October 6, 2020

Visionary leadership or leading the work? Be the visionary

by Wendy Ryan in Blog Roll

Are you a visionary leader or are you spending too much time leading execution? Both matter, and there is a big difference between them.

No matter what level of leader you are in your organization, executing on a vision is only one part of your job. The problem is, too many leaders get stuck there because execution is familiar terrain where they’ve excelled in the past.

In their book, The Work of Leaders, Straw, Scullard, Kukkonen and Davis describe leadership as a three-part process: creating a vision, aligning people around the vision and then executing on the vision.

In other words, a leader isn’t meant to just lead the troops in executing work but rather to cast a vision that inspires others to align their resources and their efforts in sync with it. Too often, we confuse being a visionary with being a leader or being a great implementor as being a great leader. The truth is, you need both in leadership. And, you need alignment to bridge them.

Every organization needs a visionary, someone who is one step ahead of everyone else in noticing emerging trends and forecasting the future. They can visualize what is happening broadly within your industry early on and within your company to see where the organization could go next.

At the same time, organizations need leaders who can translate the vision into something others can easily understand and get excited about. Once people are engaged and committed to the vision, what needs to be done and what the team needs in order to achieve that vision become very clear.

Identify Your Strength

Entrepreneurs tend to have the vision part down pat, but aligning and inspiring others and then attending to the key details it takes to actually execute on that vision – not so much.

People who grow into leadership roles over time tend to come up through a specialized organizational; function, such as finance or operations. They’ve spent their careers developing their execution chops within that function so it often becomes an area of strength. It can be difficult to pivot toward doing something like creating a bold new vision or aligning people around a vision if you’ve never done it before.

Other people are natural dot- and people connectors. They enjoy bridging vision and execution and they are excellent at figuring out how to put the right resources together so that the vision inspires and appears achievable.

The point is, most leaders are strong in one or two of these areas, but it’s much rarer to excel in all three. Knowing where your strength lies is critical because then you can engage a complementary partner or two or a whole team to help you fill any gaps.

Engage the Right People

Having the right people on your team is paramount to your success when you are a visionary. The right people are the ones who complement you and each other well. Hint: not people who all look, sound, think and behave the same as you do.

Let Go of Perfectionism

This is especially true for leaders who worked their way up the ranks – no one is going to do things exactly as you would. Most people won’t do them as well, and occasionally, someone will do them better. In both cases, it’s usually far better to let them run with it as long as the results are good enough. Nine times out of ten, the difference between good enough and perfect is not worth the opportunity cost of your time.

Holding Space

Being a successful visionary requires significant thinking time and collaboration time outside of executing on day to day priorities, crises, or activities. Block out regular time on your calendar – the first hour of each workday, for example, if you are a morning person – when your energy for expansive thinking is highest. Turn off your email and phone notifications, write, sketch, discuss and share ideas, observations and insights about future possibilities. Then, get back to aligning and supporting your team’s execution on today’s priorities.