and challenge the assumptions that hold back organisations and individuals is the foundation for visionary ideas. But it can’t be faked. Leaders must authentically live in the future context that they declare as their vision and exhibit their authority to do so. Moreover, it is just the first step. They need to exhibit all the other facets of leadership to design and build the organisation and culture to establish this new context. They need to be able to coach those around them to not only believe but to live the vision alongside them, and finally to catalyse the actions necessary to fulfil it. I’ll return to these other elements of leadership in later blogs, but please get in touch if you’d like to discuss how to implement these practical steps to becoming visionary in your business.


Published 05/02/2021

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