September 2013 | 

Become a Visionary Leader, One Step at a Time


When you hear the word “visionary,” you probably think of a great leader — someone who inspires through ground-breaking ideas expertly communicated. Maybe it’s Martin Luther King or Ratan Tata, Steve Jobs or Winston Churchill. They’re the extraordinary, history-making examples. But, says consultant and teacher Rob-Jan de Jong, visionary leadership is not the inalterable trait of a select few. It’s not something you’re either born with or not. Rather, it is a mindset and group of behaviors that can be learned and cultivated. De Jong breaks down the process into two key elements, what he calls Seeing Things Early and Connecting the Dots.

“Many people do take the time to keep up with what is happening in the world and in their industry. They watch the news, read newspapers, and consult trade publications. But there’s so much going on, and so much is changing rapidly, that it’s hard to make sense of. And what makes it even harder is that the short term runs the agenda. Where is the time to distinguish the signal from the noise when you have a to-do list filled with items that need your immediate attention?”

In Wharton’s Global Strategic Leadership program, de Jong shows senior executives how to “prime” themselves to pick up early signals of change. Instead of randomly consuming information, they first consider innovative, disruptive ideas for their organizations, their industry, and even the world, that could have an impact on their business. By priming themselves with these ideas first, they get better at picking up potentially relevant information. Random consumption becomes more targeted, and the signal starts to emerge from the noise.

He explains, “Look for changing realities in your business, industry, and geography that are relevant. If you work in the financial sector in the UK, and you are functionally involved with mergers and acquisitions, your scope would be different from that of a Taiwanese product development manager in the pharmaceutical industry.

“But don’t look only for changing realities with respect to mergers and acquisitions in the financial industry in the UK,” he continues, “because that future might be influenced by technological advances, economic power shifts, changing regulations, and other wider developments. The scope should be wide enough to capture any relevant signals, but not so wide that you have too much information to consider. For example, the financial sector in the UK might be influenced by regulations from the EU, growing financial power from the Middle East, and evaporating trust in business leadership and the capitalistic model. All transcend the boundaries of the UK financial industry, but might have significant impact on the future of that industry.”

De Jong notes that the timeline should be scoped to a minimum of three to a maximum of seven years into the future. “Thinking only a year or two forward limits your thinking because you’re too rooted in today’s reality. But thinking too far into the future can make you inclined to believe anything. A three to seven year scope works best.”

Once they’re “primed” with potential changes and start looking for relevant information, the next step is to connect the dots. De Jong uses multiple techniques to guide executives in creating coherent stories about the future, and working with uncertainty productively. “Working on this dimension of your visionary capacity by using scenario planning significantly increases the chances of developing a fuller picture of what the future might bring. It is a proven methodology that requires an existential open-mindedness, agility, and creativity that is extremely helpful in growing your visionary abilities.”

De Jong is currently working on a book to share his insights into visionary leadership with a wider audience. Tentatively titled The Vision Thing (after George H.W. Bush’s comment to a campaign advisor who urged him to develop his vision for America), the book mirrors his session in Global Strategic Leadership. “This is a different approach than what most people are accustomed to. Expect to get a deeper perspective on what the world looks like, what is happening, and how might it affect you. You will challenge your assumptions, open your mind to changing realities, and become better at spotting those changes earlier. Then, you will learn steps for turning it into a creative story. You don’t need to be born a visionary, or hope to become one. This is a process that builds the necessary skills and behaviors that can help change the way you lead.”