'Leading by example' is the essence of what successful visionary leaders do.
Boss-watching is an organizational sport, and a hazard for the unwary leader. People pick up on the slightest discrepancy between what the mouth says and the body does.
This means visibly promoting the goals of the team by spending most of your time on what you say is important. If you have five key business goals, most of your time should be spent focusing on them.
If understanding and meeting customers’ needs are core values for the team, even if your customers are internal company departments, then a good deal of your time should be spent listening to customers.
People watch not just what you do, but how you do it, and compare it with the values the team has signed up to. They will watch how you deal with people when you’re stressed, how fairly you deal with people, and notice discrepancies.
If you get this right, people will see that you mean what you say.
What visionary leaders do
The research tells us that visionary leaders are known for:
- Empowering individuals with personal touches of appreciation and support. Consistency, and fairness are not based on treating everyone the same, but respecting each team member as an individual.
- Building trust by keeping their promises.
- Leading change and challenging existing assumptions about how work should be done.
- Creating an optimistic culture and confidence about the future, both of which are linked to successful leadership and improved team performance.
- Building commitment to change by breaking the big vision down into manageable steps. This makes it easier to achieve, easier to see progress and easier to spot successes as they happen.
Transformational leadership gets results
Research on the consequences of this style of leadership (often called transformational leadership in the academic literature) show it to be linked with improved results, higher levels of innovation, higher morale and lower staff turnover1. All-round wins and a virtuous circle of success and appreciation.
Arrogance and hubris
But there is a potential dark side, when a successful visionary leader starts to believe it’s all down to their wonderful leadership skills rather than in the team effort they have been part of and helped to generate.
Research shows that successful leaders can easily be tempted into arrogance and hubris. If we’re not careful we start to believe that we can succeed where others have failed. We start to take riskier decisions (the acquisitions research is full of CEOs who failed when all the analysis was against them but they thought they could make it work). At its worst this generates a personality cult – you’re for us or against us – which is toxic for effective leadership.
So visionary leaders have a balancing act to perform. They must inspire commitment from their colleagues but remember that it’s the team that deserves the credit for the results.
1. See eg recent meta-analysis of 600 research papers in Ng, 2017, Transformational leadership and performance outcomes, The Leadership Quarterly, 28 385 - 417