In my executive coaching groups, I’ve proposed the question, “What is a Visionary Leader?”
The responses vary. Some describe leadership in terms of spatial orientation (“first through the door,” “stand with,” or “servant leader”) while others describe a leadership that is visceral and relational, having more to do with presence than position.
Below are some examples of each. It’s possible that, as a leader, you feel more than one of these, or some combination. Regardless, it’s clear that when people describe Visionary Leadership, they think of something greater than themselves -- something that is expansive, inclusive and multi-dimensional.
What makes a leader visionary may be their ability to switch between these styles depending on the situation, organization or project.
1. Leading from above
You may be tempted to think of “leading from above” as implying hierarchy (or worse yet, patriarchy). You may think of the traditional, top-down, “command and control” leadership roles of corporations past. However, what I hear when people describe this orientation is that the leader is put on a platform or pedestal by the team. This gives them someone to look up to and also gives the leader line of sight across organizational divides (see Vision below).
2. Leading from below
The best CEOs lead from the bottom of the pyramid. They know that they will get the results and outcomes they need through other people. This “servant leader” knows their role is to clear blocks and obstacles for the team in order to keep them motivated and productive.
3. I go first
Some leaders want to be the first through the door. They are willing to take the bullet or the hit to prove something to the team. These kinds of leaders might be described as pioneers or trailblazers. They might be the kind of leader who will show the team instead of tell them. These executives -- those leading from the front -- need to occasionally look behind them and make sure the team is still there.
4. Leading from behind
The rarest of these is someone who leads from behind. This is the pack-leader wolf who leads her group from the rear, monitoring those at the front, watching for attack from all sides. This type of leader makes sure they have a clear line of sight into the team, its interdependencies, weaknesses and threats. They make it a priority to have the right people in the right seats.
5. Standing with (or alongside)
This kind of leadership looks more like advocacy or mentorship. It may be described by others as “handholding” or “propping up” but this orientation puts the leader and team member on equal footing. Don’t confuse this type of leadership with the manager who would rather be your friend than your boss. These leaders show up as a thinking partner, collaborator or a coach. They bring a coaching mindset to bear on each problem, asking the right questions and allowing the team member to be responsible and accountable.
This type of leadership looks like a circle (or a dance) where the spatial dynamics shift and change with the phases of growth of the group. Traditionally, a circle or council is considered to be a more “feminine” (read: marginalized) model, though movements like Holacracy are attempting to bring these models into the mainstream -- and make the old new again.
1. Vision (Seeing)
These leaders are the eyes of the organization, seeing what others can’t. They have an ability to perceive and process large amounts of information, which gives them a birds-eye-view of the business and insight into team dynamics. (See “Leading from above”)
2. Heart (Hearing)
These leaders are said to have their “finger on the pulse” of the business. They spend time listening and responding intuitively to subtle changes. They are also said to be the “heartbeat” at the center of the organization that keeps the blood (energy) pumping.
3. Empathy (Feeling)
These leaders are described as highly empathetic. They occupy the interpersonal “we space.” They value language and human interaction. Their style is highly relational, emotionally intelligent and communicative. (See “Collaboration”)
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I’d love to know what Visionary Leadership looks and feels like to you. Please leave your thoughts or insights in the comments.
According to the Wall Street Journal, WeWork CEO Sandeep Mathrani recently said that remote workers are less-than-engaged with the companies they work for. Mathrani’s conflict of interest here is staggering as his business model clearly depends on people leaving their homes.
Then, Morgan Chase & Co.'s Jamie Dimon said remote work doesn’t work well “for those who want to hustle.” This contradicts a recent SHRM article which stated that:
You cannot tell me that remote workers don't have "hustle" or that they aren't committed. As I see it, there are only two downsides to an all-remote team. The first is losing physical touch and biofeedback loops created by being in the presence of others. The second is losing the opportunity for leadership's shitty ideas to go sour around the water cooler. Having that side conversation in the hallway or throwing some over-the-cubicle shade can be a necessary ingredient to determine viability and feasibility or to create stable bonds in the culture.
CEOs leading in remote environments risk fabricating grim fairy tales of how work is going unless they are surrounded by the inputs and outputs of the team.
I've seen CEOs make confident and horrible decisions despite the cost to culture and strategy.
I've seen leaders get caught up in their own bubble and believe their own bullshit because no one would push back.
I've seen entrepreneurs endlessly chase new and novel ideas, calling it "innovation."
I've seen too many bosses mistake faith, loyalty or acquiescence for buy-in.
Real alignment – real wisdom – is a matrix of legacy, mindset, certainty and inclusion. This is the mythical Zone of Genius. If you aren't leading from this place, you may very well destroy what you're building.
The Leadership Line (Uncertainty → Certainty)
Certainty in this case does not mean your personal confidence or optimism about your vision or the business’s prospects. On the flip side, I'm not talking about uncertainty in terms of futures, foresight or plausibility. I’m not saying that you should claim to know things you don’t.
I'm talking about organizational uncertainty -- a lack of vision or transparency, poor communication, no line of sight into or across divisions, low team morale/confidence, lack of alignment around (or commitment to) OKRs, etc.
Uncertainty in this sense is deeply felt and unmistakable. It makes the business (and those inside it) feel like they are floating on a loosely-bound raft, sure to drown at any moment.
Leading with certainty lowers resistance to change because everyone has enough information, there is transparency in the planning and they are confident that you’re the leader that will take them there.
The Culture Line (Exclusion → Inclusion)
On one end of the culture line, team members are excluded, left out of rooms or conversations they feel are important, and kept in silos.
An inclusive culture convenes the right voices around the table, puts the right people in the right seats, creates openness and psychological safety, and facilitates meaningful and productive dialogue among team members. An inclusive culture might look diverse or include different opinions or communication styles, but it always respects the individual and treats conflict as an opportunity for growth.
The Mindset Line (Fixed → Growth)
In her 2008 book, Mindset, Carol Dweck wrote that people with a fixed mindset avoid challenges, give up easily, see effort as fruitless, ignore feedback and are threatened by the success of others. Those with a growth mindset embrace challenges, persist in the face of obstacles, see effort as the path to mastery, learn from criticism and find inspiration in others’ success.
Great leaders view themselves and others with a growth mindset. An individual’s mindset varies wildly depending on what their mind is fixed upon. Being able to spot a fixed mindset is the key to loosening it up and allowing for growth. Notice when your beliefs are telling you that something or someone is “impossible.” Possibilities emerge when you quickly reframe negativity.
The Legacy Line (Immediate → Generational)
This line indicates the depth or complexity of your decision-making. On one end, we find immediate and short-term benefits to yourself, your reputation, or business. These are quick wins that yield small- to medium-sized returns.
On the other end, we see decisions that take into consideration and may benefit the seventh generation and beyond. These decisions might be described as visionary, ethical, sustainable, or having a “long tail.” These require patience and deliver longer-term results, sometimes even beyond the lifespan of the founder.
All coaching is the same no matter what you call it.
Whether you call it life coaching, executive coaching, purpose coaching, or creativity coaching, coaches identify growth and development opportunities. With executive coaching, sometimes the only difference is that the company is paying for it.
A coach is not a therapist. A therapist is concerned with things like safety, story, and setting. They are willing to focus on the past, listen to the client talk about their wounding and provide or prescribe tools to help the client manage the process of healing.
A coach is focused on the future self (or state) and accountability to the client’s vision of that future. The role of the coach is to see the nascent potential — the glowing ember at the heart of the individual and to breathe air onto it, fanning the flames of growth and becoming.
The goal of any coach should be to provide feedback on behavior, strengthen client performance, and nurture underdeveloped skills.
One former coaching client had scheduled a Walk and Talk session with me at a local park. She was in a horrible living situation, had been offered a great opportunity out of state, and was conflicted on whether or not to pack up her family and move — or stay put where she had laid down some roots and made some friends. We hadn’t gotten more than five yards when I needed to challenge some of her beliefs. She told me that my language was “triggering” for her and that she felt like I was telling her what to do (I wasn’t).
I stopped walking and told her we could not move forward until she understood two things:
I gave her a choice: Stop now, get your money back and find a different coach or we move forward and I continue with what you’re paying me to do — provide coaching.
She chose to move forward. She also chose to move. Her family is now thriving in their new home.
Sometimes, a coaching client will be dealing with blocks or obstacles. The most common tendency is for the client to see these obstacles as external to themselves — somewhere out in their environment, or maybe in the form of other people. In the rarest cases, like when a person is in prison, this is true. Most of the time, though, these blocks are internal. They are psychological. The aim of coaching is to gain clarity around these obstacles, getting objectivity or distance from them until they seem small and insignificant.
The highest outcome is that the client surrounds themselves with people (mentors) that are skilled at navigating these obstacles, and ultimately sees themself as someone who is skilled at navigating, confronting or avoiding these blocks altogether.
This is not the same as doing mindset work. Mindset is focused on the science of neuroplasticity and describes how the brain and mind respond to things like effort, criticism, challenges or the success of others. Carol Dweck has written extensively about the difference between Fixed and Growth mindset.
But, if we are not oriented to a North Star, performing our Noble Commitment in the world, fulfilling our sacred calling or vocation, or living out our purpose, why would we ever be motivated for growth? Why would we ever bloom where we are planted?
Coaching is the act of helping others identify that purpose and take control of their life in order to move toward that purpose. It is the art of helping others become the lotus and rise from the mud.
Most of the executives I coach want to feel like they are making meaning in the world. They believe there is “something more” to their work than the meetings, budgets, and bottom line.
They care deeply about legacy and are concerned about who or what is next. In the best cases, they have two people lined up behind them and are focused on teaching them everything they know. Some are lost — overwhelmed by strategy, mastery, empathy, or power. They know that if they are not in control of their lives or business, someone else will be.
Hiring the right coach helps you realize you are exactly where you need to be, that you are equipped with everything you need and that you can take control of your life or business. Simply being seen as someone who drives strategy, walks the path of mastery, fosters empathy and stands in your power is sometimes all we need to make it so.
Are you ready to be seen or acknowledged in this way?
Who better to be in control of your life than you?
From world-traveling author and musician to founder of a global interfaith movement to innovation consultant, Joran Slane Oppelt has blazed a creative and uncompromising trail. In addition to coaching and consulting CEOs at some of the world’s largest organizations, Joran (and his wife Jennifer) have started and sold two businesses of their own. If you are wanting to boost your accountability, work your growth edges, and really step up as the leader and CEO of your business, schedule a Discovery Call today and see if Executive Coaching is right for you.
Join Amplified -- Joran's free Executive Coaching group -- here.
Here's the most important thing I learned in 5 years working at a consultancy.
It was hinted at when I became a non-smoker, it slapped me in the face when I became a parent, it was drilled into me when I became a coach and a chaplain, and as a consultant working with executives, it became so far cemented into my understanding that I now take it for granted.
It remains true across the board -- for CEOs, salespeople, accountants, administrators, artists, doctors, cashiers, students -- anyone who receives information daily through their senses and is tasked with integrating it into their attitude, outlook, strategy or worldview.
It is true for individuals as well as organizations.
It is true for teams, tribes and nations.
So, today, for whoever needs to hear it:
YOU MUST LET GO THE IMAGE OF WHO YOU ARE BEFORE YOU CAN BEGIN THE WORK OF BECOMING SOMEONE NEW.
You’re probably thinking, “that’s great, but how.”
Here’s the how:
You currently have an image or an idea of yourself.
Burn it, scream at an empty chair, write it out, sweat it out, but get rid of it until it stops showing up. Then grieve it -- cry, laugh, tell stories about it.
“Remember that time I …”
In my studies as a chaplain, I learned that before you can affirm, you must deny. Clear the hovel, tear out the weeds, scorch the earth, only then can you till and plant and build.
You must say (out loud):
Then, remove those environmental triggers or the people in your life who don't see your potential (the smokers or quicksanders who are angry and jealous that you've left them behind), those who would judge, ridicule, diminish or minimize your efforts to evolve and grow.
Surround yourself with those people (and voices) who are succeeding and making the change look easy. Organizationally, this may look like onboarding (or removing) the people who can't grok the new vision.
All the while, affirming:
It all begins with screaming out loud for all to hear (and sometimes destroying something).
1. Design Thinking
Design Thinking is just another word for the creative process. The ability to think like a designer, through multiple iterations, and learning from the worst failures is the most important skill a leader can have. Design Thinking is rooted in empathy and the ability to put the customer or client at the center of the journey. The executive should be testing and building not just products, but entire worlds.
Leaders need to be able to use their words and translate the vision in their head, the strategy or the action plan, the experience they've had, the lessons they've learned. Mind-reading is not a trait that any of your team members will have, so open your mouth and (repeatedly) speak your vision into reality.
Real leaders aren’t just fiery visionaries blazing a new trail, they are also masters of self–immolation, burning themselves down and being reborn from the ashes on a daily basis. They’re unafraid of their own shadow and unaffected by past versions of themselves. They are devouring the most motivational content, surrounding themselves with the 5 most effective people, and always looking at the world with new eyes for new opportunities.
Real leaders carry the vision. They hold the torch atop the mountain. They remember the goal when the team has lost sight of it and the mission is about to fail. They see and think the (sometimes outrageously) bigger picture. The team members will often say: "I never would have thought of it that way." (See also: courage or chutzpah)
As we move into an increasingly remote and fragmented future, human empathy will be the real secret ingredient. It is the X factor that success will depend on. Knowing that the organization is made of breathing people and the pyramid below you is made of heartbeats and beliefs will set you apart as an executive.
We get it. You're tired of repeating yourself (see Communication above) and you want it solved now because there will be a different conflict down the road. You want the team to move at the speed of light, measuring twice and cutting once. Effective leaders slow down and take a breath, avoiding burnout for everyone. They nurture and model the loyalty, strength and capabilities necessary of their team. Compassion and accountability are climbing partners that must lift each other as they ascend. You need to be patient and trust that the ladder will hold.
ABOUT THE Author
Joran Slane Oppelt is an international speaker, author and consultant with certifications in coaching, storytelling, design thinking and virtual facilitation.