What does it mean to be a ‘visionary leader’? It starts with being different to most people. You can’t just become a visionary leader by completing a leadership course, being mentored by someone awesome, or by compiling an impressive curriculum vitae (although these can help people with the potential to become visionary leaders get there).
One of the first things that the then United States Army Chief of Staff (General George C. Marshall) did at the outbreak of World War II was to fire the majority of his officers who had climbed the ladder of military ranks throughout the previous 20 years of relative peace.
Why did he do this? The men he fired usually ticked all the boxes of being ‘professional,’ being students of military history, knowing how to write orders and otherwise looking good in uniform. But they weren’t visionary. Two decades of relative peace meant that visionary leadership was rarely exercised or visible. Which meant it wasn’t rewarded. Nor were there any career penalties for those who lacked it. Marshall knew that visionary leaders win wars.
What do visionary leaders ‘look and sound like’?
They usually feel way more comfortable speaking simply than the rest of us.
John F. Kennedy once simply stated that his government would put humans on the moon. Steve Jobs convinced his employees that their main role was to put technology that was usually only found in computers into a couple of small devices. Nelson Mandela convinced an entire nation that reconciliation was both possible and ideal.
Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery hand wrote his orders for his 21st Army Group (around 1 million soldiers) and their Normandy landings on D-Day on a few pieces of paper, emphasizing at the end how ‘simplicity is key.’ Compare that to the hundreds of PowerPoint slides that were generated and forensically examined for even the most basic battalion operation (involving around 500 soldiers) throughout the War in Afghanistan. It is not hard to see why one war was successful while the other was not.
But there is a catch. Visionary leaders can be personally flawed, socially awkward, or a real pain. Steve Jobs was a difficult person to work with (to put it kindly). Winston Churchill said that Montgomery was ‘indomitable in retreat, invincible in advance, [and] insufferable in victory.’ In this day and age, if a general was ‘insufferable’ to his or her political masters (including telling them when they were wrong,) he or she would be banished to some irrelevant post by the end of the day. Or never be promoted in the first place. And Marshall himself first came to the attention of President Roosevelt when he was the only one to publicly disagree with the president who was floating the idea of manufacturing 15 000 aircraft per year in the lead up to World War II.
It’s just that Roosevelt was a bit of a visionary leader himself, and nominated Marshall for Chief of Staff because of his willingness to present well thought out, arguments regardless of who this might offend.
Who can’t be visionary leaders?
People who aren’t masters of their craft. And lots of others.
It can be really hard to envisage what tomorrow’s customers might want. Or how tomorrow’s war will be fought. Or what sort of society tomorrow’s generation wants. Unless you are a visionary leader.
Leaders who aren’t visionary quite literally can’t ‘see’ where they are going or what success looks like. This doesn’t mean they can’t talk about a vision as if they have one. Far from it. Non-visionary leaders can be very fluent in management catchphrases and jargon that sound like they are talking about a better tomorrow without defining what tomorrow actually is. They might be able to talk with a level of authority to reassure nervous shareholders or citizens. But because they have no genuine vision, there is no measure of success. This then gets replaced with KPIs, processes, procedures, external audits, standards and lots of other things that can create a visage of progress.
Non-visionary leaders replace actual progress with a culture of working furiously to convince themselves that progress is happening. Or sometimes generating evidence to present to shareholders and citizens alike that everything is on track to make progress. This rarely ends well.
Organizations who are the best at what they do are usually led by people who are not (necessarily) fashionable, great orators, have expensive suits, or sit on the boards of lots of companies. Some visionary leaders can be fashionable and great at speaking, but it is not a pre-requisite.
Any ‘low-level’ examples?
Lots. But let’s focus on one.
The supply chain team for a producer of domestic appliances has their performance appraisals and bonuses tied to reducing the cost of the electronic components. These components are the small capacitors, resistors and transistors that are very important, but make up a tiny fraction of the overall recommended retail price (RRP) of the appliances.
These components must comply with the specifications of the design team. And so the supply chain team often say things like …
… it doesn’t matter what a capacitor costs as long as it meets the form, fit and function of the specifications I get!
And so they find the cheapest capacitors, resistors and transistors they can find. And get large Christmas bonuses when they do.
But experienced manufacturers will know this is going to have an unhappy ending. Why? Because suppliers need to cut corners, speed up their manufacturing and otherwise try and spend as little time and money on building components to be a supplier to this producer. And these are low quality components that are not going to be robust or defect free. The supply chain team is actually disincentivized to work with suppliers to improve manufacturing quality.
So the 0.1 percent of the RRP that was saved by the supply chain team in finding the cheapest electronic components ends up costing 2-5 percent of the RRP that needed to be spent on warranty costs caused by low quality components failing early. This could be the entire profit margin. And the supply chain team was rewarded with Christmas bonuses for it.
So what can you do to bring out your inner visionary?
Take time to think and have the courage to do something others might feel uncomfortable.
One producer faced with the problem described above immediately removed the bonus structure of the supply chain team and replaced it with one tied exclusively to warranty performance. That is, if the appliance they produced rarely failed during the warranty period, the supply chain team’s bonus increased dramatically. And if the appliances barely worked when they got out of the box, their bonus disappeared.
And culture changed dramatically because of it. Not because of external consultants focusing on ‘change management.’ Not because of firing an entire workforce and replacing them with better people.
The culture changed only because visionary leadership was needed to see that the thing that mattered was warranty reliability, and not a negligible decrease in the cost of the raw materials. And this unleashed human ingenuity and drive as the supply chain started chasing down the reliability engineers in their organization to find the best electronic components … not the cheapest.
But as is the case with any change, you will face pushback. Which is why you need the courage to stand by your convictions. This only happens when you are confident that you have understood what needs to happen and what that looks like. So take the time to get there. And don’t be the leader that George C. Marshall would immediately fire if given the chance!