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The Visionary Leader in a Premodern Organizational Context

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Keeping the Vision Alive

If people are bound together, at least in part, through commitment to a shared, compelling vision of the future, then it become obvious that the key role to be played by the visionary leader is: KEEP THE VISION ALIVE. This usually means not only that the leader periodically reminds his or her colleagues of the vision, but also that the leader facilitates a periodic review of and updating of the vision. The leader of vision is in trouble if the vision either is ignored or if the vision is reached. Thus, there must always be a sense of something undone, of something yet to be done, of something worth doing.

Many years ago, a noted European social historian, Fred Polak, wrote about the decline of social systems that have lost their image of the future. Polak points to a critical factor in the ongoing existence of any social system (or any living system for that matter). It must have something toward which it is moving or toward which it is growing. Organisms are inherently “auto-telic”—meaning that they are self-purposed. They don’t need anything outside themselves to engage their world actively and in an inquisitive manner. This is the fundamental nature of play (common to all mammalians) and of curiosity. Without a sense of direction and future possibilities we dry up and find no reason to face the continuing challenge of survival. We also find little reason for producing and preparing a new generation.

A post-nuclear holocaust world is portrayed in the series of Australian movies regarding Mad Max. The world is coming to an end. When no viable future is in sight, then (as we see in these movies) there is no attending to children. They must fend for themselves, for we know they have no personal futures. Ironically, there is a powerful story about post-nuclear holocaust in a novel by Cormac McCarthy called The Road in which the father continues to protect and sacrifice for his son, even though the world is coming to an end. This extraordinary protagonist somehow finds meaning and purpose – and vision—regarding his son in the midst of despair and death. Perhaps this is the type of premodern leadership that we need in our challenging world of 21st Century terrorism, nihilism and despair. McCarthy offers us a portrait of leadership that blends courage with vision—and perhaps in some very deep manner even the qualities of wisdom.

The premodern leader who is honored and respected for his or her capacity to convey a compelling vision of the future needs a viable vision. One of the great challenges for the visionary leader emerges when his or her vision (or the vision of the community) has been realized, abandoned or ignored. If there is no longer the need for a vision, than we certainly don’t need a visionary leader. We can point to Winston Churchill as a notable example of this decline in collective support for a visionary leadership. During World War II, Churchill not only exhibited courage, he also articulated a compelling vision regarding the future of England (and all of Europe), that helped to increase the resolve of English citizens to fight against the Nazi regime and Hitler’s equally as compelling (though horrifying) vision for a new Europe. When the Germans were defeated, England and Churchill not only lost an enemy, they also lost their compelling vision for the future. While England (and all of Western Europe) was certainly better off after World War II was terminated than they were during the war, there was not a new Europe. The United Nations didn’t solve all international problems. This was not the war-to-end-all-wars (as was proclaimed at the conclusion of World War I). Many writers have documented the existential despair that followed World War II, when people had to return to a life that had not improved, despite the visionary statements of World War II leaders like Churchill, Roosevelt, DeGaulle—even Stalin.

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