Why the idea of visionary leadership is dying and what it really takes to lead in turbulent times
A 10 minute read
Written by Sharon Nash – Change & Transformation Consultant & Leadership Coach
"It's leadership, Bob, but not as we know it."
There has been no shortage in the use of the term ‘unprecedented’ in our narrative of the coronavirus pandemic. As we begin to slowly emerge from it, now is a powerful time to ask tough questions about the kind of leadership that enables people and organisations to thrive in an era of powerfully disruptive and unpredictable forces.
Over the last few months, the virus touched our lives in ways that we could not previously have imagined. We turned to our visionary leaders for certainty and reassurance and found some wanting.
I believe that Covid-19 has laid bare the failings of visionary leadership, and established the basis for us to reconceptualise what great leadership looks like. In this article I’m going to argue that now more than ever, we need to create a new vision of leadership – one that is bold and which puts courage, curiosity, and humanity firmly at the heart of any strategy.
Why visionary leadership thinking is dying
Let’s consider for a moment this concept of the visionary leader, which has prevailed for many years.
The image that comes to mind is of an individual who is adept at envisaging the future, with the kind of expansive strategic thinking that guides others towards their ideal vision with infinite wisdom.
The problem with this idea of the visionary leader is that it puts the spotlight firmly on the individual leader; their vision, their superhuman charismatic qualities, their flawless wisdom and confidence.
Reassured by their charismatic bullishness, we often fail to see or to call out their obvious shortcomings. Let’s look at the evidence; the trail of failed change programmes which litter the corporate corridors; the fact that 70% of people leave their jobs because of their managers; the worrying statistic that only 28% of UK employees have confidence in the leadership of their company to successfully manage emerging challenges (Gallup 2020).
This is the true legacy of our fascination with the charismatic, visionary leader, whose latent narcissistic tendencies are often concealed behind bravado and self-fulfilling rhetoric, which does little to garner followership. As Tomas Chamorra-Premuzic states, our inability to distinguish between confidence and competence is the reason why so many men become incompetent leaders.
Another significant flaw in visionary leadership thinking is that it assumes the leader always has the answer.
It is a brave leader who is willing to put their hand up and admit that their well thought out strategy and extensive scenario planning has failed, that they alone are unable to translate their vision into reality.
Instead, what we observe is that some leaders paper over the cracks and sugar coat reality, failing to bring others with them on their visionary journeys. In our opinion, no amount of vision could have predicted the ‘unknown unknowns’ which left so many supposedly visionary leaders unprepared for the impact of Covid-19.
So where does this leave us? Well, in an era of profound change and turmoil, we believe that the concept of visionary leadership is dying. It is dying because it has failed. It is no longer enough to simply hold up a compelling vision for the future. Great leadership is more substantial than that. It is time, we think, to remind ourselves of who leadership serves and what great leadership truly is.
Cope, Fragment or Thrive
Let’s take a look at some of the assorted leadership responses to the crisis.
Some organisations positively thrived on the challenge of moving to remote working because their businesses were digitally set up for exactly this kind of disruption. At a time when traffic on LinkedIn increased over 2000%, some organisations engaged in wholesale retraction from the market, whilst others (e.g. Pandora, Too Good to Go) embraced the opportunity to continue conversations with potential candidates.
In the heat of the crisis, prominent leadership thinkers sought to crush the uncertainty with scientific rationale. Others sought to define prescriptive responses to a crisis with many layers of complexity and unimaginable consequences never before experienced.
Yet some leaders reengineered their business models in a heartbeat and continued to thrive. One great example of that is a local farm shop on the brink of insolvency, which reinvented itself into a drive through farm shop overnight and is now once again a thriving business.
Undoubtedly, many businesses had no choice but to focus on surviving the crisis. Yet others were better able to ride the waves of uncertainty. So, what was is it that discerns the leadership in organisations which just coped or fragmented during the crisis, from those that thrived?
I want to argue that leaders in organisations who were able to thrive in the crisis have three distinctive qualities:
1) They cultivate trust and psychologically safe cultures where people are not afraid to speak up
2) They nurture their own and the mental and emotional wellbeing of their teams and enable them to thrive though adversity
3) They have an entrepreneurial mindset that creates the conditions for experimentation and learning, even in a crisis
Let’s explore these in a bit more detail.
1. Trust & Psychological Safety
Image credit: Jude Beck via unsplash.com
There were clear early warning signs of the havoc that coronavirus had wreaked in other countries, and yet some organisations appear to have sleep-walked their way into the crisis. Why is that?
In some cases, reliance on direction from ‘the top’, which was not forthcoming, may have resulted in paralysis and stifling of innovative thinking.
For some employees, the signs of the impending disaster may have been clear, but they were afraid to challenge the infinite wisdom of their visionary leaders. This is what is often referred to as the ‘epidemic of silence’ that prevails in some organisations (Edmondson, 2020).
This fear of speaking up not only stifles creativity, it also helps to maintain the status quo. In our recent lockdown survey people told us about efforts to normalise or perhaps even deny the crisis was happening by maintaining practices such as back to back meetings, with little regard for those with caring or parental responsibilities. In other cases, we heard of attempts to ‘maintain productivity levels’ by constantly checking in on employees. These actions did little to build trust at a time when it was most needed.
The task facing leaders is clear: to foster a stronger ‘speak up culture’ that has trust at the heart of it. Organisations need leaders who care about others’ perspective and ask questions which generate different views, e.g. ‘What am I missing’?
I love this old quote from Bertrand Russell, which still holds true in some cases today; “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” Ultimately, if there is no room for healthy self-doubt, then there is only arrogance masked as confidence, which does little to push the boundaries of our own thinking.
Great leaders create conditions where others can openly challenge their authority, without fear of reprisal. And most of all, they listen deeply to the diverse voices of their teams before making key decisions.
In what ways are you enabling the diverse perspectives of your teams to push the boundaries of your own thinking?
2. Resilience in the face of adversity
Image credit: Deniz Altindaz via unsplash.com
Many of us would probably associate resilient leadership with mental toughness, that ability to power through difficult times and bounce back from setbacks. But how does powering through adversity and putting a brave face on it serve us? And at what cost to our mental wellbeing?
The latest statistics reveal that 1 in 4 adults suffer from mental health illnesses, at a staggering cost of £105bn to the economy (MHFA England). This clearly tells us that we need to engage with resilience as something other than mental toughness and focus on what helps us to strengthen our inner and outer capacity for adaptation. This capacity for adaptation starts with recognising the flaws in ourselves and the systems that we work in.
As human beings we are deeply wired for certainty, and by implication, stability, yet for nearly a decade (and, some would argue, for longer) we have lived on the edge of a literally crumbling and uncertain future.
These leaders who help others to thrive in uncertainty have an ability to stand in their own fear instead of suppressing it, respond skilfully to what is happening in the present, and imagine what might appear over the horizon. These elusive qualities are rarely found in the charismatic, confident leader who perceives fear as a weakness.
These leaders recognise that fear is a natural occurrence in human behaviour. They do not sugar coat reality, they accept it. They are honest and open about their own fears, and in sharing them, they create a safe container for others to work with their own. They also ask the tough questions which resonate in the hearts and minds of others and displace deeply rooted cultural assumptions.
Consider therefore the power in asking “What happens if we never fail?”, versus “What happens if we fail?”
If we never fail, we never learn how to recover from failure. If we create cultures where failure is not an option, fear of failure will prevent people from speaking up when they see things going wrong.
Resilient leaders, however, create the conditions for their teams to experiment, fail, learn, regroup, and experiment again, in a recursive loop of learning.
How are you helping others to respond positively and adapt in the midst of their own fear-based instincts, whilst responding to your own?
Entrepreneurial mindset and learning
Image credit: Riccardo Annandale via unsplash.com
We observed with some concern the experiences of those in lockdown, where teams have been over-managed and under-led, and the stifling of people’s creativity and learning.
Leaders with an entrepreneurial mindset have a natural ability to inculcate an instinctive sense of curiosity into their cultural DNA, and enable others to learn and adapt in the midst of chaos and complexity.
That leadership quality is one that characterises both entrepreneurial and intrapreneurial thinking. That means operating parallel streams of business as usual and creating the conditions for innovative problem solving and product and service ideation. It is an exceptional leader who can successfully hold these polarised and parallel states, whilst channelling their fear-based instincts in a way that generates energy and expansive thinking in others.
This duality of thinking works well in the start-up industry where uncertainty is the natural backdrop, the precursor of entrepreneurial thinking. It is both inspiring and exhilarating to observe leaders who are able to pivot their strategies in a heartbeat, and to see the ripple effect of energy, creativity, and adaptation that it can spark in others. Many leaders in corporate settings can only aspire to this kind of agility.
The leaders that we have observed with this ability rarely fall into the category of the bold, charismatic, visionary; instead, they hold another elusive quality, humility, where ego is pushed far enough into the background for possibility centred thinking to emerge.
Above all, these leaders have a healthy association with fear which enables them to frame the challenges ahead in a way that dampens the anxiety of others and sparks their curiosity.
So, what did you notice yourself doing in the midst of the crisis that fuelled the curiosity of your teams?
The Future Leader – Reimagined, Regenerated, Repurposed
Now more than ever, we need to open our eyes to the flaws of the ‘visionary, charismatic leadership archetype and consider how we can cultivate leadership qualities which build trust, resilience, and curiosity in ourselves and others.
Now is not the time to revert back to ‘normal’ when all our expectations of work and leaders have been drastically altered. Some people will have experienced terrible family loss. Others will have lost colleagues. Some may be recovering themselves from the virus and may be deeply anxious about their personal safety.
Now is therefore not the time to put profit ahead of the needs of your people, or to revert to bureaucracy and hierarchical thinking behind closed doors. Doing that will only generate greater levels of anxiety and disengagement. Now is the time to fling the doors open to more of that dynamic, and integrative leadership which has the power to generate boundless levels of organisational agility.
The question, of course, is where to begin. Throughout this article I have posed three key questions for leaders to reflect on the effect that they are having on others. I invite you now to take a deeper look at your leadership qualities:
1. On trust and psychological safety: In what ways are you enabling the diverse perspectives of your teams to push the boundaries of your own thinking?
2. On resilience: How are you helping others to respond positively and adapt in the midst of their own fear-based instincts, whilst responding to your own?
3. On your entrepreneurial thinking and learning: What did you notice yourself doing in the midst of the crisis that fuelled the curiosity of your teams?
Some suggestions to get you started
a) It all starts with trust, and our ability to generate trust amongst others starts with trusting ourselves. Start by asking yourself the tough questions about the kind of leader you want to be in this world, and how true you are being to that visualisation of yourself.
b) Ask others how they experienced your leadership during the heat of the crisis. Be ready and willing to listen and recognise the behaviours that make it safe for others to speak up, and those that heighten anxiety and increase fear. Do check out the free resources on https://fearlessorganization.com
c) Ask your teams what they need to attend to their emotional health and recovery. Consider what support will help them to overcome some of the perceived relational barriers to returning to the workplace, e.g. integrating back into their teams, or reconnecting to their organisation’s purpose. You may find this extract on resilience from the Resilience Engine a helpful starting point for seeing resilience from a different perspective. http://www.resiliencengine.com/myth-of-resilience-1-resilience-is-being-tough/
d) Start to reconceptualise what leadership is by asking "What purpose does leadership serve?" Think about how you appoint and develop the leaders in your organisation and root out any tendencies or biases towards charismatic or visionary traits which do not stand up on their own.
e) Start to identify the potential future leaders in your business and rethink how your leadership development programmes might integrate some of the leadership qualities cited in this article.
f) Resist the urge to ‘get back to normal’. Instead, initiate informal conversations about your organisation’s response to the crisis and build on any breakthrough moments of clarity which unveiled different, more innovative ways of running your business.
g) Create time and space for your teams to reimagine a world in which your customers consume your products and services in a radically different way. I can highly recommend The Entrepreneurial Mindset by Rita Gunther McGrath.
The re-occurrence of a pandemic on the scale of the one we continue to experience, or worse, cannot be ruled out.
Going back to normal is therefore not an option.
In some ways, Covid-19 has cleared the ground for a profound leadership renewal and an opportunity to put an unbending regard for our humanity at the heart of leadership.
There will never be a better time to take that forensic look at your own leadership, so that your organisation is in the best possible position to take full advantage of an economic upsurge. In doing so, it is not only likely to survive, but to thrive when the next crisis hits.
In a world where disruption has become the norm, we see the future leader as one whose DNA is steeped in their ability to reimagine, regenerate, and repurpose their teams.
Leaders who can lead with strategic intent and yet pivot in a moment as they sense the future emerging. Leaders who are able to move beyond the paralysis of their own fears and enable others to challenge their own assumptions. For it is in these moments of extreme overwhelm, when as leaders we have exhausted our tried and tested visionary methods, that there is latent possibility for something more powerful to emerge.
If you would like to find out more about how we can help you to foster these leadership qualities in your organisation, drop us a line: firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author: Sharon Nash is an Independent Organisational Consultant and Leadership Coach with an enviable 20-year track record in the field of organisational change and leadership development. She has worked with some of the most senior leaders in financial services and private equity as an internal Executive Coach, as a Business Coach to CEO’s and Entrepreneurs in the start-up industry, and as a Leadership Coach to aspiring leaders across multiples sectors.
Curious about what it means to be human, Sharon helps leaders to develop their inner capacity to see themselves as they really are. She is passionate about changing the way that we think about leadership and works to create innovative, psychologically safe cultures where individuals can do their best work.