Discover 8 reasons why many lack a leadership vision, 4 ways you can use it if you got it, and 4 characteristics defining a leader’s vision.
By Murray Johannsen. Feel free to connect with the author by Linkedin, this site, or by email.
It’s said that managers plan, but leaders have a vision. So what does this mean? It means that leaders use imagination in ways most managers cannot.
Visionary leaders live more in the future and they often use that vision as a way of mobilizing followers. When leaders have a vision they signal what followers can expect. That vision serves as a means of creating a following and as a form of influence.
- Content Guide
- Visionary Leaders Are Transformational
- Four Reasons To Develop Your Vision
- How You Can Use Your Vision
- Eight Reasons Adults Are Not Visionary Leaders
- 1. Many Tend to Live In the Past
- 2. Imagination Is Not Exercised
- 3. We Ignore Imagery When Thinking
- 4. We Lack Parental Support When Young
- 5. We Do Not Use Imagery in Normal Conversation
- 6. We Don’t Pay Attention to Dreams
- 7. Adults Use Imagination Less Than Children
- 8. The Education System Retards Our Imagination
- On Site Resources
- Related Pages
Visionary Leaders Are Transformational
“Use it or lose it.” — A saying often heard in bodybuilding circles
“One faces a choice in life. You can do what you are told by parents and the bosses or you can define a vision for yourself.” — Murray Johannsen
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Four Reasons To Develop Your Vision
Vision is one type of mental imagery. Clearly, people with vision are highly motivated. It does not work to follow a vision — it’s joy. General characteristics include:
• It Provides Direction
Typically, the leader puts forward a desired future and moves followers toward it.
• It Uses Foresight
Typically considered a part of wisdom, it is sometimes said that a truly great visionary leader knows what’s going to happen before others do.
• It is believed
One must be right or at least perceived to be right. It is believed at two levels. First, the leader believes it. This strong belief prevents doubt from eroding its power. Secondly, the faithful also believes it with heart, mind, and soul.
• It motivates
If the message cannot energize those hearing it, the would-be visionary leader would be better off teaching economics. The U.S. founding fathers (the ones who came up with the Constitution), Mother Teresa (a Nobel laureate), and Mahatma Gandhi are just a few who had a great vision.
How You Can Use Your Vision
1. Use Vision as an End
For example, close your eyes for a moment. Imagine that you are on a basketball court. See the ball going through the hoop and points added on the scoreboard. This is what some refer to as goal imagery. Some leaders view vision as a goal, a result, as in a destination at the end of a journey. In this case, the leadership vision represents a state, the results of a problem solved or an opportunity manifest.
2. Use Vision as a Means For Defining Action
Sometimes, vision in leadership is more of a journey than a destination. In this case, leaders must construct the means.
To take an example. You are an investor and you want to make 10 thousand Euros within sixty days. One must see the one best path from among thousands of potential choices.
The importance of leadership vision as a means is illustrated with the following story.
Once upon a time, there was a man, who knows not where he was going since he knows not where he was. Since he does not know where he was, he could go neither forward, nor backward. Eventually, he saw the sun setting and saw how to go west.
3. Use Vision as a Way of Defining Operational Strategy
To use vision as a strategy, one needs to define three elements—the plan, current state, and desired state. It means defining where one is now, where one wants to be in the future and how one is going to get there. In many cases, a leadership vision is about defining all three to be able to persuade the skeptical that there something is doable.
In some cases, this is easy. For example, if one has the money, it’s easy to come up with a strategy for buying a home since the process has been defined and followed by millions over the years. On the other hand, nation-building is a lot more difficult. As the neocons in the Bush Administration found out when they tried to rebuild Iraq after it had been wrecked by war.
4. Use Vision as Part of Janusian Thinking
You might say, that to know how to act in the present, one has to keep one face on the past and one face on the future. This is symbolized by the Roman god Janus.
Janus was actually a transformational symbol who was represented as having two faces. When one walked into a Roman home one saw one face looking outside and the other looking inside. Or you might say, one face was looking forward into the future while the other face was looking into the past.
Eight Reasons Adults Are Not Visionary Leaders
For individual and societal reasons, visionaries tend to be rather rare. After all, how many of you in August of 2007 foresaw that much of the world would be in recession by December of 2008? Yet, the forces leading to the recession were clearly evident in 2007.
Just as it is important for each of us to develop vision, it’s even more important that our leadership is visionary. A general lack of visionary leadership results from many individual and social factors. A few of the more important ones are listed below.
1. Many Tend to Live In the Past
Unfortunately, few people spend any meaningful time thinking about the future. They think mostly about what happened to them in the past. How sad.
2. Imagination Is Not Exercised
I have had a number of college students who have told me the answer is, “zero.” In my case, not once in thousands of hours of classroom education has an instructor, professor, a teacher even asked me to harness the power of imagination. In fact, if you actually close your eyes even briefly, the teacher or (the boss for that matter) would assume that you’re a slacker who is whiling away the time sleeping.
The education system (at least in America) stresses language, analysis, logic, and reason—what people tend to call left-hemispheric processes. Nothing wrong with that. However, rather than imagination being a partner in the thinking process, it is the beggar you would rather not see and want to ignore.
3. We Ignore Imagery When Thinking
Normal consciousness has many strengths, but experiencing visionary imagery is not one of them. We see the images coming from the eyes, but we are barely aware of the images associated with thoughts.
Try this thought experiment. Keep your eyes open. Now think, “I am happy!” Are you aware of any images? Many would say no, especially when that statement is sandwiched between other thoughts.
Now think, “I’m happy,” again, but this time keeps the word happy in mind for a few seconds, as a focus of attention. Does an image come up? Some say no, but many would say an image does come to mind when you give it enough time.
Now try the same thing with the eyes closed. Visualize “I am happy.” Is the image easier to see? Most would say it is, closing the eyes helps to see the picture or the movie. Of course, that brings up an interesting question. Do you routinely close your eyes and visualize things? Again, most people would say no.
4. We Lack Parental Support When Young
Parents often discourage the evolution of imagination. Children tend to live in a world of fantasy anyway so it would be relatively easy to induce them to become visionary. But many parents assume vision is like fantasy—it’s more destructive than constructive.
5. We Do Not Use Imagery in Normal Conversation
Take this quick test. Can you define the following?
If you cannot get 6 more, it means you have not been that you are not that familiar with the use of words with high image content.
6. We Don’t Pay Attention to Dreams
Unfortunately, many adults do not remember dream imagery. This is despite the fact we dream three or four times a night. Paying more attention to dreams would help to exercise one’s imagination and thus develop a vision.
7. Adults Use Imagination Less Than Children
“Some things change, some things don’t.” — Morpheus, The Matrix Reloaded.
If you talk to four or five-year-old they are always clear about what they are going to do with their life. They say with absolute certainty that they are going to be a nurse, a teacher, a doctor, a fireman. They spend a great deal of time exercising their imagination. Some create an entire imaginary universe. Some had imaginary friends. If you ask the same question of teenagers, many choke, being totally clueless.
And those that say something, parrot back their parent’s view about going to college, becoming a professional who makes lots of money. For example, many a mother would love to say with pride, “My son, the doctor.” It’s one thing to give your mom brag rights with her friends, it’s another to follow a vision.
8. The Education System Retards Our Imagination
It’s reasonable to ask if the educational system itself weakens that the use of our vision. Many think it does. After all, how many times has a teacher asked you to, “Close your eyes and use your imagination.” Seriously, in all those thousands of hours of sitting in a classroom, how many times can you remember engaging in flights of fancy. But don’t despair, what hasn’t been used can be exercised and strengthened.
Visionary leadership style can be considered to be a type of transformational leadership (or the other way around). It’s rather rare though. But it’s rare partly because it is not cultivated but it could be.
On Site Resources
First Published March 9, 2014. Last Updated July 16, 2023