The Mythic Romance of the Visionary Leader

How to Simulate Your Company’s Journey Across Space and Time

The most storied romance in business is the one between leaders and their visions. You know it if you have ever read an Inc. article or logged onto LinkedIn. Memetic quotes about vision, passion, pursuit of dreams from Henry Ford to Dolly Parton are posted and reposted. And through their regurgitation, we manufacture a simulacrum of wisdom. And that wisdom sounds something like this: Leaders must be exceptional, lone visionaries.

Indeed, Business Insider top ten listicles would have you believe that you must be wrapped in a love affair with your vision. Well, it worked for Steve Jobs, did it not? We carry an image of him meandering through a Walden-esque scene and waiting for Mother Nature to reveal her deepest secrets to him. And what did She whisper? iPhones. After the commune on the mountaintop, he would descend and deliver his vision. And the humans who receive it would gratefully follow the ideas.

Why Do We Hold On To This Leadership Myth?

It feels good to believe this. If only our lives could be so simple.

Today, leaders face challenges with unprecedented complexity. It helps not that when mired in this complexity, we lack sufficient models for making sense of that complexity. Few are those who, so assailed, can win out in single-handed combat. And so, even with an inspired vision in hand, leaders will meet dreaded horsemen of Apathy or Confusion. The human beings at every level of the organization struggle to understand how the vision relates to their present-day realities.

If you have experienced this as a leader, you know its demoralizing impact. Take heart, the issue was not the worthiness of your idea or innovation. The issue was that generating the ultimate vision in isolation set you up for failure.

Leadership as Vision Provocateur

Here is what I beseech you: Shift your role of leader from being the lawgiver and vision-generator to that of inspiration-giver and curiosity-generator. You are not Elon Musk. Nor need you be. The world is asking for you, as someone wise in the ways of vision, to create an environment that has a competency for collaborative visionary thinking.

You are not Elon Musk. Nor need you be.

The challenge for leadership is to fold the collective consciousness of your company into your vision. Your organization has a diverse set of images of the future.  And perhaps you have tried, in vain, to elucidate those images through a SWOT analysis or other tactics. But it is not easy. Because these images exist in a realm that precedes language — a place of emotions, colors and, well, images.

To uncover the images of the future and create a following behind your ideas, you can leverage the discipline of strategic foresight. A simple activation that comes from that discipline is the Futures Wheel.

A journey with your stakeholders through space and time.

Invented by futurist Jerome Glenn, the wheel uncovers the long-term implications of a decision or a change. It is most useful in inspiring your team to look toward a horizon and play with possibility. Rather than selling your already baked vision to your stakeholders, you can activate possible futures to enfranchise your organization in facing a challenge.

Take a Trip Around the Wheel

  • Recruit your team. This could be your managers or leadership or whomever you think would be most insightful in helping you to craft your vision. It could include people from outside your organization. The point is that they should know they are venturing through time and space with you.               
  • Solicit the team for trends or changes. Make a list of potential threats or disruptions to your company. Maybe you recently performed a SWOT Analysis. If the change or insight comes from your team, all the better.
  • Create language for the center of the wheel. Craft the wording of the trend you found in future language. The trend or change can be internal (we create a new product) or external (a competitor emerges with a superior product). Example: U.S. housing starts decline by 10 percent.
  • Determine your time horizon. Tell your team that the change or decision that you have placed in the center is present day. And now we have been transported ten years in the future.
  • Ask for the first order of implications that could occur. Ask the simple question: “And then what?” Stakeholders identify their first order implications or visions.
  • Repeat for the next order of implications. Have the stakeholders draw the connection from the first order to the second order implications. Repeat the same process for third order implications.
  • BONUS: Rank your insights: 1. Most important. 2. Most likely. You can ask for a scale or just a simple dot-vote procedure.

By simulating a journey through space and time, the Futures Wheel creates visibility into the potential pitfalls, gains, surprises, and adjacencies that are otherwise invisible. It is the equivalent of taking your team with you on your vision quest.

That is where your leadership is needed. Not in predicting the next big thing. But in leading the team in facing uncertainty. Next, you can craft a collective vision that accounts for previously unforeseen possibilities. And, your organization will grow in its capacity to look forward together.