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The Visionary Leader in a Premodern Organizational Context

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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 and courage.  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. Tragically, 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 premodern dynamics of visionary leadership: the vision can never be realized (just as the enemy can never be defeated if courageous leadership is to be sustained and the followers can never become too knowledgeable or experienced if leadership of wisdom is to prevail). One way to insure 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.

It is very hard to teach anyone how to be charismatic or to provide anyone with a story that is compelling to other people. The visionary leader is typically someone who has gained their “education” and “training” through their own distinctive life experiences. They may have received a prestigious education—but this usually happens “in spite of” their background. They often are the poster-boy (or poster-girl) for affirmative action. They may also have been trained as warriors (Colin Powell comes to mind), but the vision they now offer is typically one of peace: they “know” war and wish to have no further part of it.

Articulating the Vision

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.”)

Given that visionary leadership is dependent on the right place and the right time, it is also important that the vision is articulated at the right time and in the right place. While Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address still appeals to us today, it is profound in large part because it was given at a commemoration ceremony for those soldiers who died during the bloody battle at Gettysburg. Lincoln is literally “consecrating” the ground where these young men were buried. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech was similarly given on a particularly auspicious occasion (a major civil rights march on Washington D.C.) and at a very “holy” or “patriotic” location (facing the Lincoln Memorial). The visionary leader must pick the special time and place when offering a visionary statement. This statement is not meant for the everyday—for the secular or the “profane” (to use Eliade’s term). It is meant for the special day and place—the “sacred” (Eliade’s term).

Where and when does the visionary leader find this special place and time? This is a critical decision. Unfortunately, the visionary statement is often offered during a time when immediate, profane matters need to be addressed. The vision is being offered as a distraction from the immediate problems facing the leader and his or her followers—thus the criticality of place and time. I would suggest that there are five primary criteria with regard to the nature of an effective statement of vision. These five criteria tell us something about when and where we should offer a vision. I will first briefly identify these criteria and then suggest how these criteria help us identify an appropriate time and place for vision.

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