Thursday, February 17, 2011

Is Vision the Most Overrated Leadership Skill?

I could use your help here.  I think I've got this one figured out, but I could be totally wrong.

Like many of you reading this, I’ve long held the belief that being visionary is one of the defining characteristics of a good leader. It’s become such conventional wisdom that it’s the rare person who doesn’t begin his/her definition of a leader with vision.

I don’t know if age brings wisdom, but it does bring many opportunities to change one’s mind. At this point in my life, I believe that vision is overrated.

I’m not saying that vision is not important. It certainly can be. I just don’t see it (as some do) as the most important thing a leader does, or really a pre-requisite for leadership at all. In fact, there may be close to a dozen things I would encourage emerging leaders to develop before vision.

Vision is the sexy side of leadership. It’s usually represented as the big, dramatic moment. That’s probably why it gets so much play and too much hype. We can’t often recall history’s doers or implementers, but we certainly remember the visionaries. The problem here is that we begin to treat leaders as the singular heroes who can move mountains with words.

But, you may be wondering, what about Martin Luther King, Jr.? Isn’t he considered one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century, and isn’t that based upon his vision as described in the “I have a dream” speech? There is a reason that the MLK example is used over and over again. It was special. It was rare and one of a kind. Yes, MLK had a vision. But, it wasn’t his vision alone.

By the time he spoke, his vision had been talked about for decades: all people should be treated equal. He just found a different way to say it. So was it his ability to vision or his ability to communicate that really mattered?

Based on this example, I would encourage leaders to develop the ability to write poetically and speak emphatically before focusing on vision.

And – by invoking MLK only when we talk about visionary leadership, we are selling him short. That speech didn’t create the change he wanted. It was each moment when he, and thousands of his supporters, rolled up their sleeves and worked toward the vision that really mattered.

Isn’t visioning fairly easy as well? For something to be considered the most vital of leadership abilities, I think it needs to be more of a challenge than vision appears to be. At its core, it’s imagining an ideal future. We all do that every day. I can do it right now: “I want a world where every child has two parents devoted to his/her well-being.” It took me 5 seconds to come up with that. Does imagining that make me a leader? Of course not.

Any person can stand in a place and see a far distant destination. Isn’t the person that devises a way to get there more important?

Another problem with our love-affair with vision is that it gives our leaders far too easy a pathway to create radical change. As I grow older, I’m starting to observe that there are very few organizations that actually need radical change. What they need is discipline to their mission and their core values. Discipline is a much greater and much more challenging leadership skill than vision. All types of internal and external forces act against an organization, and it’s the disciplined leader that keeps the group focused on what counts.

Vision also tends to be very personal, and leadership is not. Vision is great for that individual who has the luxury to make an organization into whatever he or she wants it to be. What if that’s not your call? What if you lead a fraternity that has been around for over a century and has core values and purpose? Are you serving that organization best by being a visionary leader or by being a disciplined steward?

In addition, you have others working alongside you. You will likely need to build a collective vision with them. And so again, visioning is not the skill needed here - facilitation skills are.

So – for the educators – perhaps we need to stop asking our fraternity or sorority leaders questions like “what is your vision for your chapter” or “how would your chapter be if you could have it any way you wanted it?” Instead, maybe we should ask “how will you help your chapter fulfill its intended purpose?”

If leaders don’t need vision necessarily, what do they need? As opposed to vision, here are the types of things I would encourage the youngest of leaders to try and develop:

Strategic Thinking. This is the ability to take a big idea and consider all the factors acting in favor or in opposition to the idea. Then, it’s devising implementation strategies – steps to take – that will make the idea happen.

Communication Skills. As I mentioned above in reference to MLK, learn how to write both creatively and concisely. Learn also how to speak and listen in engaging ways.  While you do not need to be an extrovert to be a good leader, you do need to communicate well.

Relationship- Building. Have you ever experienced a leader who was big on ideas but couldn’t remember your name? Or someone who was better speaking from a podium than in one-on-one conversations? Did you want to follow those people? Learn how to develop authentic relationships with people long before you learn how to vision.

Critical Thinking. As you grow further as a leader and begin to get involved with complex organizations, you’ll find that instead of being called upon to create a vision, you’ll be more likely called upon to sort through an onslaught of visions and prioritize the most important ones. 

The list could go on and on. Listening skills, emotional intelligence, planning skills, negotiation, etc. I’m not sure how far it would take me to get to vision, but it would take a while.

What are your thoughts? Do we put too great an emphasis on vision for leaders?


  1. Visionary leaders are indeed necessary; however, your points regarding strategic thinking, discipine, communication and relationship building are absolutely imperative in bringing the vision to life. In my current role in understanding executive leadership talents, coaching them, and helping executive leaders how to understand one another, I have learned there are very few people who have the "total package." Rather, it takes the unique talents of team members to compliment one another in bringing a vision to life. For example, we need the critical thinkers to identify strategies or blueprints for making the vision a reality. Not everyone has the natural gifts to be both a visionary and a strategist. Some simply lack the ability to identify how to get there. Ideally, a leader would have enough self awareness to know when he or she needs the assistance of others in determining what that road map looks like. Furthermore, if inspiring others with a fantastic vision is one's strong suit, he or she should be doing a lot of that, but also engaging others through positive relationships to help make it happen through their natural talents and abilities.


    Cami Wacker
    Talent Plus

  2. First, very interesting post John.

    And yes, I agree, a Leader should have more than a vision, anyone can just have a vision, as per your example. But what separates a leader from the average joe is their ability to pull together a team and empower them to work together, improving team potency to realize their vision. I agree with Cami that a leader does not necessarily need to poses all the aforementioned abilities themselves, but rather, understand themselves well enough to pull together a team with the unique abilities necessary to reach their vision.

    But it doesn't stop there. A truly great leader is one who can empower their team members, increasing their self efficacy and allowing them to take the vision and run with it. A great leader, thus, must be a great manager of people. They must understand how to motivate their team members and communicate the vision in simple way - allowing the finer details, the strategy and the discipline to be left to the ones who are best prepared to carry out.

    Henry Ford was often criticized for being vacuous, defended himself with (and I'm paraphrasing) "I may not know all the answers, but I know how to surround myself with people who do."

    A Leader has the vision, coupled with the ability to bring people together under than vision and empower them to hammer out the finer details.

    Again, thanks for the thought-provoking piece John, Cheers!


  3. "What if you lead a fraternity that has been around for over a century and has core values and purpose? Are you serving that organization best by being a visionary leader or by being a disciplined steward?"

    I believe a leader can and must be both. In an article in the Harvard Business Review in Sept/Oct. 1996 entitled "Building Your Company's Vision", the authors (James Collins and Jerry Porras) caution against confusing core values and purpose with envisioned future and illustrate the importance of articulating both. Core values and purpose, they contend, are the reason an organization exists and make up "the star on the horizon to be chased forever" - they are unchanging. The envisioned future, on the other hand, is the "mountain to be climbed".

    No organization can survive, much less thrive, long term without adapting to a world that is changing all the time. Vision is important because it unifies and motivates stakeholders. And it might not be the most important leadership trait, but the one thing all leaders must have is a following.

  4. John,

    I fully agree with the premise that vision is over-rated and I almost go so far as to say unnecessary – in it’s typical definition – for leadership.

    Yes, the leader needs to have ‘a vision’ that drives her to apply all the necessary skills and energy to make success, but our typical idea of a leader’s ‘vision’ is that it’s some new idea or concept that they then champion and bring forward – that it’s that new idea that somehow makes them into leaders. Nothing could be more wrong.

    Individuals with great ideas have lived and died without a trace, fabulous leaders have taken tried and true ideas and plans and made them work. It seems to me that each commenter here so far has confused ‘vision’ with ‘ideal motivational plan’. We often use the term vision to mean brand new idea, which of course does not create leadership. Henry Ford’s great idea (if indeed it was in fact his, rather than history just noticing him putting it into practice) was the assembly line. Having that idea did in no way make him a leader… it’s just a good idea (at the time, as a way to make money, anyway).

    John, you are definitely on the right path. One might even say, you’ve had a vision. Ha.

    The simple quote from Calvin Coolidge sums it up:

    Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence.
    Talent will not; Nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent.
    Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.
    Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.
    Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

  5. John,
    Perhaps because I am new to the game of "leadership development" or in part because I am relatively young, I still believe that "vision" counts for a lot in any organization.

    I wholeheartedly agree that the other traits you listed are absolutely important (and indeed more so then the vision itself) but I also believe that a good leader should be communicating the need to challenge the status quo when and where it is appropriate.

    Often times, working with young Fraternity chapters, I find that the men don't even know what values they are stewards of, let alone how each group compares to others around the country.

    Part of this is because the local organization lacks strong management but part of it is also that the organization as a whole suffers from complacency that enables its members to not try new ideas at all.

    I believe vision, even if it is to be a better steward of your organization's values, is still incredibly important as it provides the basis for students to want to assess their actions and challenge the status quo. However, as you all have been saying, it must be paired with excellent management skills to be truly effective at elevating student organizations.

    I think where students seem to find themselves as a group is either a collection of visionaries (too many cooks in the kitchen and too little follow through), a group of managers (we're doing things the Alaska University way, and we're great), or a group of followers (these students tend to mill about and do only what is necessary if that, and mostly spend their time partying).

    It seems to me that you (and everyone who has commented thus far) seem to be saying is that there needs to be an increased focus on management skills as well as the core vision to be really successful.

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  7. People with good visionary skills are also having good leadership skills. They used to develop their skills through their capability, sharp thoughts, dedication level and many others. Therefore vision is also an essential skill for human being through which we are able to predict good and bad things of future as act as accordingly.
    Leadership Coach