American Association for Physician Leadership

How to Become a More Visionary Leader

Laura Hills, DA

Aug 8, 2023

Volume 1, Issue 3, Pages 100-107


Visionary leaders exist in all levels of administration, leadership, and management, regardless of the titles they hold. This article argues that every healthcare leader has the potential to become more visionary. It describes specifically what it means to be a visionary leader and explores the benefits of visionary leadership both to the healthcare organization and to the individual. It describes eight characteristics that visionary leaders typically share and provides readers with 15 practical, how-to-do-it strategies that they can use to develop their visionary skills. Finally, this article suggests that there is an avoidable dark side to visionary leadership, describes 10 common mistakes visionary leaders make, and suggests how readers can sidestep them.

When we think of visionary leaders in the business world, most of us turn our thoughts to a larger-than-life persona, such as Steve Jobs. Cornell(1) suggests, “Perhaps no other individual in the corporate world is as well known for a visionary leadership style than Steve Jobs. He was a visionary in technology, in product design, and in marketing.” Jobs was driven by a passion to revolutionize the consumer experience with game-changing technological innovations that created a near cult-like loyalty to his company and its products. Cornell says, “He compelled his teams to push further than they imagined possible by creating a vision that was awe-inspiring.” Most business analysts would agree that Steve Jobs was an extraordinary, history-making example of visionary leadership, as would anyone who has ever shopped in an Apple store or come in contact with an iPad, iPhone, iMac, or other Apple product.

Being a visionary is most definitely within your reach.

Will this article urge you to become the Steve Jobs of healthcare leadership? No, not unless that is your goal. Such extraordinary visionary leadership is a tall order, because a leader who has the vision, creativity, drive, talent, and success of Steve Jobs is extremely rare. However, this article does suggest that every leader can become more visionary and that there will be tremendous benefits to you and to your healthcare organization if you do. Unfortunately, Meinert(2) points out, “Few leaders think of themselves as proficient at what George H.W. Bush famously called ‘the vision thing.’” They often spend their time grappling with today’s problems and don’t devote enough thought to preparing for tomorrow’s challenges. This is true even though developing a clear picture of the future has long topped executive polls as the most critical requirement for the job, Meinert says. But why is this so?

Being a visionary is most definitely within your reach. De Jong(3) explains, “My take on the term visionary isn’t larger-than-life, born-with-it-or-not. Instead, I believe it’s something that can be developed, something that’s practical and real, something that can be embraced by anyone willing to invest the time into it.” I’ve thought deeply about why it is that more leaders aren’t visionary and I believe that many if not most of them do not think that they’ve got that ability or can ever have it. However, that is not true. I’d like to illustrate this point briefly by drawing from my personal experience.

Years ago, I dipped my toe very casually into the world of golf so I could participate in my Rotary Club’s annual golf tournament. I bought a set of clubs, took an introductory package of eight lessons with a pro, read up on golf etiquette, hit a few buckets of balls, and played a few times. My game was poor at the tournament that year and by the next year, it didn’t improve because the course was challenging and I devoted little time or effort to practice. What I learned is that you don’t get much better at golf when you dabble at it as I did. I would have needed to take more lessons and devote much more of my time and effort to practice and play during that year if I had any hope of improving my game. The same is true of any complex skill set, including visionary leadership. De Jong says, “Sure, some of us are better than others as a result of practice combined with perseverance and natural ability. But practice and perseverance can take you a long way.” Whether I had any natural ability in golf is unclear; what is clear is that I did not practice or persevere. When we think of becoming more visionary in leadership, I suggest that we consider the words of pro golfer Lee Trevino,(4) who famously said, “There is no such thing as natural touch. Touch is something you create by hitting millions of golf balls.”

You can become a leader who provides authentic inspiration for your employees that is fueled by your own passion, energy, and commitment to your vision. However, that’s going to require something significant of you, certainly effort much greater than I gave to my pitiful golf game. What can you do if you don’t already have a clear vision? You develop one, which you can do if you are willing to roll up your sleeves and get to work. In this article, I share the practical, doable steps that you can take to increase your visionary skills. You do not have to commit to hitting Trevino’s millions of golf balls, just a bucket of them to start. As you’ll see, you can become more visionary, even if your vision into the future at this moment doesn’t extend much beyond next Tuesday.

What Is a Visionary Leader?

Visionary leaders are forward thinkers who do not accept the status quo as the way things must be. Lucas(5) says that they “see the potential for how the world should exist.” They have their finger on the pulse of what is going on both inside and outside of their organizations, and they accurately assess both where things stand right now and how they got to be the way that they are. Then, they develop a vivid and exciting picture of what a better future can look like.

Visionary leaders can be bold and revolutionary in their thinking, or they may simply envision their organizations improving and growing in extraordinary ways to become the best versions of themselves.

Visionary leaders exist in all levels of management and leadership, regardless of their industry or the title they hold. They do not necessarily work in the C-suite, although some most definitely do. They are curious, optimistic, and observant people who believe in excellence and despise mediocrity. They believe that change is possible, if not inevitable, that things can get better, and that we have the ability to shape our own future. They neither shy away from problems nor are afraid to tackle what Collins and Porras(6) famously called Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs). Some visionary leaders think outside the box, which was definitely the case for Steve Jobs. Others limit their visions to a better or bigger box, one that functions more efficiently, achieves better outcomes, and generates more profits. Thus, visionary leaders can be bold and revolutionary in their thinking, or they may simply envision their organizations improving and growing in extraordinary ways to become the best versions of themselves.

Of course, visionary leaders do not exist in a vacuum. They are effective only when they have the ability to describe their vision clearly to others and in a way that doesn’t make it sound like a pipedream or the pie-in-the-sky ravings of a lunatic. They build excitement about the way things can be and the goals that can be achieved. They may or may not be charismatic, although at least a little charisma would certainly help them. However, they will always find a way to get others interested in what they have to say and to jump on board. Otherwise, they may be visionaries, but they will not be leaders.

Visionary leaders develop the people they lead. They encourage innovation and collaboration by building a vision inspired by a common goal, one that is right not only for the marketplace and the bottom line but also for the people who work in the organization. They develop the core values of their teams and foster loyalty to their organization, vision, and one another. They encourage those they lead to be creative and to develop their skills, both individually and collaboratively. They help their followers to feel that they are part of something that is important and bigger than themselves, and they make their wins everyone’s wins. Because of this, they encourage people to care about what they are doing and usually, to work harder. Most of the time, they also improve workplace morale.

The Benefits of Visionary Leadership

We live in an ever-changing world where the speed of change seems to accelerate every year. Visionary leadership helps us counter the strain of the challenges and opportunities that we will face moving forward and enables organizations to survive and thrive under the weight of them. It ensures that we look to the long term, not only to day-to-day matters, and that our organizations will not be blindsided by events that could have been anticipated. It looks to more significant trends in technology, trade, the economy, demographics, the environment, global health, and politics to gauge how an organization can adjust to or in some instances drive these trends. Visionary leadership prevents leaders and team members from getting stuck with a reactive approach to development. Lindberg(7) suggests, “Visionary leadership is important since it helps to address a fast-changing world and creates sizable long-term goals rather than small, short, and iterative goals.” Additionally, visionary leadership can be the kick in the pants needed to get stagnant or slow organizations to accelerate their growth in anticipation of the future. That is why Indeed Editorial Team(8) suggests, “Organizations that are experiencing slow progress can benefit from the innovation and creativity of a visionary leader.”

Visionary leaders also can make the organizations they lead more competitive. Lindberg says that visionary leadership creates the opportunity to “disrupt competition,” as well as to understand the risks of being disrupted. It can help organizations to move into new markets, to shift in response to changing demographics, and to remain a contender despite intense competition and threats in the immediate landscape. Visionary leaders see things early, which helps them steer their organizations out of harm’s way and toward opportunities. Meinert says, “The sooner you notice something that will impact business conditions, the faster you can react—which gives you a strategic advantage.” Visionary leadership also can improve an organization’s brand recognition. It can replace outdated practices with better ones and provide new and better solutions to problems. The Indeed Editorial Team says, “Other companies may follow your company’s lead, thereby making you a trendsetter and enhancing the recognition of your business.”

Visionary leaders also foster unity in the workplace. They emphasize striving for a common goal, which helps to align individuals and departments of different perspectives and to get everyone rowing in the same direction. The Indeed Editorial Team says, “This sense of unity strengthens workplace bonds and fosters teamwork and productivity.” Leaders who are able to get everyone working enthusiastically toward a common goal instill cooperation and reduce silos.” They are able to create a context for team members to see mundane everyday activities as part of something greater. Lindberg says that they can build engagement by “involving and inspiring people.” The effect that visionary leaders have on the people they lead can be very dramatic, but that effect can and often does extend beyond the people employed by the organization. Lindberg says that compelling visions can provide a greater sense of purpose to an organization’s customers, suppliers, investors, governing boards, and other stakeholders that participate in reaching them.

A final benefit of visionary leadership is that it can enable leaders to pass their organizations on to someone else by creating a culture that will outlive them. Visionary leaders can communicate their vision to others in a way that makes their vision everyone’s vision, which can create lasting natural momentum within the organization’s culture. Masterclass(9) says, “Employees and other stakeholders will carry on the vision even if the leader moves on or steps away.” This is a major advantage over leadership that relies more heavily on a leader’s individual traits and personality. Leadership that is 100% charismatic may result in an organization that is not able to move forward if the leader leaves. Visionary leadership, whether charismatic or not, ensures that the organization continues to strive toward its vision even when someone else must take the helm.

Characteristics of Visionary Leaders

Visionary leaders inspire growth and increase the chances of their success with a variety of skills. They share several striking characteristics:

  • Imagination: Every vision begins with an individual who imagines a different future. Visionary leaders have agile, innovative, and curious minds. They ask, “what if?” and “why not?” when others don’t. They question assumptions and dream big. They don’t let the obvious obstacles deter them from their dreams, and they don’t talk themselves out of them because they seem too difficult. They dream big and in great detail, even when at first their vision seems a little crazy or out of reach, even to them.

  • Emotional intelligence: Visionary leaders have excellent social skills, self-awareness, and empathy toward others. Indeed Editorial Team says, “A high level of emotional intelligence strengthens team building, improves morale, and increases productivity in the workplace.” It also helps visionary leaders to be more self-aware, which helps them to make rational decisions and to provide viable solutions in conflict resolution, Indeed Editorial Team says.

  • Risk-taking: Visionary leadership is all about change, and change is never risk-free. Visionary leaders do take risks for themselves and their organizations, but very carefully. They understand the value of taking risks and know fully what is at stake. Indeed Editorial Team says, “They ensure extensive research and consideration go into assessing risk levels,” and they don’t take risks for the sake of just doing so. At the same time, visionary leaders aren’t timid or overly cautious. They are bold when they must be to lead their organizations into the new and unexpected places that they envision.

  • Speaking (and writing): Visionary leaders express themselves well in speaking and sometimes also in writing. They describe their vision and plan well and in detail, and they also explain the value proposition. They can speak passionately and persuasively and convince others to come along with them on the journey. They focus less on their authority as a leader and more on inspiring people to want to follow them into the future they describe.

  • Listening: There will always be naysayers to anyone who suggests change and innovation. However, Lucas says, “Visionary leaders don’t just go forth ignoring all the naysayers and do what he or she thinks is best.” They listen very carefully to what each person says to them, then choose carefully whether to act upon or to ignore the feedback they receive.

  • Strategic thinking: Visionary leaders are passionate about their visions but they are not unrealistic about them. They think strategically, not emotionally, when making decisions. Lucas says, “This makes the difference between the big idea guy and the visionary leader. If you’re not willing to listen and accept advice, look at how the market is changing, and take feedback seriously, you won’t succeed.” Strategic thinking also means that visionary leaders develop plans that are practical and can work. Indeed Editorial Teams says, “Strategic thinking includes acquiring the right resources and putting the relevant measures into action to ensure that you and your team are in the best position to succeed.” Visionary leaders may ask a lot of the people who work for them, but they strive to be humane. They understand the difference between giving it your all and asking people to push themselves to the breaking point.

  • Ownership: Visionary leaders know that their ideas often involve a significant risk and that the people who follow them are taking a chance and a leap of faith. Therefore, they take responsibility for their vision and their actions. Lucas says, “This is not only when events go poorly—it’s also to make sure that they don’t go poorly in the first place.”

  • Trustworthiness: Visionary leaders have the trust of others before they try to lead them toward their visions. How do they gain that trust? Lewis(10) says, “It starts with creating a safe environment where people feel comfortable expressing themselves and taking risks. It means being transparent, reliable, and authentic.” Visionary leaders also build trust with their followers by communicating clear expectations and by following through on their commitments, Lewis says.

How to Become a More Visionary Leader: 15 Strategies

The following 15 practical strategies can help you become a more visionary leader. You may never do all of them, and you certainly shouldn’t try to do too many at once. Commit to one or two right now and build from there. Work at these strategies and in time, you will become more visionary, both in your thinking and in your leadership.

  1. Gain an in-depth, targeted knowledge of the healthcare industry. Visionary leaders know what’s going on in their world. They strive to keep up with relevant developments both in their industry and more broadly. Indeed Editorial Team says, “This knowledge forms the foundation of every business decision, plan, and vision you have for your company or team.” However, the most effective visionary leaders do not consume information randomly. De Jong(11) says, “Many people do take the time to keep up with what is happening in the world and in their industry. They watch the news, read newspapers, and consult trade publications. But there’s so much going on, and so much is changing rapidly, that it’s hard to make sense of. And what makes it even harder is that the short term runs the agenda.” De Jong suggests that leaders will have a hard time distinguishing “the signal from the noise” when they have to-do lists filled with items that need their immediate attention. Therefore, leaders must “prime” themselves to pick up early signals of change first by considering innovative, disruptive ideas for their organizations, their industry, and even the world. He says, “By priming themselves with these ideas first, they get better at picking up potentially relevant information. Random consumption becomes more targeted, and the signal starts to emerge from the noise.”

  2. Practice seeing things from the perspective of an outsider. Visionaries know that the perspective of an outsider is key to analyzing current practices and to questioning those that are often overlooked or assumed by insiders. Life Coach Spotter(12) suggests, “Assuming an outsider’s point-of-view leads to enlightenment. Visionaries use this intellectual practice to develop new ways of thinking at their organization and developing their vision.” An outsider’s perspective can help you reexamine the “sacred cows” in your organization, Life Coach Spotter says—the practices that you maintain because “we’ve always done it like that.” As a weekly or more frequent exercise, identify one of your systems or practices or even one part of your physical environment and intentionally look at it from an outsider’s point of view. Imagine yourself as a consultant to yourself or that you are one of your patients or employees. Ask, “Does this make sense?” and “Is this the best we could be doing?”

  3. Develop a strategic network. Develop strategic relationships both within and outside your organization. Find out how other divisions and organizations work and learn from them. Ask them to describe their best practices, what resources are most and least helpful to them, and what mistakes they regret.

  4. Become more comfortable with uncertainty. Part of imagining the future is imagining it in multiple ways and it in all its complexities. Scenario planning significantly increases the chances of your developing a fuller picture of what the future may bring. De Jong says, “It is a proven methodology that requires an existential open-mindedness, agility, and creativity that is extremely helpful in growing your visionary abilities.”

  5. Build relationships with visionary thinkers. Life Coach Spotter says that many visionary leaders admit that it is their friends, colleagues, and professional acquaintances that make them truly visionary. Look for people who, like you, are interested in fostering innovation. Indeed Editorial Team says, “As a visionary, you can leverage the ideas of those around you. It can help inspire new solutions and innovative ideas you may not have discovered by yourself.”

  6. Improve your communication skills. Visionary leaders need to gain the support of their followers. Therefore, invest the time and effort necessary for you to become an excellent communicator, one who is not only clear, concise, and easy to understand, but also persuasive and compelling. Take classes; work with a coach or tutor; join Toastmasters International; study how to communicate more effectively through reading, podcasts, and videos; and most importantly, practice what you learn and solicit and use feedback.

  7. Go for long walks. Your mind processes lots of information every day, However, Life Coach Spotter says, “If you allow it a quiet moment, it might reveal to you great advances which can revolutionize the company or even the entire industry practice.” While any opportunity for quiet contemplation will be beneficial, you may make even better use of the time if you use it for long walks. Stillman(13) says, “Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, William Wordsworth, even Aristotle: the list of great minds that were also obsessive walkers is long.” What is it about walking, in particular, that makes it so amenable to visionary thinking? Jahr(14) explains, “When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention.” Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them. Will other forms of exercise or moving through space help to stimulate the same level of creative visionary thinking? Perhaps not. Jahr explains, ““Walking at our own pace creates an unadulterated feedback loop between the rhythm of our bodies and our mental state that we cannot experience as easily when we’re jogging at the gym, steering a car, biking, or during any other kind of locomotion.” When we stroll, the pace of our feet naturally vacillates with our moods and the cadence of our inner speech. At the same time, we can actively change the pace of our thoughts by deliberately walking more briskly or by slowing down, Jahr says. A good strategy is to pose a question to yourself about the future as you head out the door for your walk.

  8. Record your innovative thoughts. Writing down your ideas takes them from being just a thought into being a real, feasible idea. Christensen(15) says, “In this way the creative ideas you have also become expandable; you will be able to physically see the idea, rather than just imagining it in your mind (seeing is believing).” Of course, you can carry a notebook or create an electronic file to capture your ideas. However, being able to see your ideas is the very first step toward acting on them. Therefore, De Jong suggests that you physically post your ideas on the wall of your office. Not only will these ideas become integrated in the way that you think, but “they’ll also start to shine through in the way you lead,” De Jong says.

  9. Become a student of culture and trends. Before visionary leaders can predict what will interest and concern people in the future, they must understand what interests and concerns them today. Stevenson(16) suggests, “Very often teenagers set the trends of the future…In particular, 13-year-olds have a very good pulse on what’s going on.” Spend time learning about and understanding today’s culture, and, when you can, stick close to what young people are doing and thinking. That way, Stevenson says, you will be able to make predictions and decisions that are based on “where people are heading” rather than where people “have been up till now.”

  10. Study what futurists say. Visionary leaders do not have to imagine the future by themselves but can draw from other sources. Bibri(17) says, “In recent years, scientists, sociologists, futurists, and researchers within different disciplines have developed qualitative and quantitative methods for rationally predicting the future.” Generally, future study methods do not pretend to be able to predict the future. Rather, they usually are designed to help people better understand future possibilities in order to make better decisions today. What separates futurists from the soothsayers, star gazers, and palm readers who came before? According to Bibri, futurists rely on rationality, not hunches; an awareness that the future cannot be known with absolute certainty; and the recognition that many different futures are possible, depending on the decisions people make in the present. When studying futurists, choose those who use reliable methods and data. Keep in mind that they are presenting possibilities, not promises or foregone conclusions. Gold(18) suggests, “Get a sense of the big picture from unrelated, broad, and narrow sources. Take it in. Don’t make judgment.” The more you learn about what visionaries suggest, “the better you can adapt your business and keep success in your sights,” Gold says.

  11. Strengthen your intuition. Intuition is that feeling you have when you instinctively know something. You may not know why you feel the way that you do, but your feeling is undeniable, even when it is not logical. Sutton(19) says, “It [intuition] is not the result of a set of considered steps that can be shared or explained. Instead, while based on deep-seated knowledge, the process feels natural, almost instinctual.” A strong intuition can be extremely helpful to visionary leaders. Gold says, “Pay attention to your intuition. It’s often the source of innovative thoughts or insights.” Rankin(20) suggests 18 ways to develop and strengthen your intuition. These are to meditate, start noticing all that you can with your five senses, pay attention to your dreams, get creative, consult oracle cards, test your hunches, consult your body compass, escape from your daily routines, spend time in nature, learn from your past, feel more and think less, engage in repetitive movement, align with your values, practice sensing into people before you know them, read books about developing your intuition, train your intuition, release your resistance, and start a new breath work practice.

  12. Develop your courage. Visionary leaders are willing to venture into the unknown, which takes courage. Cooke(21) warns, “Positioning your organization for the future can be challenging, frustrating, and, often, expensive. People hate change, and your team probably isn’t paying attention to what’s coming as closely as you are. Therefore, they will often fight it.” However, visionary leaders are willing to fight to protect what needs to change in their organization and stand ready to take the criticism that comes as a result. Zetlin(22) suggests eight “tricks” to boost your courage. These are to ask yourself if you should take action to quell your fear, remind yourself that fear can harm you, remember that fear is just chemicals, enlarge your comfort zone, do something to engage your cognition, name your fears, meditate (or at least stop and breathe), and embrace your fear and then let it go.

  13. Foster and indulge your curiosity. It is tempting for leaders to stick with strategies they know because they are comfortable and have worked in the past. However, that temptation also means that they may not seek out new methods or ways to solve problems. They may also miss important opportunities. For these reasons, curiosity is extremely important to visionary leaders. Meneghello(23) says, “I see successful leaders get curious about information in three ways. They seek information to uncover new possibilities. They become interested in other functions in the business. They request feedback about their own leadership.” Leslie(24) suggests seven ways to become more curious. These are to read widely and follow your interests, polish your mind with the minds of others, visit a physical bookstore or library and browse the shelves, be willing to ask dumb questions, put a lot of facts in your head (and don’t rely on Google), be an expert who is interested in everything, and focus not only on puzzles but also on mysteries.

  14. Ask visionary questions. According to Adams,(25) our mindsets are driven by the questions that run through our conversations and internal dialogue. She presents two mindsets and calls them the “learner” and the “judger.” Learner questions focus on solutions and lead to understanding, progress, discovery, and possibilities. They also help to identify and shatter assumptions. Examples of learner questions are “What are we missing?” “Is there a better way?” and “What else may be possible?” as well as “What if?” and “Why not?” Judger questions are reactive and mostly unproductive. Two examples of judger questions are “Why aren’t we outperforming the competition?” and “Who is at fault?” Adams assures us that we all have learner and judger moments. However, visionary leaders more often ask learner questions, she says.

  15. Learn about inspiring visionary leaders. There have been many inspiring examples of visionary leadership throughout history. Some were CEOs or business leaders. Others were leaders in social movements, entertainment, government, and in other arenas. Learning about them can inspire you to become a more visionary leader and may teach you both about mindsets and strategies that can help you. Commit to reading biographies of or watching documentaries about inspiring visionary leaders. Of course, you can choose your own shining examples of inspiring visionary leaders to study. However, Cornell provides a short list to get you started: Sam Walton, Reed Hastings (CEO of Netflix), Richard Branson, Alan Mulally (former CEO of Ford Motor Company), Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Mahatma Gandhi, Coco Chanel, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Henry Ford, Ratan Tata (one of the most influential leaders in India), and Warren Buffet. Additional sources suggest other inspiring visionary leaders worth studying, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Katherine Graham, Marie Curie, Madame C.J. Walker, Dr. Charles Drew, Bill Gates, Amelia Earhart, Oprah Winfrey, Walt Disney, Cesar Chavez, Mark Zuckerberg, Genghis Khan, Andrew Carnegie, Alvin Ailey, John Rockefeller, Estee Lauder, and Mary McLeod Bethune.

Ten Common Mistakes Visionary Leaders Make

Any leadership strategy has the potential to fail, and visionary leadership is no exception. Following are 10 of the most common mistakes visionary leaders make and what you can do to prevent them.

  • Too many ideas, not enough strategy: Some visionaries find themselves constantly coming up with new ideas, wanting to experiment, and ready to jump onto the next venture on a moment’s notice. Although such creativity is great, constant shifting will make it hard, if not impossible, for your team to settle into a rhythm and pursue ideas to completion. That will lead to frustrated employees and many projects being half done. Therefore, visionary leaders need to establish a clear and well-designed idea-to-action protocol. According to Sonita,(26) that means that you will need to define a framework with your team that evaluates first whether an idea is worth pursuing, and then, when is the right time is to do so. Sonita urges, “Empower your team to be custodians of this framework and participate in the idea-vetting process.” Then, when one of your ideas gets a green light to proceed, define the objective for pursuing it and, most importantly, the timeline, ownership, and how you will measure its progress and success.

  • Believing everything is wrong with everything: The more time we spend dreaming about what ought to be in the future, the more brokenness and corruption we will see in the present. If we are not careful, a downward spiral can begin. According to Orrock,(27) “Over time concern turns into disappointment, disappointment turns into disillusionment, and disillusionment turns into disengagement.” Although it is true that every person, every institution, and every system can be broken, it is not true that everything is wrong with everything. Orrock says, “When we become disillusioned to the point of disengaged, we have missed an opportunity to celebrate whatever good can be found amidst the brokenness and fail to explore new creative possibilities for healing.” Visionaries who give in to negativity and despair may need help from others to bring them back to a more positive and constructive mindset.

  • Lacking alignment with middle managers: Visionary leadership breaks down when middle managers aren’t aligned with top management’s strategic vision. This can cause strategic change efforts to slow or fail. According to researchers Ates et al.,(28) “Visionary leadership is not just important for senior managers; it also matters for middle and lower-level managers, who play a key role in carrying out strategic change. Their ability to inspire their own teams and create strategic alignment—a shared understanding of and commitment to the company’s strategy—within them is a core element in successful strategy execution.” When managers were misaligned with the organization’s strategy in Ates et al.’s study, the dark side of visionary leadership became evident. The more these misaligned managers displayed their own visionary leadership, the less strategic alignment and commitment were observed among their teams. Ates et al. suggest that visionary leaders invest more time, effort, and resources in creating strategic alignment among their managers at all levels. They say, “Our experience working with companies around strategic alignment suggests it starts with creating strategic alignment among middle managers before strategy execution efforts begin.” This alignment should not be a one-time effort, Ates et al. urge, but an ongoing dialogue. They add, “People will only take ownership of strategic change if they are consistently persuaded by its value.”

  • Being unnecessarily cruel: Visionary leaders can sometimes become so caught up in their visions that they put them before the people they lead. The result is that they can push their employees too hard, be uncivil to them, or treat them cruelly. For example, Schwartz(29) says, after reading about Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk, “What disheartens me is how little care and appreciation any of them give (or in Mr. Jobs’s case, gave) to hard-working and loyal employees, and how unnecessarily cruel and demeaning they could be to the people who helped make their dreams come true.” Why would these and other brilliant visionary leaders behave in such destructive ways? Schwartz suggests, “The first answer is that they can. Genius covers a lot of sins.” Employees are willing to sacrifice a lot to work for a visionary. Moreover, a certain level of financial success and the resulting power can effectively excuse some who achieve it from the ordinary rules of civility and even humanity. Schwartz explains, “Mr. Jobs drove around without a license [plate] on his car, and he regularly parked in spaces reserved for the handicapped,” as though the normal rules of social engagement did not apply to him. Visionary leaders can prevent themselves from crossing the line toward arrogance and cruelty by having a trusted accountability partner who reins them in. They also may benefit from working with a coach or other professional who can help them to walk the line between their drive and vision and the needs of the people they lead.

  • Having unreasonable expectations, especially about timelines: Visionaries sometimes can become impatient. They usually want to see their visions realized as soon as possible, and in their excitement, underestimate what that “possible” exactly means. Sonita warns, “Whether it’s due to being overly optimistic or simply unaware of the skills and effort needed, an unrealistic deadline will only leave your team feeling frustrated, rushed to perform, and producing subpar work.” Your team’s involvement is key to developing achievable action plans. Sonita says, “The secret here is to open the lines of communication with everyone involved to ensure you’re taking their expertise and point of view into account.”

  • Treating realists as pessimists in disguise: Visionaries need realist friends who bring them back to earth by reminding them of the practical questions that must be answered and the challenges that must be overcome. Orrock warns, “Idealists often view them as pessimists in disguise. Even the term ‘devil’s advocate’ can become a sly way of marginalizing their ideas.” There is a difference between taking the present realities into account and being negative for negativity’s sake. The mistake visionaries sometimes make is thinking that someone who says “it can’t be done” or “people will never go for that” somehow lacks hope. Orrock says, “Remember, a visionary can be just as guilty of delusion as a realist can be of hopelessness.” Rather than discrediting the voice of difference, invite that person into a deeper conversation about what immediate challenges they anticipate. Orrock says, “You can’t get from A to Z without steps B, C, and D. The realist can help you with these next practical steps.”

  • Assigning responsibility to a team member with no agreement, timeline, or role: Assigning a task or responsibility to a team member without their enthusiastic (or at least informed) agreement is a common visionary leadership mistake that can cause a lot of problems down the line. According to Sonita, “A clear scope of work and shared understanding of who owns key tasks or initiatives helps you and your team hold each other accountable and work together towards a common objective.”

  • Thinking that what is most important to me should be most important to you: As hard as visionaries may try to be objective and inclusive, dreams are influenced by personal experiences and values. One mistake visionary leaders sometimes make is thinking that their future is the best future. Orrock says, “This assumes a high degree of shared values and expectations…This is, in most cases, not a safe assumption.” Therefore, visionaries must take care to listen to what people value. Orrock warns, “If we are unwilling to listen to and honor the values and expectations of the communities we serve, even if we sometimes disagree, we will risk leading them to places they do not want to go.”

  • When something goes wrong, assuming that “it was clear”: A lack of clarity often results in mistakes. Sonita says, “Something is only clear once everyone has a shared understanding of it.” Numbers are a great tool to ensure that you and your team are speaking the same language. Use dates and metrics to check that everyone is on the same page. For example, Sonita says, “Having a team member understand her role is to ‘grow the email list to 1,000 names by the end of Q3’ is dramatically different than saying ‘you’re in charge of email marketing.’”

  • Expecting employees to know where your healthcare organization is going without clear communication: As a visionary leader, it will be up to you to communicate your values, where you’re going, and what your organization needs from everyone to get there. Sonita says, “Doing this gives your team a compass that lets them know what ‘true north’ is.” It also enables you to spot who is truly aligned with your vision and belongs at the table.


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Laura Hills, DA

Practice leadership coach, consultant, author, seminar speaker, and President of Blue Pencil Institute, an organization that provides educational programs, learning products, and professionalism coaching to help professionals accelerate their careers, become more effective and productive, and find greater fulfillment and reward in their work; Baltimore, Maryland; email:; website: ; Twitter: @DrLauraHills.

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