24 October 2014
The challenges of modern times call for visionary leaders that have the unique ability to inspire others to look beyond their current circumstances in order to pursue an entirely new future that's better than today.
We look to great visionary leaders of the past such as Olaudah Equiano, the abolitionist and bestselling author, British parliamentarian and abolitionist William Wilberforce and Hannah Moore, a social reformer. Today, we see Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, a Christian Liberian peace activist who's responsible for leading a women's peace movement that helped bring an end to the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003. It's possible to identify a distinct visionary pathway from these great leaders:
This reflects the leaders' ability to identify significant inadequacies in the way things are. Hannah More was acutely aware of the debilitating moral condition of English society in a way few of her contemporaries had grasped.
This sense of dissatisfaction results in an attempt to re-envision things. More believed they could be. Every constructive vision arises out of a deep desire to make things better for ourselves and those around us, whether they're stakeholders, clients, peers or the organisation we work with or for. It states in Romans 8:19 - 21: "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.
The visionary leader recognizes what should not be and allows themselves to see the many challenges that face our churches, communities, societies and nations.
They have an ability to discern God-inspired ideas based on the power of a surrendered and receptive imagination. Visionary leaders have a mentality that says just because something hasn't been done before, it doesn't mean that it shouldn't be done now. Leymah Gbowee tells of her 'crazy dream' –a war-free Liberia and a God-inspired vision to see it manifested.
Biblically, visionis the ability to 'see the end from the beginning'. It's an attribute of God, who makes known the end from the very beginning, as explained in Isaiah 46: 10. In other words, God isn't hiding the future, He is making it known to anyone prepared to seek it out.
Visionary leaders are capable of imagining what may currently seem impossible for their nation, church, ministry, work or arena of responsibility.
However, visionary leaders do more than recognise inadequacies and imagine possibilities. Visionary leaders are also willing to develop new and strategic direction. In other words, they set strategic direction by conceiving and implementing concrete steps that will enable the desired future to be realised. Wilberforce ultimately prevailed because he understood that one can't end a systemic evil, such as slavery, without also changing the values of society. He was willing to take the risks required to progress his God-inspired vision beyond the status of a wishful dream, by systematically and incrementally applying the vision over the course of many years. His ability to focus on detailed strategy, while 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 waysthat challenge the status quo and helps others to open up to new ways of doing things. They attract commitment because they understand that people are primarily committed to causes –not just plans. Visionary leaders have a unique and inspired ability to call into being vision that thing that already resonates in the hearts of others. Equiano's autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789), depicts the horrors of his own enslavement and that of others in a way that challenged resistant members of every social class into engaging 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. This is why visionary leaders are seldom responsible for acting out the entire vision. They ensure that they take primary responsibility for catalyzing the vision to inspire others to emulate them.
We desperately need multitudes of visionary leaders who are 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.
Kate Coleman is founder and director of Next Leadership. Read more about Kate.