Home Concepts Concepts of Leadership Addressing the Irony: Three Styles of Leadership

Addressing the Irony: Three Styles of Leadership

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Visionary leaders like Abraham Lincoln often were born in poverty and are self-taught. Other visionary leaders such as Susan B. Anthony (and the other Seneca Falls advocates for women’s rights) and Martin Luther King (and the other civil rights leaders of the 1960s) grew up in a world that discriminated against them (or at least against other people “of their kind”). Visionary leaders such as Frederick Douglass offer even more compelling story of being born into slavery and escaping to freedom.

The visionary stories often contain moments of personal doubt and spiritual despair. We see this in the inspiring stories of Joan-of-Arc and Mother Teresa. Visionary stories often contain elements not only of doubt and despair, but also of wisdom (combining Style One and Style Three leadership) and of courage (combining Style Two and Style Three leadership). Visionary leaders convey stories of sacrifice, tribulation and triumph—having parted the Red Sea or dwelled in the desert so that they might enter into a land of milk and honey. Ironically, in many instances they have led their people to a land of milk and honey but have not been able to enter this land themselves (Moses, Lincoln, Gandhi, John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King).

This is a key point in understanding the ironic dynamics of Style Three leadership: the vision can never be realized (just as iro9nically the enemy can never be defeated if Style Two leadership is to be sustained and the followers can never become too wise if Style One leadership is to prevail). One way to be certain that the vision remains intact is to kill the visionary leader (figuratively or literally). We can sustain the vision of a new Camelot because John Kennedy never had a chance to enact his dream and can be moved by King’s “I have a dream” speech in part because he was not alive to realize this dream.

The key to wholehearted acceptance of and sustained support for a visionary leader resides in the identification of a compelling story from the past that bridges to the future. While this story often involves something about the visionary leader’s own life and struggles, it must also resonate with and align with the stories and personal aspirations of those hearing or reading this story. There is a phrase which usually reads: “think globally but act locally.” This same sentiment, slightly revised, can apply to visionary stories: “make them personal and local, but be sure that they speak to a much larger constituency.”

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