Visionaries are in high demand. They have been for quite some time now, to the extent that supply and demand has impacted the visionary role of leadership. Organizations demand visionaries, and leaders in the marketplace have learned to supply organizations with their greatest desire. The other day I was sifting through a set of profiles for a leadership position and over one-half of the potential candidates presented themselves as visionary leaders. The problem is that we are still viewing all visionaries alike, while multiple visionary styles have emerged among the leadership. We have asked for visionaries and we have received them. But, do we know what we have? Increased supply has led to dilution of meaning and ambiguity of understanding. Perhaps it is time to sort out this whole visionary genre just a little bit. In this article, I present six styles of visionary leadership. I encourage you to read on to see what type of visionary you mirror or what type of visionary you need for your organization. But first, allow me to surface a working definition of the terms vision and visionary.
A vision is a picture that we can see in our minds. The Bible is full of dreams and visions. Dreams occur when we are sleeping and visions occur when we are awake. Both present us with a picture of something that we do not need to be physically present to “see.” The primary task of a visionary, then, is to see what others cannot see. Visionaries portray a picture that we have not seen ourselves. To be a visionary leader, however, the visionary must also be capable of transferring the picture in his or her mind into the minds of others. Thus, in my definition, visionaries can not only see the picture in their minds, but are capable of revealing the picture in such a way that we are able to see it as well. What type of pictures do visionaries depict? The answer to that depends upon the type of visionary revealing the vision. But one thing is certain. Visions are not rare; they are unavoidable.
As it turns out, we are all visionaries in terms of how our human brains function. Jeffrey Hawkins’s research on the human brain suggests that the primary function of our cortex is to make constant predictions about what will occur next.1 If this is true, then we cannot help but see into the future. Whether our brain’s predictions come true or not determines the next set of predictions. Predictions formed from inveterate patterns create strong, difficult to change blueprints in our minds. That is why it is much easier to say the alphabet forward rather than backward. Our brain is telling us what to expect next.
Because our brains cannot avoid predicting the future, visions are ubiquitous. Minute predictions are occurring hundreds of thousands of times a day in each of our brains. We all have a vision of what will happen next. When we walk into a sanctuary where we have worshiped before, our brain predicts the next person around the corner, the next word on the bulletin board, the next smell from the candle, the next note in the music, the next tone of the speaker. While some of us may be reluctant visionaries; we are all visionaries. Our brains present each one of us with an image of the future.
The role of a visionary then is not to envision while the rest of us sit idle. As we have discovered, it is impossible to maintain a blank slate or idle picture of the future. Left alone with our predictable patterns, we erect an enormous amount of inertia. That is why it is so difficult to go in new directions. As Ronald Heifitz suggests, “There is no such thing as a dysfunctional organization, because every organization is perfectly aligned to achieve the results that it currently gets.”2 Thus, the role of a visionary is to pay attention to the little predictions that are naturally occurring within their brains and search for alternate pathways into the future. We have appropriately reserved the term visionary for those individuals who can portray unique or creative patterns of the future. While visions are inevitable, visionaries who can lay aside the dominant patterns and discern more creative, capable, and productive patterns are quite rare. Visionaries are artists. and like artists, they come with many pallets and procedures.
Can all of these people claiming the visionary mantle these days truly see what others cannot see? Are they really more admirable and capable than their dewy counterparts? I would suggest that the answer is “yes,” with one qualification; not all visionaries see into the same types of gaps or form the same types of rapier patterns. The demand for vision has surfaced multiple visionary styles. There are more visionaries than there used to be, but not all visionaries are alike. Just as several persons who witness the same event may draw differing conclusions regarding what just occurred, it seems that we have developed multiple visions of visionaries themselves. Now that we better understand the role of a visionary, it is time to explore some varying types of visionary leaders.
The first type of visionary is the vision composer. Some visionaries are not only capable of, but also prefer working with a blank canvas, creating a new type of organization based upon the gifts of the persons within, the challenges of environment without, and the opportunities betwixt the two. This is probably the most prevalent image that we have of a visionary and in my experience, the rarest of visionaries as well. Very few leaders can create a totally new way of being or compose a completely new score for congregational activity. Creating from a blank canvas takes great skill in training the brain to disregard all of the predictions that are bubbling up and all of the suggestions that are being received in order to create a new form for the organization. In a research study by Adair Lummis at the Hartford Institute, she discovered that while local church search committees (with congregational polity) talk about visionary leaders, the preference for an entrepreneurial or transformational style of leadership was nearly last on the desired skill set of most search committees. And if the person with such skills is called to provide pastoral leadership, be careful what you wish for. Vision composers do not fit neatly into the culture of most congregations.
As we look around, there are very few new models of being church. The vast majority of church leaders embrace similar patterns of worship, discipleship, education, and outreach. One might even be tempted to ask the question if this type of visionary can survive as a congregational leader? With momentum for a particular direction fully ensconced and resistance for change squarely present and operative within the resident leadership, can the blank canvas visionary survive in this type of context without throwing the entire system into a swivet? The answer is probably “no,” at least not without other types of visionaries present to complement his or her skills. It may be that a local congregation with a rich heritage is simply not the best fit for a vision composer. New church starts or new ministries that explore new territory for existing congregations may be more appropriate and less parlous contexts for vision composers. But, as it turns out, there are other types of visionaries well suited for service in existing congregations.
A second type of visionary leader is the person who can work within an existing framework to get the most out of the organization. I call this type of visionary a vision facilitator. A vision facilitator does not work from a blank canvas, but rather from a given pallet of colors and probably within a given context or genre, and uses these assets in a way that others cannot see themselves. A portion of this leader’s vision may simply come from the leader’s panoptic view, but it is still a perspective unique within the life of the organization. While we may be less likely to have considered this type of leader a visionary, I believe that the function of this visionary fits the definition of seeing unique patterns that others are not seeing. Additionally, this skill set, in my experience, is much more widespread among clergy, and one that is growing in popularity through training and development. The vision facilitator works to surface a collective vision from within the congregation. While the sought after source of any visionary product for a congregation should be God, a vision facilitator gets as many stakeholders as possible involved in the discerning process. This type of visionary is not seeing the product of the vision so much as seeing ways to involve everyone in the process, but they are discerning new patterns. Vision facilitators can often see people using gifts that they are even unaware of possessing. The vision facilitator is still seeing things that others do not see, but people, more than ideas and ministries, create the horizon of this visionary’s sights. This type of visionary fits well into many congregational contexts, especially those with less hierarchical structures.
A third type of visionary is the vision adapter. This type of visionary can see how a new trend or a new resource might fit into their local context. This visionary leader is still envisioning something new within the life of the congregation that others cannot see, but the new thing is often clearly defined. Some artists have great skill in introducing new techniques into age old contexts. In recent years, vision adapters have included those who have made use of the emphases on missional church, blended worship, and seeker services and often work best in more hierarchical structures where more authority for change is positioned in the leadership office. These adaptations typically run their course in due time, but add a great deal of energy and direction to the life of the congregation while present. Rather than completely fading away, some adapted trends and techniques become subsumed into the values and life of the congregation as it moves forward. The skill of this type of visionary lies in fully understanding their context and in knowing how to introduce and adjust the new technique so that it is accepted, embraced, and celebrated within the life of the congregation. This type of visionary sees elements of the context that others do not see. A keen sense of timing is also a key device in the toolbox of the vision adapter. Upon implementation, indeed many proclaim, “I never would have thought that could work here, but it did!” Vision adapters are able to implement ideas in places where few others would have even tried.
A unique type of visionary that often surfaces during the crossroads of a congregation is the vision selector. The vision selector can preeminently see the implications of several different scenarios facing a congregation at a critical point in their history. A vision selector can introduce wisdom into the frenzy accompanied by a group of well-meaning vision promoters. Vision selectors help congregations both avoid disastrous decisions and embrace unique opportunities. Vision selectors have helped congregations reach out into the surrounding neighborhood, merge with another congregation, create a unique job description for an additional staff person, or build physical structures at the opportune time. Certainly, not all of these types of decisions are made with such vision and wisdom. Indeed, many congregations could have benefited from the skills of a vision selector only to discover that their move to the suburbs was a mere pipedream. Other congregations sit entangled with cumbersome, threatening mortgages on all-purpose facilities, new gymnasiums, expansive sanctuaries, or quaint chapels that were never able to achieve the visions of their builders. Truly some building additions simply live out their utility into the next generation, but there are other decisions made that are never able to carry the kind of benefit espoused by their vision promoters. Vision selectors, who have an exceptional ability to see how multiple options might play out in the life of a congregation, can play a key role in helping the congregation discern its best choice from an array of alternatives.
Another desirable visionary in many situations is the vision detailer. Clearly, this type of visionary works best in tandem with those visionaries who hold differing styles or patterns of visionary leadership. They might work in concert with other visionaries to expose a new, more effective pattern or product. These visionaries see a level of detail that others just do not see. Years ago, when I took a car in for minor repairs, the auto body expert said, “For another $100, I could make this car almost unrecognizable. I just love red cars, but red cars are meant to shimmer, and this one is not shimmering.” I’ll admit that I was as reluctant as I was intrigued, but skeptically forked over the extra $100 dollars. It turned out that the money was well invested in this visionary detailer. I was startled by the results. Frank is an artist and a visionary. He was able to see the shimmer that I could not see and had the tools to draw it out. These artists are vision detailers, but visionaries in their own right. They can see the detail that others cannot see. They are unique, with the ability not only to see the big picture represented by other visionaries but also to improve upon it. They see logistics and laborers, plans and possibilities that others cannot. With pallet and major portions of the vision already in hand, they can still astonish the appreciator of art and vision.
The sixth type of visionary that I have witnessed in recent experience is the vision emulator. The most notable example of a vision emulator is the leader seeking to set up a satellite location for a parent congregation. As Rex Miller reports, there are now more multisite churches than megachurches.3 Multisite and satellite settings are surfacing a new kind of visionary, the vision emulator. Vision emulators can see the once created vision at a different stage of development. They can see what a congregation has become and help a merged or fledgling congregation realize similar results. Unfortunately, there was a time when several vision emulators sought to impose their borrowed vision upon an existing congregation by trying to force a congregation with a long and complicated history into an unwanted model. One can never force a vision upon the people. “Crash and burn” stories abounded in the last generation as vision emulators worked in misplaced settings. I am happy to see an appropriate context emerge for this unique and effective form of visionary.
Visionaries come with varying tools and techniques, patterns and possibilities, but there is one thing they have in common: they can see what others long to embrace and make those visions accessible to others. I am grateful for visionaries and the gifts that they bring to congregations. But, as we have seen, not all visionaries are alike. Congregations seeking a visionary leader might consider doing some homework in order to discern the type of visionary best suited for their unique situation and set of circumstances.
1. What type of visionary are you?
2. How many different visionaries have you seen in your congregation or community?
3. Which visionaries does your congregation or community need the most?
4. How could all, or even just some, of these visionaries come together to minister to the congregation and the community at large?
1. Jeffrey Hawkins, On Intelligence (New York: Times Books, 2004).
2. Ronald Heifitz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2009).
In his role as Associate General Secretary for Regional Ministries for the American Baptist Churches, USA, C. Jeff Woods serves as a resource person for the 33 regional bodies throughout the United States. His numerous publications include 3 books published by the Alban Institute. He has delivered presentations on leadership and organizational development in nearly every state and province in North America as well as internationally.