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How to become a visionary leader (even if you’re not a CEO) 7 min read
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What do today’s brightest business leaders have in common? In short, they’re always looking forward. Enter the era of visionary leadership, where managers rely on big ideas and innovation to motivate their teams. And despite popular belief, visionary leadership isn’t reserved for the Tim Cooks and Marc Benioffs of the world. If you’re in a leadership role at your company, “vision” shouldn’t just be a buzzword. The good news? You likely have what it takes to become a visionary leader regardless of your industry or the size of your team. Let’s kick things off with a quick definition of this leadership style we can work with. A visionary leader is someone who communicates big-picture goals and aspirations to their colleagues. Visionary leaders actively work to motivate and inspire teams to work together toward a common mission. They’re confident, proactive and seek to innovate. We can look at tech giants like Apple and Salesforce as prime examples of visionary leadership in action. For example, Steve Jobs’ bold vision was always a trademark of Apple. But current CEO Tim Cook promised to continue pushing the envelope in the company’s revised vision statement after taking the reins at Apple: “We believe that we are on the face of the earth to make great products and that’s not changing.” Similarly, Marc Benioffs’ vision of accessible business software drove Salesforce to dominate a $120 billion market that continues to boom. Benioff himself notes that vision and values are key to Salesforces’ success. And on that note, visionary leadership is directly tied to positive outcomes for businesses and their employees. Because mission-driven workplaces produce highly engaged, more productive employees versus companies without a defined vision. The takeaway here? Visionary leadership isn’t just a net positive for your team’s morale – it’s also key for boosting your bottom line.


The Keys to Becoming a Visionary Leader

Below we’ve outlined the key principles of visionary leadership that are actionable for managers of all shapes and sizes. No matter what your team currently looks like, these tips are fair game.

1. Communicate Your Team’s Narrative

Being a good storyteller goes hand in hand with visionary leadership. Former Google veteran and current TaskRabbit CEO Stacy Brown-Philpot cites storytelling as central to Google’s leadership style. How to Become a Visionary Leader Specifically, she makes a point to start every weekly standup meeting with team with some sort of story. In her own words, the purpose of such a story is simple: “Inspire your teams and help them feel connected to the company’s mission and vision The good news? You don’t need to be a master storyteller to communicate that vision. You don’t need be part of a massive company like Google, either. Coming up with a company narrative starts by reflecting on the following

  • Where your company is headed (think: future innovations, milestones and long-term goals)
  • Principles and values (think: what your company stands for and how those values differ from your competition)
  • Challenges (think: what your company has overcome in the past and you plan on tackling in the future)

As a visionary leader, your job is to condense these points into a narrative that your employees can act on. This again speaks to the importance of communicating your vision to your employees. According to data scientist and leadership expert Noah Zandan, there are three common threads between how the top visionary leaders communicate:

  • They speak to the present rather than the future (ex: “We will” instead of “We plan to”)
  • They speak simply (rather than get caught up in statistics or jargon, talk in plain English)
  • Theyfrequently use “you” to address their audience (this makes your vision more immediate and tangible)

These communication tips will make your vision easier to understand and more actionable to your employees as a result.

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2. Keep Your Vision Within the Scope of Your Team’s Work

Here’s a sobering statistic: only 23% of employees can tie their companies mission to their goals at work. Think about it. Telling an IT team that they’re going to “change the world” isn’t going to do much to motivate them. In fact, doing so could feel downright cynical. Instead, you should tie your teams contributions to the larger narrative of your company. For example, Google’s Stephanie Davis notes that she would take on the task of interpreting the company’s higher-level vision on behalf of her team. Specifically, she would attend earnings calls and focus on specific details that applied to the people she managed. Visionary Leaders Align Their Vision with Company Goals Downsizing your vision like this doesn’t mean minimizing your workers’ roles and goals. If anything, it means doing the exact opposite. Let’s say you have a team of four analysts among a massive enterprise. If earnings and productivity are on upswing, consider their individual projects and milestones that made it happen. Ask yourself: how are they contributing to the big picture of your company? Communicating your vision clearly and effectively will ultimately make your team feel like they’re making a legitimate difference rather than cogs in the machine.

3. Take Your Vision Beyond Just Talking Points

When it comes to visionary leadership, talk is cheap. Your team needs to be aware of how they’re specifically making your vision a reality. For example, look at a company such as Nordstrom whose vision is straightforward: give customers the most compelling shopping experience possible. And in an era where two-thirds of employees crave more input from their managers, it’s important to acknowledge individual teams for their efforts in achieving innovations that build toward bigger goals. Frequent praise and feedback is yet another way to help employees understand their contributions toward your vision.

4. Align Your Vision with Greater Company Goals

Remember: conveying your vision isn’t just a back-and-forth between you and your team. Consider also your own responsibility to communicate with C-level employees and your own higher-ups, too. “The positive impact of visionary leadership breaks down when middle managers aren’t aligned with top management’s strategic vision,” notes Nufer Yasin Ates in his research for Harvard Business Review. “This can cause strategic change efforts to slow down or even fail.” Your ability to succeed as a visionary leader is only as good as your understanding of what top management expects. Bridge the gap between what your managers want and your team’s day-to-day tasks. The takeaway? Make sure that your team’s individual vision isn’t siloed from the rest of your organization. As you can probably tell by now, so much of being a visionary leader boils down to the ability to clearly communicate expectations.

Are You Embracing Visionary Leadership?

At a glance, visionary leadership might seem like something beyond your grasp. The reality, though? Being a visionary leader doesn’t mean being a C-level executive. It doesn’t mean setting lofty, pie-in-the-sky goals, either. Embracing visionary leadership means motivating your colleagues with a mission and tying that mission to your team’s goals. The steps above can serve as your roadmap for doing exactly that.

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