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How to be a visionary leader, even if you’re not Dr. King

Posted by Signe Spencer

Signe Spencer

Few among us can even aspire to the majestic oratory Dr. Martin Luther King used to express his clear, fair-minded vision of racial equality in his justly famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered 50 years ago from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Fortunately, you don’t need his eloquence or the universality of his cause to be a visionary and inspiring leader for your organization. The key is understanding what it means to be a visionary leader in a business context.

At Hay Group, we’ve defined six fundamental leadership styles. Visionary (or authoritative) leaders bring their organizations together around a greater purpose, a goal that inspires – something beyond maximizing shareholder value. That may well be the fiscal purpose of your business, but “increasing shareholder value” is simply not personally inspiring for most people –there is considerable evidence (see Leading with Purpose by Richard Ellsworth, for example) that a strong sense of customer-facing purpose and a shared vision results in increased shareholder value.

But my business is so mundane…. If this still sounds impossibly high-minded, let me provide an example, from a company that manufactures hardware and home supplies through three lines of business. All of the company’s products are sold directly to home and hardware retailers rather than to consumers. Difficult to be more pedestrian, right? It was part of a larger company but was set to be spun off, and the new CEO recognized the value of energizing his work force as the organization became independent. So he worked with the heads of the three lines of business and HR to answer a fundamental question:

What’s our purpose as a business?

After an intense, inclusive process, they reached a consensus on an answer. He told me he knew it was good when the young intern who was cleaning up after their final meeting saw their statement on the flip chart and said, “Oh, wow, that’s cool!”

Their statement was “Imagine a better place.” And it was successful for several reasons:

  • It’s authentically rooted in the company’s products, all of which help protect, preserve, or improve the places we live and work. Never underestimate people’s ability to sniff out an empty or artificial “vision.”
  • It lends a nobility of purpose to those products, bridging the gap between the mundane, day-to-day routine of manufacturing and selling hardware and the innate desire people have to be part of something bigger and more important than themselves.
  • The CEO committed himself and his team to supporting it, discussing it, communicating it, explaining it “endlessly” (his word) – and acting to support it through personnel and investment decisions.

This last is an important point. In the public realm, visionary leaders are often remembered for a single, inspiring speech or act. But the effectiveness of visionary leadership comes through consistency: Saying the same thing, in slightly different ways, over and over and over again, and acting to support it. People have to hear the purpose repeatedly – and see it playing out in actual decisions and investments – before they believe it represents a true organizational commitment.

How do you know it’s working? For me, one of the most important criteria for success is how well the vision guides decisions that support organizational goals. In this case it worked very well, owing to a fundamental realization that took hold through the company: If they really were about helping people imagine a better place, they needed to do more to support their end-users, even though these consumers were technically not their customers. That insight lead to a cascade of activities: a consumer-facing website with product information and consumer tools; internal workshops to help employees learn more about products that supported their interests; and ultimately consumer workshops held at their retailer customers.

In short, the vision did inspire the company’s employees, refocusing their efforts in ways the CEO never could have foreseen – and more importantly, in ways that ultimately increased sales and shareholder value.

And he never once had to give an inspiring speech.


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