Can you teach a leader to be visionary?

I’ve recently been taking part in a really interesting thread on LinkedIn about visionary leaders.  The question is “Is visionary leadership teachable?  Can you teach a leader how to see the bigger picture?”  I bang on about how everything is learnable, everyone is teachable…blah, blah, blah.  I do actually believe this is absolutely true.  In my time, I have worked with senior executives, factory workers, the learning disabled, adolescents, traumatised people, mandated clients sent to me from the criminal justice system…. even engineers for goodness sakes, you name it.  I’ve seen it happen.  People learn.  Oh, yes they do.  People change.  Indeed they do; sometimes in spite of themselves.


….there will always be factors which impinge on each individual leader’s ability to integrate this learning into their being.  There will also be many ‘life’ factors which determine how easily a particular individual will learn and how adept a particular individual is at applying what they learn.

I’ll add that the ability to see a ‘bigger picture’ or to be ‘visionary’ is but one of many leader-capabilities that are required for a leader to excel.  These include capabilities such as knowing the self, managing relationships, loving and valuing people, managing time and resources, inspiring and motivating people, coaching and mentoring. There are many, many fine leaders who possess many, many of these capabilities in spades; and watching them in action, and watching them make it look so easy, it would be easy to conclude that they were just born this way.  All of these capabilities work in tandem with each other, because we humans are systems of interconnected roles within ourselves.  That notwithstanding and even though it’s rather artificial, let’s, for argument’s sake, isolate this thing of being a ‘visionary leader’.

What does it mean to be one of these things?  I quite like this description: “The visionary is both the “keeper of the flame” capable of holding focus through the entire creative process and one who can either lead the organization through the unknown to manifest the desired visions and/or create the space for creative spirit of members of the organization to freely unfold to manifest the desired vision.” (RYUC)  I also like this link because it lays out some of the characteristics of a visionary leader: possesses a deep sense of personal purpose, strong social presence and superb communication skills, sensitivity to others, willingness to take risks.  Wow.

While none of these things is innate, the experiences and relationships we have from the day we are born immediately begin to impact on us and serve as the classroom in which we learn these capabilities.  It would be easy to conclude, when observing one of these excellent-leaders-who-make-it-look-so-easy that they were born that way.  They were not.  They learnt it.

If we take one of those characteristics of a visionary leader, let’s take strong social presence, there will be a difference between those who grew up in a family where they were applauded for being social and those who grew up in a family in which they were admonished when they spoke out.  The latter may go on to learn what it takes to be socially skilled, perhaps via other life experiences and relationships or reading self-help books or going on a course, but they will speak it as if it was a second language.

I see a parallel with learning a language.  Many, many moons ago, I used to teach a programme called “English for Teachers”.  It was for teachers of English who wanted to extend their own knowledge and grasp of the language.  They were all non-native speakers, though you would have struggled to tell with some of these folks; they even had an English accent.  None of these people were raised speaking English, however they had developed a very high level of proficiency to the point that they were able to teach it to their own students back in their home countries extremely effectively.  Some of them would even try to correct my English and therein lies a key difference: consciousness.  Because they had to be more conscious about their use of this skill than I did, they were more awake to its use than I, as a native speaker, was.  We natives can sometimes be a little lazy with our language, but it’s ours.  It is so well integrated into our very core that we don’t have to be so conscious of how we use it as often as a non-native does.  Same can go for leadership capabilities.

Some leaders will be blessed by having already been to the classroom of life that has taught them a whole bunch of useful capabilities.  Others will have been severely deprived of such opportunities and have to work really hard to learn them.  I suspect that most will have gathered a fair amount of these skills already and just need to add some in.  This last one  is what I usually find.  We most often work with people who are already good at the ‘achieving’, who can already master relationships, who are good at motivating others, but who are seeking to develop, say, more of that big picture thinking.

With effort and attention (both acts of will), they succeed.  They become fluent over time.  To paraphrase the TV ad, “It happens, but it doesn’t happen overnight.”  And eventually, I suspect, they will even develop the accent so that nobody will know the difference.


4 thoughts on “Can you teach a leader to be visionary?

  1. I love the idea that we can teach leadership, as I do it as part of my job as a high school teacher. Creating the environment that nurtures the traits of leadership is indeed vital. Our environment impacts us daily and we so need the nurturing to achieve our best. Thank you for sharing this.

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