Are YOU a visionary leader?
The many challenges of our present age call for the unique gift of visionary leaders. These ‘practical futurists’ recognise that it is not enough to picture future possibilities that are capable of making tomorrow’s world better than today’s. Of course visionary leaders are able to recognise new opportunities and trends and develop new and strategic direction, but they also have the unique ability to inspire others to look beyond the limitations of their current circumstances and to pursue an entirely new future altogether.
By observing the activities of great visionary leaders of the past such as Olaudah Equiano (abolitionist and bestselling author), William Wilberforce (the British parliamentarian and abolitionist) and Hannah Moore (social reformer), as well as those in the present such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee (an avowedly committed Christian Liberian peace activist), it is possible to identify a distinct visionary pathway that includes at least 4 key attributes of visionary leadership.
Do you see any of these in yourself?
This attribute reflects the visionary leader’s ability to identify significant ‘inadequacies’ and ‘wrongs’ in the way things are, such as ungodly circumstances, activities, attitudes and behaviours in personal, community, social, or work life. For example, Hannah Moore was acutely aware of the debilitating moral condition of English society in a way that few of her contemporaries had grasped. The persistent sense of dissatisfaction results in an attempt to re-envision things as you believe they can and should be. Indeed, every constructive vision arises out of a deep desire to make things better for ourselves and those around us, whether they are our congregations, stakeholders, clients, peers or the organisation we work with or for.
The Bible says Romans 8:19–21 that, ‘The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed…’ Even creation yearns to experience things as God would have them, rather than as they presently are.
Visionary leaders are capable of imagining what may currently seem impossible for their nation, church, ministry, work or arena of responsibility. They have an ability to discern God-inspired ideas based largely on the power of a surrendered and receptive imagination. Visionary leaders have a mentality that says – just because something has never been done before does not mean that it can’t be done!
Imagination is incredibly powerful, it is capable of conceptualising a very different future from the present reality the visionary leader lives in. Leymah Gbowee tells of her ‘crazy dream’ of a war-free Liberia and a God-inspired vision to see it manifested.
Biblically speaking, vision/visionary sight is the ability to ‘see the end from the beginning’. It is an attribute of God himself, the One who actually makes known the end from the beginning, telling from ancient times what is still to come (Isaiah 46:10). In other words, God isn’t hiding the future: he is making it known to anyone prepared to seek it out.
However, visionary leaders do more than recognise inadequacies and imagine possibilities; visionary leaders are also willing to develop new and strategic direction, new solutions. In other words, they set strategic direction by conceiving and implementing the concrete steps, activities and plans that will enable the desired future to be realised.
Wilberforce ultimately prevailed because he understood the futility of attempting to end a systemic evil such as slavery without also changing the values and dispositions of fellow citizens. He was willing to take the risks required to progress his God-inspired vision beyond the status of a wishful dream and did so systematically and incrementally over the course of many years. His ability to focus on detailed strategy whilst always keeping an eye on the bigger picture is a distinctive attribute of visionary leadership.
Visionary leaders never answer the question “Where are we going?” simply for themselves. They are great narrators who articulate inspiring stories in ways that challenge the status quo and help others to open up to new ways of doing things. They create meaning, not just money or numbers. They attract commitment because they understand that people are primarily committed to causes and not just to plans. Visionary leaders have a unique and inspired ability to call into being vision that already resonates in the hearts of others.
Equiano’s autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789), depicting the horrors of his own enslavement and that of others, did this in a way that challenged seemingly resistant members of every social class to engage in the abolitionist cause. Olaudah’s involvement with the ‘Sons of Africa’ (a group of African abolitionists in Victorian London) was also a recognition that great vision seldom emerges from solitary analysis. Hence, visionary leaders are seldom responsible for articulating the entire vision, but they ensure that they always take primary responsibility to embody, relay, rehearse, remind and catalyse vision in ways that inspire others.
We desperately need multitudes of visionary leaders ready and willing to tackle the many great challenges facing our churches, communities, workplaces and nations today. I for one am praying that God will raise them up.
Are you one of them?
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