We all crave it. A visionary leader who, with confidence and optimism, provides an inspiring picture of a shared future that solves many of our problems and provides hope. Someone who is smarter, wiser, more courageous, of independent mind, above the fray, and charismatic. With these qualities in place in our leader, we can all get to work to bring his/her vision of our future to reality.
Sometimes, this actually works. The leader has all or most of these qualities, and in fact delivers on the promise.
Sometimes, it doesn’t. The reason is usually rooted in collusion between the leader (who is gratified by the adulation and/or power) and the rest of us as followers, who ignore our responsibilities and cede our power because it is the path of least resistance.
What makes this possible?
Five factors are most common:
- The visionary leader’s self assessment is inflated by the positive attention.
- The followers stop doing reality checks on the leader, for personal reasons and in response to peer pressure.
- The hope generated by the visionary leader is intoxicating and/or provides relief from an otherwise grim situation. It is SO much more appealing than the hard work that is required if we all share responsibility for moving things forward. See The Great Man Theory.
- The visionary leader is personally different than prior leaders (a woman following a series of masculine men, for example) and is therefore more easily believed.
- The followers are concerned that if they challenge the leader’s views, they will be exposed as incompetent or less intelligent.
Vaccines and Antidotes
A Few Things Can Help:
- Have everyone of influence read this Blog post and then have group conversations about it (Leadership Team, Board, etc.). Also provide similar articles from other sources, such as those below which provide a variety of sources and presentations styles:
- Put in place multiple reality checks that don’t require individual heroic effort or initiation. Examples include:
- routine organizational 360’s with community participation
- routine leadership 360’s
- consultants spending enough time in the leadership team that they would sense something amiss and could give voice to it
- Have a lead HR person with the experience to notice, courage to speak up, and grace to do it well. If your own HR person doesn’t have these qualities, bring in HR consulting support to shore them up.
- Have healthy Board level conversation about the organization’s ambitions and vision for the future – both the content of those ambitions and the process through which they were established.
- Watch for behavioral indications of trouble in leaders:
- propose highly ambitious visions for the organization but don’t involve others in their creation
- don’t readily hand off portions of the vision to others to shape and implement
- when success is had, don’t deflect the praise from themselves and onto their staff