Re-Visioning Visionary Leaders

The term “vision­ary leader” usu­al­ly refers to a gift­ed per­son who sees far­ther into the future, inspires us with rich pos­si­bil­i­ties, and acts to tan­gi­bly real­ize a com­pelling dream. The gift this per­son pos­sess­es can be in any dis­ci­pline, from tech­nol­o­gy, sci­ences, med­i­cine, music, to pol­i­tics or social change. 

Okay. So far so good. AND, today, in orga­ni­za­tions, above and beyond tech­ni­cal or pure­ly man­age­r­i­al gifts, the need is also for vision­ary lead­ers who can facil­i­tate a major shift in cul­ture — in our human rela­tion­ships at work. I would call this per­son a vision­ary work­place leader.

I have been blessed in my work as a con­sul­tant to meet a few such peo­ple. They see far­ther into the human dimen­sions of our enter­pris­es. Despite the oth­er busi­ness chal­lenges that are present, these are folks who sim­ply love to work in the gar­den of help­ing them­selves and oth­ers grow. They see poten­tial in every­body and are con­stant­ly won­der­ing how to help this per­son or that one past their con­di­tion­ing and self-made limits. 

I am remind­ed, for exam­ple, of a client busi­ness own­er who offered sup­port to one of his man­agers, a key report who had been work­ing in a vir­tu­al­ly 24/7 mode since he had been pro­mot­ed, a year or so ear­li­er. Every­thing was being han­dled per­son­al­ly by the man­ag­er and with with­er­ing per­fec­tion­ism. He was not del­e­gat­ing effec­tive­ly at all and the 3 AM emails were get­ting com­plete­ly out of hand. As a result of this sched­ule, the man­ager’s capac­i­ty to make good judg­ments had gone down some­what, so despite the per­fec­tion­ism his judg­ments and deci­sions were also some­times mis­takes. In addi­tion, the man­ager’s fam­i­ly life had been deeply affect­ed. He could nev­er let down, and when he final­ly did, too often he became lit­tle more than an irri­ta­ble couch veg­etable. My client, the man­ager’s boss, was so con­cerned about the man­ag­er that he hired me to work with them both as a coach. The man­ag­er was blam­ing my client for many of his prob­lems, say­ing that he had to work hard­er and hard­er for fear of mis­takes and get­ting into trou­ble with his boss, my client. My client was a shrewd boss with high stan­dards for sure, but he had no inten­tion at all of burn­ing the man­ag­er up with too much work or respon­si­bil­i­ty. And, in fact, the man­ag­er was mak­ing mistakes.

What my client rec­og­nized is that he had a stel­lar per­former who sim­ply need­ed to get a grip. Instead of deny­ing the man­ager’s alle­ga­tions or crit­i­ciz­ing him in return — turn­ing the prob­lems back on him — the boss agreed to do some­thing dif­fer­ent. We cre­at­ed an “inter­ven­tion” of sorts with boss, wife, man­ag­er and me all in the same room for most of a day, talk­ing about the effects and nat­ur­al con­se­quences of his con­tin­u­ing along the track he was on. The man­ag­er had no idea my client cared about what he was doing to him­self so much. It was quite mov­ing to see him, in the course of our meet­ing togeth­er, accept that care from boss and wife togeth­er. Over time, the man­ag­er made a major shift in his approach to his job.

Vision­ary work­place lead­ers are peo­ple who love the devel­op­ment of the human spir­it, in both self and oth­ers. [They are, of course, my pre­ferred client type.] The fact that they are human­is­tic does not mean that they are “soft” or unbusi­ness-like. But they do busi­ness differently. 

In terms of their respon­si­bil­i­ty for the cul­ture of their orga­ni­za­tions, they:

• believe in truth-telling and com­pas­sion in relationships

• accept that not every­one wants to grow and this is not a rea­son to reject or feel supe­ri­or to anyone

• under­stand that even when peo­ple gen­uine­ly do want to grow they may not know how to grow past their own chains

• under­stand that real growth, real change takes time

• ask for and receive feed­back about their own lead­er­ship, even when this is embar­rass­ing or painful; and then act on this feed­back constructively

• see them­selves as “the one who goes first” to demon­strate what true lead­ing and open­ness are like in real time

• dive deep in rela­tion­ships by ask­ing telling ques­tions about mean­ing, pur­pose, val­ue, and where the per­son is at, not just the col­league or employee.

• repeat­ed­ly voice the val­ue of trust in rela­tion­ships and cre­ate oppor­tu­ni­ties for oth­ers to build trust-based, col­lab­o­ra­tive rela­tion­ships with one anoth­er as part of their day-to-day work

• oper­ate from a posi­tion of respon­si­bil­i­ty, not blame, and go into “undis­cuss­able” con­flicts with courage, authen­tic­i­ty, and humility

• are vul­ner­a­ble as indi­vid­u­als, just as they encour­age vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty in oth­ers as a strength need­ed to over­come rela­tion­ship challenges

• see fam­i­ly and per­son­al rela­tion­ships out­side of work as just as impor­tant as the busi­ness and busi­ness relationships

• are sen­si­tive to a broad array of social issues, includ­ing social jus­tice and the arts

• sees his/her own life as an unfin­ished work of art.

When I look back over this list, the first thing I also see is that these vision­ary lead­ers have an iden­ti­cal con­cept of their pre­ferred rela­tion­ships with cus­tomers. What­ev­er ser­vice or prod­uct is being pro­vid­ed, that out­come is con­nect­ed to a real per­son. So quite nat­u­ral­ly, the goal is to pro­vide gen­uine val­ue in the human rela­tion­ship as much as in that ser­vice or product.

Hav­ing writ­ten these words, I won­der how it is we ever got to a world in which such peo­ple are vision­ary lead­ers instead of what we nor­mal­ly see in the busi­ness lead­ers we have. So many, even if they say that growth is of inter­est to them, real­ly don’t seem to live that val­ue at all, either in them­selves or in their rela­tion­ships with oth­ers, employ­ees and cus­tomers alike. Instead, they seem to occu­py an emo­tion­al­ly stunt­ed space that con­veys supe­ri­or­i­ty to oth­er peo­ple and they exhib­it a cer­tain polit­i­cal­ly thick skin or a “teflon” facade around feed­back; a harsh defen­sive­ness or arro­gant dis­missal when it comes to “undis­cuss­ables” that involve their own behav­ior. There seem to be so many lead­ers who just want to be immune to com­plaints, espe­cial­ly the ones about them. Can you blame them? So instead of hav­ing the strength to lis­ten, learn and act, they recede into the com­fort­able belief that it is the oth­er peo­ple who are real­ly the prob­lem. Such lead­ers may see them­selves as quite sen­si­tive to human con­cerns, and most, I would say, are good peo­ple who have great poten­tial. But, for now, they are actu­al­ly oper­at­ing from their own shad­ows — or bet­ter said, their shad­ows are actu­al­ly oper­at­ing them.

This means there is one addi­tion­al char­ac­ter­is­tic of vision­ary cul­ture lead­ers. They work from an under­stand­ing of the part played by the human heart. They know in what ways they are unfin­ished as human beings and are high­ly sen­si­tive to what that means. So with gen­uine respect for life, and mind­ful­ly, they are able to let the heart lead in exact­ly those places busi­ness needs it most. 

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  • Excep­tion­al writ­ing as usu­al Dan. This is a post I will return to over the days to come, for each of those bul­let points you list­ed is quite provoca­tive, and I want to sit with your list-top­per for a while — truth telling. Though we know we should err on the side of the truth it still requires so much brav­ery in many work­places: We often must set the stage by clean­ing up mis­con­cep­tions so oth­ers do not feel the real truth is cloud­ed by hid­den motives. Thus I like how you have cou­pled truth telling with com­pas­sion, but brav­ery is still required when tough love is part of the mix — and it often is, just as with the sto­ry you shared.

  • It’s an impor­tant point that you make, Rosa, about need­ing to clean up mis­con­cep­tions first. I very much agree with you. From one stand­point that means the mes­sen­ger needs to come across with such gen­uine­ness, good intent, and will­ing­ness to address any neg­a­tive per­cep­tions that the receiv­er is able to let down his/her per­son­al guard and trust. But in the sto­ry I’ve shared, I would say it played a lit­tle dif­fer­ent­ly, and I hope you won’t hear this as just seman­tics. I think the “inter­ven­tion” was not so much about telling the truth to one anoth­er as sim­ply work­ing to find it togeth­er. I think we assumed that we did­n’t ful­ly know what that truth was, and that in itself was essen­tial. In his book, Lead­er­ship: The Inner Side of Great­ness, Peter Koesten­baum tells a sto­ry about some engi­neers who dis­cov­ered that they need­ed to move from the notion that every prob­lem has a solu­tion to a new par­a­digm that acknowl­edges that peo­ple expe­ri­ence pain, and that pain could move them to dia­logue, and in turn to per­son­al and col­lec­tive growth. I believe that under­ly­ing shift was also a part of the inter­ven­tion sto­ry I shared.

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