Why your company may need a visionary leader to succeed

Sometimes being a predictable and reliable CEO isn’t enough, sometimes you need "the vision"

I’ve argued that strategic thinking isn’t so much an innate skill, but rather a process combined with the determination to do it. I’ll double down on that here, but what about the “vision” thing?

Some visionary leaders have the innate creativity, drive, curiosity and hutzpah to build something great and they didn’t major in business, can’t navigate an Excel spreadsheet and have limited organizational skills. I’ve worked for some (e.g., Paul Orfalea, the founder of Kinko’s), fired a couple who were in the wrong jobs and coached a few. They’re the spark that the business world (heck, the entire world) needs to build a fire. They didn’t learn to be visionary; they just are. In fact, I believe they’re genetically predisposed. You find these creative souls not only in business but also in art, science, music and the kitchens of some of the best restaurants.

Without a vision (The “Where are we going?” in an organization) and commensurate strategy (The “How will we win?”), a business is just a set of random acts. Can a business run without a visionary leader? Yes, sometimes for a long time, because the current leadership is working off a previously developed vision that might be more implied than implicit. But eventually, the vision becomes tarnished or faded, or the future changes and won’t allow for the previously described destination. It is then that you must have a visionary leader.

But where does that vision come from?

You may be a wonderfully talented CEO who can make the train run on time, secure capital for your growth, install the right systems and processes to keep the train on the track, build a productive team and produce results. But what if you run out of track or your board wants you to look for a different destination? If those questions make you nervous, I’m talking to you. You’re scared witless but don’t know what to do!

You don’t know what to do because you’re only considering your existing tools and well-honed skills to answer the question: Where are we going? You’re comfortable with analyzing situations, and you look for certainty and realize that if you espouse a new vision, it won’t be data driven. It also uses emotional language when you’re seeking rational, evidence-based language. You don’t want to look foolish or take unnecessary risk, so you avoid stepping onto the ledge and making a risky statement about where you think you should go. You focus on execution and delay the inevitable. You self-edit your thoughts. As a result of all this, you’ll fail. You’ll have to move on and blame external forces.

Many companies need a CEO who makes the train run on time. It’s OK to be that person. You can probably find a company that has a vision but doesn’t know how to get there. Or, you may determine that you don’t need to be a CEO but can instead be a wonderfully talented COO or CFO.

Some of you, however, will have the drive to create a win for your existing shareholders and colleagues. You’ll decide that even though it’s uncomfortable, it’s possible to articulate a new vision. How do you do it? Below are some suggestions, but please hear this: The most important thing is getting your mind in the right place. This isn’t mushy stuff; it’s your company’s survival. If it makes you uncomfortable, get the hell over it.

  1. Talk with your senior team members. Tell them it’s “blue sky” and not directional. You might start with: “If you owned this company and had to make it twice as big and wildly successful, where would you take it and why?” Have them work independently and come back with a three-minute presentation.
  2. Expand your horizons. Schedule lunch with five successful CEOs who are on your market’s periphery (or substantially different). Ask them to help you think about the future and how they would — if in your shoes — find success in it.
  3. Think about what you heard from your team and others, consider what you believe the future looks like and attempt version 1.0 of a vision. Make it three sentences maximum, and use compelling, emotional language. Go over the top to get yourself to think this way; you can always back it down.
  4. Socialize it with your senior team and the outside folks whom you involved in the conversation and get their feedback.
  5. Revise it until you love it.

Now, of course, the real work begins, because that vision must influence your strategy, team members, resources and plans.

Or you could just wait until the train runs off the track and look for a new job.

Categories: Management & Leadership