Visionary Leadership

Summary of Visionary Leadership, by Burt Nanus

There are common warning signs of leadership problems in organizations, and more often than not, such problems can be traced to a lack of direction or uncertainty about the vision. Here are a few of the warning signs:

  1. Is there evidence of confusion about purpose? For example, are there frequent disagreements among your key people about which customers or clients should have priority, or which services or technologies are the most important to provide, or where the greatest threats and opportunities are likely to be found?
  2. Do your employees complain about insufficient challenge or say they’re not having fun anymore? Are they pessimistic about the future or cynical about the present?
  3. Is the organization loosing legitimacy, market position, or its reputation for innovation? Are new competitors emerging who are better serving your customers or constituents?
  4. Does your organization seem out-of-tune with trends in the environment? Do important outsiders like directors, clients, or investors sometimes suggest that your organization may be slipping or that it’s not keeping up with changes in technology or socioeconomic developments?
  5. Are there signs of a decline in pride within your organization? Are some of your people working only for their paychecks without a real sense of commitment or belonging?
  6. Is there excessive risk avoidance, with people abiding by their narrow job descriptions, unwilling to accept ownership or responsibility for new projects or resisting change?
  7. Is there an absence of a shared sense of progress or momentum? Is it difficult for some of your managers to articulate how much things are improving? Do they still fell they have an attractive future with the organization?
  8. Is there a hyperactive rumor mill, with people constantly trying to find out through the grapevine what is in store for them or the organization? Do people truly trust and respect top management?

If you see one or a few of these warning signs in your organization, then the chances are that the existing sense of direction is either not well communicated or understood or that the vision itself is no longer persuasive or inspiring to people. If so, then the time is right to set a new direction for your organization.

Source: Visionary Leadership, by Burt Nanus, pp-19-20



Managers vs. Leaders

cf.: Leaders vs. Elders from Sitting in the Fire

Managers Leaders
administer innovate
focus on systems and structure focus on people
relies on control inspires trust
short-range view long range perspective
asks how and when asks what and why
keep an eye on the bottom line keep an eye on the horizon
imitate originate / create
accepts the status quo changes status quo
the classic good soldier their own person
does things right does the right thing

Leadership is a full-time job, and those who try to be both managers and leaders simultaneously often find it quite difficult to do either job very effectively.

Source: Visionary Leadership, pp 10-11, drawn from Bennis, 1989, p. 45



p. 24 – Progress in organizations, like all human progress, is driven by the idealism and optimism captured in a persuasive and appealing vision of the future.

p. 27 – For all its pretensions to reality, history is heavily conjectural, full of judgments and values, and frequently reflects the historian’s desire to influence today’s policies.

A vision has no power to inspire or energize people and no ability to set a new standard or attract commitment unless it offers a view of the future that is clearly and demonstrably better for the organization, for the people in the organization, and/or for the society within which the organization operates.

Properties of a good vision, and what a vision is not.

p. 29-30 – Properties of powerful and transforming visions:

  • They are appropriate for the organization and for the times
  • They set standards of excellence and reflect high ideals.
  • They clarify purpose and direction.
  • They inspire enthusiasm and encourage commitment.
  • They are well articulated and easily understood.
  • They reflect the uniqueness of the organization, its distinctive competence, what it stands for, and what it is able to achieve.
  • They are ambitious.
  • They help distinguish what is truly important from what is merely interesting.

A good strategy may be indispensable in coordinating management decisions and preparing for contingencies, but a strategy has cohesion and legitimacy only in the context of a clearly articulated and widely shared vision of the future. A strategy is only as good as the vision that guides it, which is why purpose and intentions tend to be more powerful than plans in directing organizational behavior.


p 30-32: No matter how well formulated, a vision can fail if it is inappropriate or if it is poorly communicated or implemented.

The following are some things that a vision is not.

  • It is not a prophecy
  • A vision is not a mission. (A vision gives direction, a mission gives purpose)
  • A vision is not factual. .. It deals not with reality but with possible and desirable futures. It is full of speculation, assumptions, and value judgments.
  • A vision cannot be true or false. it can be evaluated only relative to other possible directions for the organization. That is, it can be seen as better or worse, more or less rational, safer or riskier, more or less appropriate, or even just good enough.
  • A vision is not — or at least should not be — static, enunciated once and for all time.
  • A vision is not a constraint on actions, except for those inconsistent with the vision.

Where Does Vision Come From?

p 34 – Vision is composed of one part foresight, one part insight, plenty of imagination and judgment, and often, a healthy dose of chutzpah.

The art of developing an effective vision starts with asking the right questions — and asking lots of them.

p 36 – there are few things sadder for an organization than an exciting vision that is poorly implemented.

p.38 : contains a list of steps for “getting started” with the visioning process.

p. 44 – Since the vision starts with understanding the enterprise — or in other words, what you see depends on where you stand — you must be quite clear about the fundamentals of the business you are in.

p. 45: What business are we really in?

p. 45 – To define the basic nature of your organization, you need to answer these five questions:

  1. What is the current stated mission or purpose of your organization?
  2. What value does the organization provide to society?
  3. What is the character of the industry or institutional framework within which your organization operates?
  4. What is your organization’s unique position in that industry or institutional structure?
  5. What does it take for your organization to succeed?

p. 50: How do we operate?

To understand how your organization operates, you need to ask these three questions:

  1. What are the values and the organizational culture that govern behavior and decision making?
  2. What are the operating strengths and weaknesses of the organization?
  3. What is the current strategy, and can it be defended?
    p. 54: A strategy is “the pattern or plan that integrates an organization’s major goals, policies, and action sequence into a cohesive whole.”

p. 52 – leaders must always understand their own values, and culture prevailing in their organizations, because these values determine whether a new sense of direction will be enthusiastically embraced, reluctantly accepted, or rejected as inappropriate.

p.54: A strategy is “the pattern or plan that integrates an organization’s major goals, policies, and action sequence into a cohesive whole. (Quinn, Mintzberg, and James, 1988, p.3)

p.56 – 60: The Vision Audit

  1. Does the organization have a clearly stated vision? If so, what is it?
    • Although many top executives think their vision is clearly stated, upon closer examination it is apparent that they are referring to a mission statement or a published credo or even to an advertising slogan.
  2. If the organization continues on its current path, where will it be heading over the next decade?
    How good would such a direction be?

    • Leaders have a tendency to be overly optimistic about the future prospects of their organization.
    • An inconsistency between a company vision and reality might require at least a modification of its current sense of direction and, more likely, a whole new vision.
  3. Do the key people in the organization know where the organization is headed and agree on the direction?
    • For a vision to be effective, it must be well understood and widely shared in the organization.
  4. Do the structures, processes, personnel, incentives, and information systems support the current direction of the organization?
    • Once a vision exists, it can succeed only if the organization is positioned to support it.
    • If some operating practices support the stated vision, and others do not, that raises questions about how committed leadership and management are to the vision.

Constituencies And Their Needs

p.62: A stakeholder is anyone who has the power to exert an influence on your organization or who is strongly influenced by your organization in some significant way.

  1. Who are the most critical stakeholders – both inside and outside your organization — and of these, which are the most important?
  2. What are the major interests and expectations of the five or six most important stakeholders regarding the future of your organization?
  3. What threats or opportunities emanate from these critical stakeholders?
  4. Considering yourself a stakeholder, what do you personally and passionately want to make happen in your organization?

p.71: Targeting Your Vision

  1. What are the boundaries to your new vision?
    For example, are there time, geographical, or social constraints?
  2. What must the vision accomplish?
    How will you know when it is successful?

    • A clear distinction should be made between the vision itself, which is a substantive statement of intent or direction, and the measures of success of that vision.
    • Measures of success help the leader understand what kind of vision is needed, even though they must never be confused with the vision itself.
  3. Which critical issues must be addressed in the vision?

p.79-82: How To Think About The Future

The uncertainty also increases with the complexity of the area being examined and with the extent to which actual outcomes depend on human actions as opposed to physical or natural ones.

  1. Identify all the categories of future developments in your external environment that are likely to influence your vision statement.
  2. In each category, draw up a list of your expectations for about ten years beyond the expected duration of your vision statement.
  3. Evaluate the list of expectations to determine which ones would have the greatest impact if they occurred, that is, those that have the greatest significance for your vision statement. For each of these, assign a probability of occurrence based on your best understanding of the item in question.
  4. Write three of four brief scenarios that encompass the range of possible futures you anticipate. List the major implications of each scenario for your vision statement.

p.82-92: Identifying Important Future Developments

The future is composed of three parts: Continuity, Change, and Choice

  1. What major changes can be expected in the needs and wants served by your organization in the future?
  2. What changes can be expected in the major stakeholders of your organization in the future?
  3. What major changes can be expected in the relevant economic environments in the future?
    • To answer this question, you need to identify possible trends and developments in the international, national, and local economies that could affect your vision.
  4. What major changes can be expected in the relevant political environments in the future?
    • Social changes include changes in values, tastes, lifestyles, demographics, work, and leisure and in other factors in society that bear on the way your organization operates or on the produces and services it supplies.
  5. What major changes can be expected in the relevant technological environments in the future?
  6. What major changes can be expected in other external environments that could affect your organization in the future?

p.111: The Leader as a Great Synthesizer

Douglas Hofstadter (1980): Gödel, Escher, Bach (p.26) defines the essential abilities of intelligence as follows:

  • to respond to situations very flexibly
  • to take advantage of fortuitous circumstances
  • to recognize the importance of different elements of a situation
  • to find similarities between situations despite differences which may separate them
  • to draw distinctions between situations despite similarities which may link them
  • to synthesize new concepts by taking old concepts and putting them together in new ways
  • to come up with ideas which are novel

p. 115: Organizational Positioning / Mapping
(see the diagram – determine the axis, and plot the competition)


Growth Vector Analysis
Products / Services
Products / Services
Products / Services


Technology / Demand Matrix
New Needs and Wants From Environmental Changes
Products / Services
Operating Processes

p.121: Choosing the Right Vision

  • To what extent is it future oriented?
  • To what extent is it utopian— that is, is it likely to lead to a clearly better future for the organization?
  • To what extent is it appropriate for the organization — that is, does it fit in with the organization’s history, culture, and values?
  • To what extent does it set standards of excellence and reflect high ideals?
  • To what extent does it clarify purpose and direction?
  • To what extent is it likely to inspire enthusiasm and encourage commitment?
  • To what extent does it reflect the uniqueness of the organization, its distinctive competence and what it stands for?
  • Is it ambitious enough?

p.128: Nearly as important as the final vision are all the alternatives eliminated by the process.

The Leader as a Spokesperson for the Vision

p.134: A vision is little more than an empty dream until it is widely shared and accepted.

p.135: The key is connecting with people in a meaningful way to persuade them to change their perceptions about what is important for them and for the organization.

“Unless people believe they have chosen to adopt a new attitude and behavior and feel rewarded, they are likely to revert to old ways” (Reardon, 1991, p.210)

Three main tasks of the Leader as Spokesperson

  • Communication
  • Networking
  • Personification of the Vision

leaders live the vision by making all their actions and behaviors consistent with it and by creating a sense of urgency and passion for its attainment. You can do this in many ways, among them the following:

  • How you make and honor commitments.
    “Nothing makes a prince so much esteemed as the undertaking of great enterprises and the setting of a noble example in his own person” – Machiavelli
  • What you say in formal and especially informal settings.
  • What you express interests in and what questions you ask.
  • Where you choose to go and with whom you spend your time.
  • When you choose to act and how you make your actions known.
  • How you organize your staff and your physical surroundings.

The spokesperson task is not complete until everyone in the organization and all the major external stakeholders viscerally understand where the organization is headed and have a high degree of shared commitment to the vision.

The Leader as Change Agent for the Vision

p.142: One of the early strategic decisions you must make is whether to pursue the vision alone or to seek strategic alliances.

p.145: Altering the Organizational Climate: The organizational climate consists of the structures, processes, and culture that collectively determine how the organization functions.

  • Implement the new visions deliberately, making sure everyone understands the new direction and introducing the least disruptive or threatening changes first.
  • You can avoid resistance by isolating the units responsible for pioneering the new direction from the existing organization until they prove their worth or acquire legitimacy and acceptance.
  • You can put the new thrust in the hands of younger people with less commitment to the status quo and extend it later to the other parts of the organization. Or you can assign responsibilities to opinion leaders and champions in the organization who know how to take advantage of informal networks.
  • You can foster a culture that embraces change and innovation, so that the new vision is not seen as something unusual but rather as part of the continuing evolution of your organization.

p.147: Pivotal decisions in reshaping the organizational climate.

  1. What values are most consistent with the new vision?
  2. how shall performance in support of the vision be encouraged, recognized, and rewarded?
    • Selecting the best measures and tying them to reward systems are important steps you must take in orienting behavior toward your vision.
  3. What are the best ways to organize for the vision?
  4. What new operating policies or processes should you develop to move toward the vision?
  5. What additional skills are needed, and should they be developed internally through development and training or hired from the outside?

The Leader as Coach for the Vision

p.151-153: You can shape the social contexts in your organization in many ways to suit your vision, especially through your decisions and commitments about the following:

  • Who you choose to assign to groups and tasks.
  • The amount and types of resources and support services you make available to work groups.
  • The design of incentive systems.
    your choice of who and what is rewarded greatly influence the way groups work and their loyalty to the vision.
  • The way jobs are structured and allocated among work groups.
  • Your choice of people to head the teams.
  • The goals and expectations you associate with each organizational unit.

p.154: Top executives in most successful organizations readily acknowledge how dependent they are on midlevel leaders. They put their trust in them to make the right decisions, delegate ample authority to allow them to operate and build their organizations with considerable freedom and flexibility, and support them with necessary training and resources.

p.155: A new direction should inspire a midlevel leader to seek new opportunities.

+ Communication
Shared Purpose

Shared Purpose
+ Empowered people
+ Appropriate Organizational Changes
+ Strategic Thinking
Successful Visionary Leadership

The Re-Visioning Process

p.157: Napoleon: “I have conceived of many plans, but I was never free to execute one of them. For all that I held the rudder, and with a strong hand, the waves were always a good deal stronger. I was never in truth my own master; I was always governed by circumstances. (Durant and Durant, 1975, 241)

p.159-161: A learning organization needs plenty of feedback, which can only be obtained through careful monitoring and tracking of the vision.

  • How well is the organization doing in moving in the desired direction?
    Are there enough changes being made, and is the rate of progress satisfactory?
  • Are people committed to the vision, acting as if it were their own, and willing to take the initiative and insure prudent risks to achieve the vision?
  • Are the goals and priorities of organizational units, as well as of new projects and program proposals, consistent with the vision?
    Have new options opened up?
  • Are the organization’s structures, processes, plans, reward systems, and policies consistent with the vision?
    cf.: Built to Last
  • Do people feel they are pushing the boundaries of their field, that they are “where the action is”?
    Are they optimistic and enthusiastic about the prospects for the organization?
  • Are people communicating and cooperating with each other in the accomplishment of the vision, and are they being recognized for their participation in such activities?
  • Are influential managers championing the vision, and is there evidence of confidence in the leadership?
  • Is the culture supportive of the vision or moving in that direction?
  • Has the organization been innovative enough in implementing the vision?

p.161-152: while monitoring is mostly an internally directed activity, tracking involves gathering information about the effectiveness of the vision in the external environment.

  • Do all the external stakeholders in the organization, especially customers, suppliers, and shareholders, understand and support the vision? Do they view it favorably? (cf.: Managing at the Speed of Change)
  • Is the vision accomplishing its purpose in terms of the organizations measures of effectiveness?
    For example, are trends in market share, customer satisfaction, and public relations as favorable as expected with the new vision?
  • How is the marketplace changing in ways significant for the organization’s sense of direction?
    Are there new threats or opportunities surfacing among peer organizations and competitors or among clients and customers?
  • How is the external environment changing in ways significant for the organization’s sense of direction?
  • How does the image of the products or services of the organization compare in terms of relative value to those of other organizations?
  • Are there alternative visions being employed by other organizations that should e tracked and studied for insights they might offer?

p.162: As long as a vision appears to be working and is consistent with developments in the internal and external environments, it should be affirmed and supported.

p.166: When you look for a visionary leader, don’t look for a competent and experienced manager. Instead, look for a budding Ted Turner, an H.Ross Perot, or a Wayne Huizenga, people who may appear to some as intelligent misfits, idiosyncratic and self-motivated, but who have the curiosity, drive, and ambition to want to change the world.

The best way to ensure that the vision-forming process is alive and well — and continuously practiced — in your organization is to multiply the number of visionary leaders at all levels.

The Prudent Visionary

  1. Don’t do it alone (cf.: Heifetz – Thinking Politically)
    • Many leaders, on assuming office, wisely poll their colleagues on what they think should be done to improve the prospects for the organization.
    • One corporate CEO sends a list of questions — such as what the firm needs to do to become a great company, what key matters the CEO needs to focus on, and what the completion might do that requires preparation or response — to senior managers prior to their performance reviews and asks them to be prepared to discuss such matters. (DePree, 1989)
  2. Don’t be overly idealistic
    • However, as long as the vision appears attainable — even if it requires extraordinary efforts and some lucky breaks for it to be achieved — don’t be afraid to stretch a little and go for it.
  3. Reduce the possibility of unpleasant surprises.
    • Something you expect to happen doesn’t
    • Something you don’t expect to happen does
    • Something you never even thought about happens
  4. Watch out for organizational inertia [the drive to homeostasis in a system]
  5. Don’t be too preoccupied wit the bottom line.
    • When it comes to making hard choices, many progressive companies rate their customers first in priority, their workers second, and investors only third.
  6. Be flexible and patient in implementing the vision.
  7. Never get complacent

p.173-177: Twenty-First Century Organizations

  • The labor force consists primarily of highly skilled knowledge workers.
    • Knowledge workers are quite different from production workers in that they tend to view themselves as professionals and they operate on their own initiative. They also consider psychic rewards like challenge, status, personal growth, and self-esteem as important as their paychecks.
  • The products or services consist primarily of packages of knowledge
  • They tend to be global in scope
  • they tend to be technologically driven or, at least, highly technologically sensitive.
  • They tend to be characterized by rapid change and complexity.
    • Research is constantly aimed at producing new ideas that will make current concepts obsolete.
  • Their activities are distributed over space and time.
  • They tend to be multipurpose, serving the needs of many constituencies.
  • They tend to have fuzzy boundaries.


p.174: Some Forces Shaping Twenty-First-Century Organizations

  1. Explosive technological change caused by simultaneous and mutually reinforcing breakthroughs in materials, genetics, information sciences, space technology, automation, and instrumentation.
  2. The dominance of postindustrial economies based on information, knowledge, education, and services
  3. The globalization of business, politics, culture, and environmental concerns.
  4. the restructuring of national economies to accommodate intense international competition, and the gradual transition from military to economic dominance in global affairs.
  5. The erosion of confidence in all institutions, including governments, families, and religion, and the resultant search for self-sufficiency and meaning in work and grass roots activism.
  6. High economic stress resulting from heavy debt loads, global competition, vulnerable banking systems, and deferred costs of decaying infrastructure and environmental cleanup.
  7. Demographic and sociocultural shifts toward far more diversity and fragmentation of values, life-styles, and tastes.
  8. Relative affluence in material goods coupled with “new” scarcities (for example, job security and parental time for children) and increased personal risks from crime and environmental pollution.



Primary Goals sits at the intersection of three core ideas about communication:
  • Leaders create vision by communicating a compelling future to their teams.
  • Teams create success based on how effectively the communicate and coordinate with each other.
  • Entrepreneurial ventures are successful only when they communicate value to people with a concern that the business can take care of
In all cases, it’s about Conversations for Committed Results.  That’s our Primary Goal.  



Copyright 2021 Primary Goals - Privacy Policy