Why Visionary Leadership Fails

I agree with Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Nufer Yasin Ates, Murat Tarakci, Jeanine P. Porck, Daan van Knippenberg, and Patrick Groenen for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit: Gary Waters/Getty Images

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Visionary leadership is widely seen as key to strategic change. That’s because visionary leadership does not just set the strategic direction — it tells a story about why the change is worth pursuing and inspires people to embrace the change. Not surprisingly, then, science and practice have a very positive view of visionary leadership as a critical leadership competency.

But our research finds that the positive impact of visionary leadership breaks down when middle managers aren’t aligned with top management’s strategic vision. This can cause strategic change efforts to slow down or even fail.

When we think of visionary leaders, our first blush response is to think of CEOs. Widely celebrated people like Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, and Oprah Winfrey come to mind. But visionary leadership is not just important for senior managers; it also matters for middle and lower level managers, who play a key role in carrying out strategic change. Their ability to inspire their own teams and create strategic alignment — a shared understanding of and commitment to the company’s strategy — within them is a core element in successful strategy execution.

This is why company leadership frameworks typically list visionary leadership as a key leadership competency for managers. For example, Google’s data-driven Project Oxygen identified visionary leadership as one of the eight traits of stellar middle managers.

However, this emphasis on visionary leadership relies on an untenable assumption: that managers outside the C-suite are always aligned with company strategy. What if they are not?

We studied visionary leadership and strategic alignment in two service organizations in Western Europe (one in the energy industry and another in the transportation industry). Both companies were going through similar processes of strategic change, and creating strategic alignment throughout the organization was a high priority goal in both companies. We surveyed 136 managers and their teams to assess visionary leadership (rated by team members), strategic alignment in the team (determined by computing the agreement between team member rankings of strategic priorities), and the strategic alignment of the managers with top management (determined by computing the agreement between the manager’s ranking of strategic priorities and the CEO’s ranking of strategic priorities). We also interviewed several of the managers and their employees to get a deeper understanding of the relationships found in the survey research.

Our findings unambiguously support the conclusion that visionary leadership is a double-edged sword. When middle managers were aligned with top management’s strategic vision, things played out as the widespread view of visionary leadership would suggest: the more these managers engaged in visionary leadership (by communicating their vision for the future and articulating where they wanted their team to be in five years,) the greater the shared understanding of strategy in their team, and the more the team was committed to strategy execution.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Nufer Yasin Ates is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Business Administration, Bilkent University. He is also affiliated with Tilburg School of Economics and Business, Tilburg University. Nufer’s expertise lies in strategy formulation and implementation, corporate entrepreneurship and strategic leadership. He helps organizations navigate through strategic change via strategy visualization and diagnostic tools.

Murat Tarakci is a professor at the Rotterdam School of Management in the Netherlands

Jeanine P. Porck is an Assistant Professor at the Spears School of Business, Oklahoma State University. Her research interests include strategy process, intergroup relations, social identity, multiteam systems, and leadership. She studies the microfoundations of intrafirm relationships, where she is particularly interested in what helps or hinders teams to coordinate and align their efforts, and how these intrafirm relationships impact firm strategy and performance.

Daan van Knippenberg is Joseph F. Rocereto Chair of Leadership at LeBow College of Business, Drexel University, where he is also the Academic Director of the Institute for Strategic Leadership. Daan’s areas of expertise include leadership, team performance, and creativity and innovation; areas where he is not only an active researcher but also conducts diagnostic research to support organizations in strategy implementation efforts. His teaching concentrates on leadership development in the Executive MBA program and in executive education, and on developing researchers through PhD and DBA program teaching.

Patrick Groenen is professor in statistics and the director of the Econometric Institute of Erasmus University Rotterdam. His main research interests are in data science techniques both in their practical application as their development. In particular, he works on methods for visualising data and improvement of predictions through machine learning. He teaches courses in data science at various levels. In applied research, he has contributed amongst others to strategic alignment and HR analytics.


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