Why You Need to Be Visionary

When I was an undergraduate studying economics I got the impression people made rational decisions by weighing the costs and benefits of every option available and making the choice which was most advantageous for them.  When I examined the behavior of those around me however, this theory seemed to explain only a small percentage of actual decisions.

I later studied leadership theory and I began to see an explanation for this behavior.  People often make meta-decisions which eliminate the need to make numerous smaller decisions.  The decision to follow someone else can be used as a shortcut to making complex decisions.  This saves the follower time and effort but also gives the leader a great advantage.

In this dynamic, both parties benefit.  The follower struggles less with decision making and the leader gets to set the agenda.  Both are maximizing their efficiency; one by conserving energy the other by focusing it.

If you are reading this blog it’s likely you see yourself as a person who has a lot to accomplish, a person with drive and ambition.  An energy maximizer rather than an energy conserver.  If you want to be a leader rather than a follower there’s one characteristic you must develop to increase your odds of being successful: you need to develop vision.

What Does it Mean to Be Visionary?

To be visionary is to have a distinct view of how the world could be changed for the better.  A person with vision can improve our lives by reorganizing the living room furniture or by reordering social norms.

While there are many things a visionary person can accomplish on their own, the best reason to be visionary is to inspire others to help you accomplish your goals.  Leadership is a way of leveraging our collective abilities, of focusing the energy of many people to create a better world.

Dwight Eisenhower famously said, “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”

While many people have recognized the benefits of leadership, not everyone can effectively get other people to want to accomplish their goals.  When most people study leadership they focus on communicating effectively and creating a connection with others, on being the kind of person others will respond to.

While these are the nuts and bolts of leadership training, the real key to success begins much earlier, with the vision you are working toward.  If you have a vision that is compelling you have a tremendous head start on those who are merely focusing on the mechanics of leadership.

The Secret to Finding Followers

The secret is, people actually want to follow you.  (Well, maybe not you specifically, but they want to follow someone.)  When you provide an inspiring vision you are helping them because you are fulfilling their need for leadership and the desire to be engaged in communal effort.

Everyone has a desire to be part of a group; it’s a basic human need.  Whenever we find ourselves in unfamiliar surroundings we begin looking for a group with which we can associate, searching for likeminded people and developing a community.  A leader provides the mental satisfaction we crave; it’s like a drink of cool water to a thirsty soul.

We all have this need to find leaders but we’re not just going to follow anyone.  As leaders we need to provide a compelling vision that will resonate with potential followers.

How To Create an Inspiring Vision

It’s not about pretending to be something you’re not, it’s finding what’s unique about who you are.

We all have a distinctive worldview or a way of interpreting how the world operates.  This worldview contains both our understanding of how the world currently operates (e.g., rich people don’t go to jail, or it’s not what you know but who you know) and how the world should operate (e.g., all people should be treated equally, or merit gets recognized).

Our worldview is what motivates us to behave the way we do and inspires us to act altruistically.  The people we follow are those who connect with a part of our worldview and who say, let’s work together to make this happen.

The secret is finding a unique piece of your worldview others can connect with.  The more this resonates with them the stronger the connection will be.  Much of our worldview revolves around ourselves, about how the world should operate in order to make our lives happier.  But while this is motivating it’s not really inspiring.

There are a lot of people who use flattery and an appeal to our selfish nature to promote their agenda.  If you’ve ever seen a headline that says “You Can Be Rich” you’ve seen this kind of self-interested appeal.

We all know people are first and foremost concerned about themselves, but people also want to see themselves as generous and kind.  Being self-serving is socially discouraged; we’d rather see ourselves as helpful.  Everyone wants to be part of an admirable cause.

So while people may respond to your message out of self-interest, they will share your message with others when it benefits people besides themselves.  And whatever you’re trying to do, you can do it better by enlisting the help of supportive followers.

You can do this by following these two guidelines:

1. Turn your vision into an inspiring story

2. Make it about others

People respond better to stories than to concepts; whenever possible express your vision as a story.  Intellectually believing in equal rights can cause us to be committed to it as an ideal, but hearing about someone’s personal experience being denied a basic human right creates an emotional reaction that is visceral.  This is what motivates us to action.

While a story about yourself can be touching, endearing, even emotionally appealing, nothing inspires people to share a story with others like being part of a worthy cause.  When people feel their efforts will make a difference for someone else they’re much more likely to share it with their friends.

This doesn’t mean you have to operate a charity, it just means you can’t be blatantly rapacious.  Find a way to make your needs correspond with the needs of others.

So Why Should You Be Visionary?

You need to be visionary if you want to:

Become a leader
Inspire followers
Leverage the efforts of others
Give people something to believe in
Get people to spread the word


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Siddhartha Herdegen is a philosopher and economist who teaches leadership at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.  He writes for the blog, Principles of Failure.


  1. This is great, love the notion of leadership being about inspiring others into action by creating a vision of how the world could be better.

  2. Thanks for the guest post, Siddhartha, and Laura for hosting it! It’s not necessarily new information, but it’s certainly necessary to hear as reinforcement.

  3. Great post Siddhartha. Written in a really compelling manner as well.

    It is certainly hard to disagree with your argument. No doubt people with a clear and engaging vision would certainly be leaders.

    However, I don’t think having a vision is a necessary condition to lead. It seems to me that a lot of people show leadership by example and some without even knowing it. Neither of these two groups has a vision, or at least does not articulate one.

    Also, I think that front line employees can show isolated acts of leadership by advocating a better way of working without a vision. But this is not an invitation to join a group, just an attempt to influence people to accept a very small scale, specific proposal.

    I think it is unfortunate that so many people think that vision is a necessary condition to show leadership as it can make a lot of people feel they can’t show leadership otherwise.

    The article of mine that you liked specifically argues against portraying leadership on such a grand scale.

    I’m not arguing that having a vision isn’t a good way to show leadership. I’m just claiming that it isn’t a necessary condition and, second, that we distort leadership by continuously focusing on the grand end of the spectrum.

    • Mitch, I appreciate your contribution here. My thesis is, vision is THE necessary attribute for leaders. Without vision what are people following?

      But perhaps we are closer on this than would at first appear. What I have said elsewhere on the subject of vision is that it need not be a grand thing. It can be small and quite simple. As you say, a worker doing their job with dedication and attentiveness can be a leader.

      I would say this employee is demonstrating their vision by example rather than rhetoric, but they nevertheless have a vision. They become a leader when others choose to follow their example.

      Someone in this situation may not be seeking a leadership role but a reluctant leader is still a leader.

      I agree with you that leadership need not be on a grand scale. Perhaps I could have made that more clear in the post. But vision can be exhibited by anyone and therefore anyone can be a leader. That’s the point I was trying to make.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

  4. Siddhartha, I agree that leadership means providing direction. Someone either leads by example or by promoting a new direction which people then follow. But I disagree that all direction can be called visionary. Think of the cliche: Actions speak louder than words. I think this shows that a lot of leadership by example occurs even without the person who shows it being aware of doing so. In fact, someone in charge of a team may have a vision of improved team work but who constantly behaves as an individual and rewards individual achievement. Thus, the leadership impact he is having is directly contrary to his vision and he may not even realize it.

    Also, I think a front-line employee may have a preferred way of working which simply makes the job easier and which others notice and follow. I wouldn’t call this a vision. The word “vision” is obviously closely related to “visionary” and I think it helps to remember this because the latter means promoting a very grand direction, like Kennedy advocating putting a man on the moon by the end of the sixties. By comparison, a CEO advocating improving profits by 10% would hardly be described as visionary.

    One of the points I maybe should have made in my Ideal Leader article, but which I made elsewhere is that we need to distinguish between input an output. The only necessary condition for leadership to occur is an output factor – that people follow. The means or input is always situational rather than necessary. Sometimes a vision is appropriate. Other times a simple concrete, everyday example works.

  5. Very well done.

    > People respond better to stories than to concepts; whenever possible express your vision as a story.
    Beautiful insight and so true. Specific works better than generic and personable makes it connect.

  6. I agree that a vision is a necessary attribute of a leader. The vision doesn’t need to be complex or altruistic, it could be something simple and practical. For example a widget geek could envision providing the best widgets and the best info on how to use those widgets. Not human rights, but a vision non the less. That’s my goal with skin care.
    Cynthia Bailey MD, Dermatologist and skin care geek

    • Dr. Bailey, you have grasped my full meaning. Thank you for elucidating this point. While there are those who would argue the term “vision” is too grand to describe such minor insights, I believe it is applicable and vitally necessary.

  7. I still say that your use of vision for small scale ideas distorts the concept.

    Consider this analogy: Suppose I said to you that I considered all problems or decisions to be a challenge, even the decision of what to have for lunch, even decisions I make instinctively without full awareness of having decided anything. I think you would rightly say that I had divested the word challenge of any meaning because we normally use this word to differentiate really stretching problems or decisions from easy ones. If we use the word challenge to apply to all problems and decisions, it becomes redundant, it doesn’t add anything or differentiate one thing from another. I think this is a good analogy because serious, real challenges and easy decisions fall along a continuum just as do visions and ordinary, everyday ideas.

    I think this is a general problem with the way we use language – that a good idea is often stretched to cover so many things that it becomes all things to all people and then virtually meaningless.

    I think we can only say in general that leadership is an influence process. HOW people are influenced is situational. Sometimes a vision is required. Other times, example or a rather mundane suggestion can have a big effect. It partly depends on the receptivity of the audience. If I were to make a minor technical suggestion to a group of complete opportunists, I wouldn’t have to use much influence at all, let alone offer a vision.

    Another point: building on Kouzes and Posner’s notion that leadership entails a journey, I would say that a vision is helpful for a journey because there is a destination and a timeframe – like Kennedy’s vision of putting a man on the moon by the end of the sixties. However, I think some leadership is an instant impact, as in a crisis, where no journey or destination is involved. If there is no aspirational destination, then a vision can’t be required. This, for me is what happens in leading by example. Often the impact is immediate. You’re not striving to lead anyone on a journey.

  8. Laura,

    I can’t believe how timely this post is for me today.

    We’ve been trying to spread the word about a new social app which helps anyone who works at a desk get healthier.

    With all of the physical education cutbacks in schools this is especially important. Without PE kids are not only not getting enough exercise but they are having a harder time learning. They just need the physical activity.

    We’ve had success with teachers using our app (http://www.breakpal.com) in their classroom. They simply project the exercises up on the overhead projector.

    A teacher in Texas who teaches a special ed class has especially seen great results with this. The kids are much more focused if they get in exercise during their studies.

    We also have a few test cases starting in classrooms in the Bay Area. The teachers are very excited about it and feel it can really help their students not only get in better physical shape (As you know childhood obesity is rampant) but also to help them learn by keeping them more focuses.

    Right now we are a finalist in First Lady Michelle Obama’s “apps for healthy kids” contest. If we win, the first lady will help us spread our app to classrooms across the country. We can literally helps millions of children and people who work at desks.

    Unfortunately we are a very small business. Just me and my wife. We bootstrapped the entire project and built the app without outside funding.

    We are competing against huge national corporations and unfortunately they are using their marketing power to garner votes for their apps and are leaving us in the dust. Some of them have PR firms working for them to get votes.

    So I’ve decided to do something drastic. I’m going to give out a premium version to anyone who votes for our app. They just have to contact me and tell me they voted and I’ll give them a premium account.

    What do you think? Is this a good strategy? Or is it just impossible to compete against the big guys?