Leadership : What does it Take to be a Truly Visionary Leader?

Prior to starting her own business in 1992, Jamie Walters helped establish Virginia's Superfund Community Relations Program for the Commonwealth’s Department of Waste Management. When she joined VDWM, the community-relations program didn't exist; when she left, she had established a highly regarded program with outreach to more than forty cleanup communities. She is the author of many articles on leadership. Her latest book is  "Big Vision, Small Business: 4 Keys to Success Without Growing Big" (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco).

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What does it Take to be a Truly Visionary Leader?

What more can be said about our leaders these days, as one scandal after another comes tumbling out of the closets in Corporate America and Washington, D.C.? Indeed, a recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll found that both corporate executives and government officials were among the least trustworthy of all occupations (teachers and small-business owners ranked as most trustworthy).

These things might have us wondering whether we have any true leaders left at all, much less truly visionary leaders. And yet such truly visionary leaders do exist, and they can be found in both expected and unexpected places. Some of these individuals are more prominent and more broadly visible, while others work their visionary leadership more quietly or in a more focused corner of the world. But they’re out there, and they look to both contemporary and historical visionaries for inspiration, wisdom and courage to continue on the visionary path.

What makes a truly visionary leader?

The word "vision" is used so frequently that it can seem challenging to fully appreciate the concept and those who have (or nurture) it. We might immediately think of the term as it’s used in political campaigns – "the vision thing," or in corporate bureaucracy – "our vision and mission statements," and not be moved at all by it. The term has gone from inspired concept to deadened sound bite. In a world where "vision" has been used so often (and too often inappropriately), what does it mean to be truly visionary?

Real vision and true visionaries can lift us out of the muck and mire and into the higher realms of human potential and possibility. As Agape International founder and spiritual director, the Rev. Dr. Michael Beckwith, said, a visionary helps awaken and direct the inner strength of the people (Utne Reader, February 2002). How, exactly, does one go about doing that?

Whether intentionally or not, the visionary thumbs his or her nose at what's accepted by the hoi paloi, and doesn't settle for the norm if the norm is mediocre, or worse, dehumanizing or destructive. They don't allow themselves to be hypnotized by the lemming mindset or the mass hallucination about what's popular or "normal". Instead, they are interested in pulling people up; they invigorate and stir a greater possibility.

To be visionary, regardless of the era in which we live, is to envision another possibility – or even that there is hope and possibility at all. Then the visionary, in some way, spreads the seeds of that vision – those possibilities – so that they might take root in others and find their way into our common reality. She might write or speak out, create a new type of product or company, express a vision artistically, or find another avenue of expression – these are all just means for spreading vision seeds.

The true visionary walks the fine and often challenging line between the inspired world – intuition, reflection, the Divine-inspired – and the material world of action, effects, systems, powerful special interests, ego, status quo, and tangible results. The visionary is a conduit between those two dimensions of higher thought and our physical reality. He must connect with a source of inspiration and courage that emboldens him to let a specific vision "speak out through him" even though others might disagree, since an illuminating vision often casts light on current imperfections, arousing the ire of the protectors of the status quo. She is the one who, in trust or faith, leads the way along a new road, though she herself can’t see but a few steps ahead and may feel uncertain. For this reason, a visionary is what Oscar Wilde called a dreamer who "can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world."

And yet the visionary perseveres, usually through a wide variety of challenges, uncertainties, personal short-comings, and setbacks, taking her place among fellow visionaries who sow vision seeds of individual and collective potential. For most of these men or women, the path of service is also one of spiritual progress, where they themselves learn, develop and serve spiritually, in hope of contributing something useful to those around them.

What or who inspires the visionary? In addition to her strong connection with a higher wisdom – whether that higher wisdom is termed a calling, a passion, or Divine inspiration – a visionary can find comfort, courage and inspiration from others who have walked ahead of her, or who are walking with her, on this path.

Examples of true visionaries, past and present

Many of the people ultimately recognized by their contemporaries or historians as visionaries or inspired leaders appear (at least for at some point in their lives) to be relatively normal. Few announce to the world, at age six, that they’re going to be a visionary when they grow up. "Visionary" doesn’t seem to be a job title that these men and women set out to acquire.

Instead, many of these men and women seem to encounter circumstances that stir up closely held passions, values and talents, and they rise to the occasion. They’re confronted with an opportunity, or string of opportunities over time, that motivate them to summon up their best in hopes of creating an improved set of circumstances. They walk the path that appears before them, day by day, month by month, and ultimately their steps come together in a movement or body of work that is recognized by others as inspired. Usually, many other people benefit from their decision to take up the challenge.

Contemporary Visionary Leaders

• Bill Thomas, MD, The Eden Alternative. Dr. Thomas took a look at the current state of elder care in nursing homes throughout the country, and made it his mission to bring about a higher, more humane potential. He created an organization, The Eden Alternative, which inspires more loving, caring, humane and elder-respecting nursing home atmospheres. This means that Thomas and other Eden Alternative advocates must take on the huge system of healthcare, and seed enormous culture changes within those organizations that make a transformation to the Eden Alternative values.

• Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). As a young mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, Rep. Kucinich had been elected on a promise to fight against privatizing the city’s electric utility. That he took on the powerful utility interests provoked the wrath of those who stood to benefit from the privatization deal. In the face of financial and political blackmail, Mr. Kucinich stood his ground. As a result of the backlash stemming from the long reach of his opponents, the City’s credit was revoked by banks with ties to the privatization interests. After his tenure as Mayor, Mr. Kucinich wasn’t even able to find a job in Cleveland for years afterwards. Ultimately, it became evident that he was right all along, and he was honored by the new city council there. Kucinich now represents his district in the U.S. Congress, and is still finding the courage to speak up authentically against special interests and on behalf of the common good. In fact, his "Prayer for America," is creating new dialogue across the nation.

• Erin Brockovich-Ellis. If you’ve seen the blockbuster movie with Julia Roberts starring as Erin Brockovich, you know the story. Brockovich’s real-life story is one that shows great spirit and courage (and more than a little bit of moxie). A financially broke, divorced woman with several young children, Brockovich finds opportunity in the midst of seemingly promiseless circumstances. In the face of a seemingly limiting and potentially hopeless situation, she finds passion, purpose and a lot of hidden gifts that turn her into an extremely effective investigator and environmental activist. Her work ends up benefiting working-class residents living near toxic waste sites.

• A.T. Ariyaratne. Mr. Ariyaratne is the founder of Sarvodaya. His efforts for positive, spiritually grounded and community centered development in villages throughout Sri Lanka started when Ariyaratne was a high school teacher in 1958. "Our development philosophy not only involves improving the quality of life of our people, both physically and spiritually, it is also an effort to rebuild on a human-scale – social, political and economic institutions, where people can enjoy freedom." Mr. Ariyaratne persevered despite significant challenges – including threats against his own life and of his family. About these and other threats or attacks, he says, "Without critics, cynics and obstructionists, one cannot make progress." His Sarvodaya-based approach in Sri Lanka has become a model of sustainable community development and public participation, and his own behavior provides a model of courage and spiritually inspired living, regardless of one’s religious or spiritual affiliations. In 1992, Mr. Ariyaratne was awarded the Niwano Peace Prize in Japan, and received the Gandhi Peace Prize in 1996.

Historical Visionary Leaders

• The U.S. Founding Fathers. By now they’re legends for envisioning a new kind of nation based on freedom and civic participation, but back then they were very much human beings with strengths and frailties – merchants or citizen leaders who were guided by their passion and accepted the challenge placed at their feet. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Paul Revere, Patrick Henry, and others who overcame personal inhibitions and challenges – such as Jefferson’s fear of public speaking, the damage done to Revere’s business, Washington’s uncertainty over whether he was up to the task of being the new nation’s first president. Despite their very human faults, each summoned the courage and eloquence to set aside their personal preferences and the lure of a comfortable status quo to help bring a revolution, and then a new nation, into being. For more information, read an excellent personal account in Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution, by A.J. Langguth, or visit Ivy Sea’s Independence Portal for quotations and web site links.

• Mother Teresa (1910-1997). Called the "Saint of the Gutters," Mother Teresa was born in 1910 in Macedonia. Though she felt called to a life as a Catholic nun and became a Sister of Loreto, she was 38 years old when first called to begin on the path for which she ultimately won the Nobel Peace Prize. Living in a convent in India, she came upon a poor, dying woman on a Calcutta street. The woman died in her arms, and Mother Teresa determined that she would devote her life to ensuring that others who were outcast and impoverished would not have to die alone, uncared for, in the streets of Calcutta. She said that even then, while she knew what she wanted to do, she had no idea how to go about doing it. After reflection and seeking spiritual guidance, she set about to establish the Missionaries of Charity as a vehicle for doing that work.

• Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948). Born into a respectable class in colonial India and educated as a lawyer, Mohandas Gandhi could have enjoyed a comfortable upper class life. But like others whose efforts are seen as visionary leadership after the fact, Mr. Gandhi met up with circumstances that brought him face-to-face with the injustice of class rule and prejudice. He set aside his upper-class, comfortable lifestyle, rejected the status quo, and started a non-violent revolution that ultimately resulted in the independence of India from British rule. Rather than advocate for violent revolution, Mr. Gandhi stimulated a grassroots movement based in non-violent protest. Despite several assassination threats and attempts, as well as political harassment and the occasional jailing of both himself and his wife, Mr. Gandhi persevered, rejected violent methods, and continued to speak out on behalf of India’s independence. He was indeed assassinated in 1948, but not before his words and movement inspired many around the world, and continue to do so. "If my faith burns bright, as I hope it will be even if I stand alone," he said, "I shall be alive in the grave, and what is more, speaking from it."

Applying your own lessons from the legends

The short list of truly visionary leaders included above is far from complete. There are many other visionaries – both contemporary and historical – that could serve as models to inspire and encourage. Who would you add to this list?

Again, it is important to realize that, though these men and women may be judged in hindsight – after their actions or, in the case of historical figures, their lives – they were very much like your neighbors, coworkers, friends – even yourself – when faced with the opportunity to set out on the path for which they ultimately became well-known. They persevered through uncertainty, personal fears about their ability to carry out the mission before them, setbacks and harassment.

For a regular dose of current-day visionary leaders, I highly recommend subscribing to Hope Magazine, which features a selection of people – widely known and less known – who are quietly yet intently and courageously sowing seeds of light, possibility, positive transformation and, yes, hope. A subscription to Hope is one of the best ways to spend twenty dollars and get much more in return.

Copyright 2003, Jamie S. Walters. Visionary business, conscious livelihood, inspired leadership and personal-mastery concepts are shared at length in "Big Vision, Small Business", the new paperback book by Jamie S. Walters, as well as at
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