To find out more about how high performance leaders can focus on being visionaries, HPL Insider spoke with Kevin F. Leonard, founder, CEO and principal consultant of Emerald Bay Performance in Minneapolis. He is a highly acclaimed strategist and results leader in organizational performance. From executive teambuilding, strategy development and execution, to individualized coaching, performance improvement and knowledge retention, Leonard has been incredibly successful in delivering results and measurable value to his clients in this critical environment.
HPL Insider: What does being a visionary leader mean to you?
Kevin F. Leonard: My answer may surprise you… First, it is important to understand that being a visionary leader and having success are not mutually inclusive. There are tens of thousands of “visions” from leadership that fail every year. Being a visionary leader is just one of many types of leadership, but I believe it is the most effective for these uncertain times. A visionary leader is not about being way out there on the bleeding edge as some might think. To me, it is about identifying the need, taking a step back, not thinking so hard, clearing your senses and observing the lay of the land. Then, comes the critical part and the part I believe is the hallmark of every successful visionary leader: envisioning the point of difference that is going to project your company to be the “head and shoulders” choice over your competition. Then, and only then, can you craft the visions necessary to achieve success as a visionary leader and leave behind the low-wattage “command and control” style of leadership.
HPL Insider: Do such leaders share common characteristics? If so, can you describe them?
Leonard: Yes, they do… and, yes, I will. The most common characteristic of a successful visionary leader is the unwillingness to subscribe to a level of mediocrity that their peers, more often than not, are willing to accept. Visionary leaders also create an environment of empowerment and responsibility that allows everyone to perform at the absolute highest levels with minimal supervision.
Another successful trait of successful visionary leaders is they implement high performance business/leadership models that amp up accountability throughout the organization from C-Level to the frontlines. Leadership is not exclusive to management.
Visionary leaders are not afraid to be wrong or exhibit a willingness to challenge their own assumptions. They put everything on the table for possibilities and do not succumb to their own parochial view of what that vision should be. Most importantly, the successful visionary leader looks at what 95 percent of their competition is doing and makes darn sure that is not part of their vision.
I think the following quote by Albert Einstein should, if it is not already, be the preamble for all visionary leaders:
“I believe in intuition and inspiration. At times, I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason. When the eclipse of 1919 confirmed my intuition, I was not in the least surprised. In fact, I would have been astonished had it turned out otherwise. Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”
HPL Insider: What obstacles can stand in the way of being a visionary leader? How can these be overcome?
Leonard: The most important obstacle I see for the visionary leader is selling the vision to others. If someone has been in the workplace long enough they often have seen too many failed visions come down the pike. These team members need to be convinced why this vision is really the one that is going to be successful. As an example, one team member confided during a coaching session that he “felt like Charlie Brown going up to kick the football just to have it pulled away at the last second and, once again, there I am lying on my back.”
Visionary leaders also have to be careful to not “fill the sky with birds” with too many visions as it creates “stray voltage” throughout the organization and interferes with focus and direction.
Another major obstacle is what I call “current leadership syndrome” where existing management instructs the newly hired visionary leader how to manage and then expects him or her to do so. Essentially, they are expecting them to follow the failed policies that caused them to hire the visionary in the first place. Sounds crazy? Well it is! The fact is current leaders all-too-often do not want to change and, therefore, hire the visionary leader to change the attitude of the subordinates. They don’t realize that attitudes are a reflection of leadership.
To overcome these and other obstacles, the visionary leader has to educate and change the attitude of the current management and/or the board of directors to accept and adopt visionary leadership and high performance leadership/business modeling as the new standard operating practice. Simply stated, it is a matter of trust. When the visionary leader earns the trust of his or her sphere of influence, they will achieve the buy-in necessary to be successful.
The ability to condition management to lead in such a way that will condition all workers to assume responsibility is paramount to the success of the visionary leader and the organization they lead.
HPL Insider: How do organizations with a true vision differ from those without?
Leonard: Those with true vision believe in their exceptionality. They are social visionaries first and, then, product visionaries. These visionaries are innovative and continuously improve how they value, organize and engage their human capital. They understand that technology only gets them so far, but it is their people that put them over the top and give them the competitive edge. These companies are ships with all crew and no passengers.
Those that have faulty vision tend to subscribe to command-and-control management and rely on technology, policy, and systems almost exclusively, which fosters mediocrity at best and failure more often than not. They view human capital as a commodity and, as a result, under-value their currency who, without a doubt, are their most valuable asset. They don’t realize that while technology may be the “organs” of the company, their people are the “circulatory and central nervous systems” that are the lifeblood of every successful organization.