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:
â€¢ believe in truth-telling and compassion in relationships
â€¢ accept that not everyone wants to grow and this is not a reason to reject or feel superior to anyone
â€¢ understand that even when people genuinely do want to grow they may not know how to grow past their own chains
â€¢ understand that real growth, real change takes time
â€¢ ask for and receive feedback about their own leadership, even when this is embarrassing or painful; and then act on this feedback constructively
â€¢ see themselves as “the one who goes first” to demonstrate what true leading and openness are like in real time
â€¢ dive deep in relationships by asking telling questions about meaning, purpose, value, and where the person is at, not just the colleague or employee.
â€¢ 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
â€¢ operate from a position of responsibility, not blame, and go into “undiscussable” conflicts with courage, authenticity, and humility
â€¢ are vulnerable as individuals, just as they encourage vulnerability in others as a strength needed to overcome relationship challenges
â€¢ see family and personal relationships outside of work as just as important as the business and business relationships
â€¢ are sensitive to a broad array of social issues, including social justice and the arts
â€¢ 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.
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.