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Visionary Leadership – Part I

Max DePree was chairman of the board for the furniture company Herman Miller, Inc. He is also a member of Fortune magazine’s National Business Hall of Fame. A wise and visionary leader, he shared this insight regarding the duties of leadership: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you” (Leadership Is An Art, Dell, 1989, p. 11).

DePree’s point is significant. Leaders must have a clear vision of where they are as well as where they are going (“define reality”). Then, upon achieving the goal, the leader must be grateful for those who followed and helped (“say thank you”). Vision and gratitude are the first and last responsibilities of leadership.

Somewhere in between these two responsibilities are pitfalls that can swallow the Christian leader. Especially vulnerable is that leader with the ability to see farther and more clearly than others: the visionary.

Characteristics of a Visionary Leader

Before discussing the pitfalls for a visionary, I need to define what I believe characterizes this type of leader. Based on my own observations in ministry as missionary, Bible college professor, and pastor, here is what I’ve noted in the lives of Christian leaders I would call visionaries.

First, the visionary leader can see the goal more clearly than others. Eighteenth century English author and pastor Jonathan Swift wrote, “Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.” The visionary can see the way things could be tomorrow, not merely the way things are today. However, not every visionary leader has the most noble goals and intentions. For example, Absalom envisioned a great number following him in rebellion that first day he sat near the city gate (2 Samuel 15:16). Therefore, the wise visionary leader sees a worthy goal more clearly than those around him who are pursuing less than worthy goals.

Second, the visionary leader is an optimist. He tends to see what is possible, staying focused on the potential while others remain focused on the problem. Of course, the godly visionary plants his feet firmly on the doctrines of God’s sovereignty and power. This is why he can be an optimist.

Third, because the visionary leader is so optimistic, he is also a confident risk-taker. After asking, “Why not?”, he wants to move ahead with confidence. He can see farther than others and believes it can be done, so he will firmly say: “We can do this with God’s help.” In his enthusiastic confidence, he tends to minimize the risks and focuses on the potential. As legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “Don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.”

Fourth, the visionary leader is commonly an idealist. By this I don’t mean a perfectionist, but rather a person who is more concerned with goals and ideals than the practical matters of details in achieving the goals. He tends to think abstractly and does not get bogged down with particulars. With broad strokes he paints the future that he can so clearly envision. He invests most of his time considering the big picture and convincing those around him of that picture.

These four characteristics of a visionary are not wrong for the Christian leader to emulate. But we cannot be blind to the dangers he is likely to encounter.  More on those dangers in the next post.

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