Advice & News

November 16, 2020

What Is a Visionary Leader?


Perusing the job announcements for senior academic positions across the country recently, I was struck by the recurrence of language that the institution is looking for a visionary leader. That reminded me that I have long thought that this attribute is one of the least precise preferred characteristics for deans and especially presidents/chancellors. What exactly is a visionary leader? How do you demonstrate that you meet this qualification and what are the bases for your assertion?

The one thing we decidedly are not talking about is people who have visions. There are clinical categories for them. Another thing we are not talking about is people who dream about the future. Dreams are, I suppose, quite common but dreams without attendant action lead nowhere. Dreams without purposeful, sustained action fare poorly.

Yet we all admire successful leaders who imagined a future different than the present and steered an institution or a portion of it towards that future over time. In retrospect they are deemed to be visionary. It seems evident that a track record of accomplishments is useful. The issue remains, however, how do you prove that you are one of these visionary leaders if this is your first foray into senior leadership?

It takes imagination to be visionary. Experience teaches that imagination itself is not just one thing; it is several. At its most basic level, it is present in individuals at all levels of an institution. For instance, it is seen in the work of a department chair who is putting together a faculty recruitment plan. I remember on one occasion, when I was dean, talking to a newly elected chair who had run on reshaping the research and curriculum of his unit to recognize emerging trends in the discipline. The goal was to use retirements to shift the focus of the discipline gradually over half a decade. He imagined a time when his department would once again be, as it had been in the past, a major intellectual center in the field nationally.

This basic form of visionary leadership is embedded in a clear understanding of current circumstances and projecting them out to see if the goal is attainable, if you work at it. In this case, an aging faculty was certainly going to retire soon. This presented an opportunity to reshape the department in exciting and powerful ways. But to do that, you have to see the possibilities (the vision) and then do the hard work of analyzing how to get that work done. Mission accomplished.

A second kind of visionary leader works on a broader platform across multiple units. This leader also focuses on a value proposition but thinks deeply not just about her unit but about how that value proposition might guide broader decisions by others. One of my favorite examples of this principle at work begins with enunciating a common goal, say an increase in the graduation rates of disadvantaged students. This goal, of course, requires longer term thinking but it also requires intermediate assessments of how well the plan is proceeding.

More important, it involves leading others in lower level units in a way that meshes their individual work together. The institution (or it could be a sub unit such as a college) has to share the importance of the goal and be challenged to imagine how people everywhere could contribute to attaining it. The leader in this scenario has first to articulate the underlying value of the endeavor, then sell it to others so that they internalize it, too. Thereafter the vision becomes a campus aspiration, and everyone works toward a common goal. All share in the outcome.

For the visionary leader, this level of coordinated work is embedded in the ideal but the details of getting it done are left to others. Often this is buttressed by the evaluation process where action is shaped by tangible rewards for success. For example, when enhanced advising is coupled with campus academic and support programming in order to secure greater retention and thus higher graduation rates for each new cohort of students. The leader envisions the goal but leaves it to others to figure out how to apply it to their area and then holds others accountable for success in that work.

My personal favorite in visionary thinking takes place when the leader looks over the horizon and imagines something that few, if any others, at the moment think to be possible, if they consider it at all. This is best described as a habit of mind that constantly toys with possibilities for the future and then meshes all the other forms of visioning with their attendant action into a bigger picture. It's rarely talked about in public forums, which is prudent since much of it goes nowhere. But this way of visioning helps shape the way the leader thinks about the whole range of possibilities from short term to long run.

Another way to look at it, it starts with an objective assessment of current circumstances and then projects to what it would be like to change them all for the better. This is dreaming at a very high level and it is based in reality, tempered by that which is possible today, and the development of intermediate visionary thinking to move an institution along a path towards an ultimate goal that is transcendental, though initially unspoken. Much will perhaps not come to pass, but in the meantime many good things will.

The vision thing boils down to data analysis, plus time, all wrapped inside a dream. Therein lies the true visionary at work.