Does a leader have to be visionary? Do they have to create a picture of the future they can communicate to their followers in a language they understand? Do they have to simplify messages and reduce clutter around the understanding of the goal?
Undoubtedly, Australia and the world have had visionary leaders.
Some have been inspirational to people over the world.
Fred Hollows, appalled that poor people could go blind all for the want of a $6 lens implant to correct cataracts, set about righting the wrongs of the lack of treatment for poor people’s eyesight around the world. Since his death, his legacy lives on through the Hollows Foundation.
Nelson Mandela held a positive vision of a racially harmonious South Africa despite spending 28 years in jail. He achieved his vision peacefully by force of argument.
Steve Jobs was a visionary thinker who thought visually about form and function melded together. He transformed how we communicate and learn not by sensing public opinion and preferences, but by visualising what was possible, and set about converting the world to his view – and not limiting himself to meeting the apparent needs of consumers.
Some have been despotic and are considered by many to be evil and yet they had many followers.
Adolf Hitler had millions of followers. He was, by the simplest definition, a leader. He had a vision of German dominance and racial purity; a repugnant vision but a vision nonetheless.
Mao Tse Tung had more than one vision during his rule including the “Great Leap Forward” which was Mao’s attempt to modernise China’s economy so that by 1988, China would have an economy that rivalled America. He had many millions of followers and yet is reputedly responsible for the deaths of tens of millions in the execution of his vision.
Osama Bin Laden too has followers and had a vision. In 1997, he stated that he was the leader who can unite Muslims and establish the ‘Pious Caliphate.’ The Pious Caliphate lasted 29 years and was notable for a remarkable expansion of the Islamic State and the democratic election of the Khalifahs, successors to the prophet.
History is full of visionary leaders of all types, from emperors to politicians to business people.
Emperor Claudius was in no means a charismatic character, but he was an ambitious builder – constructing many new roads, aqueducts, and canals across the Roman Empire. In his time, the Empire conquered Thrace, Noricum, Pamphylia, Lycia and Judaea, and began the conquest of Britain during his reign. He had many followers; however, as was the practice of the time, it was dangerous to be a Senator who objected strongly to his rule.
Franklin D Roosevelt led the US out of depression with his New Deal when all hope seemed lost. He was the only US President to serve three terms.
Jack Welch turned GE in the world’s largest company with a clear vision of what it took to be successful as a business, including the mantra of “if a business was not first or second in its industry, it should be sold or closed”.
So, it is easy to come up with a list of leaders – good and evil – who were visionary.
What of other leaders? Are they all visionary? Can you be an effective leader without a vision of what the organisation you lead will look like, be like, feel like in ten or twenty years’ time?
For example, what of leaders who were elected to their position because they were likeable?
Bob Hawke was likeable in the opinion of many Australians. Was he considered a leader because he was likeable, or because he had a vision of a deregulated, and (in his view) fairer Australia?
What of leaders who were technically very competent, but not visionary? Can you think of a technically competent leader, who did not have a vision, whose legacy survived a change in leadership?
What of leaders who are autocratic? How long does their legacy last if they do not have a vision to accompany their command and control style? I have met many autocratic leaders. Those with a vision have a difficult life, as they need to be on top of every element that comprises the strategy to reach their vision. Autocrats without vision don’t have anywhere near that hard a life, as they don’t need to be consistent, just insistent.
What about those leaders who are accommodating and agreeable? It is probably axiomatic that they do not have a vision. It is impossible to change your view on issues and your approach to problems if you do have a vision.
Leaders, great leaders, are visionary.
And they communicate that vision using passion, symbols and facts.