Picture Yourself As a Visionary – Here’s How to Do It
*For optimum results, play your pump-up song as you read this!
Do you have what it takes to be a visionary leader? Close your eyes and picture this.
You buy a house that is, by anyone’s assessment, a hot mess. It’s in need of so much TLC that other buyers have just rolled their eyes and walked away. But not you. Instead of thinking “This is a crappy, run-down duplex with colors that came straight from the surplus at the Mexican place next door everybody calls “That Place Where I Got Food Poisoning Once.” No. You saw a vision for what it could be: an amazing, top-dollar Airbnb hotel in a prime location. A spot that will be on the “Top 10 places to Stay in Portland” lists. Where others only see a spider-infested, windowless basement full of graffiti that makes Steven King shudder, you see two luxurious apartments. Where others see a money pit, you see the opportunity to make a fortune.
So you spend all your money, borrow some more money, then lie on some credit card applications to get even more money, roll up your sleeves, and get started. And after 18 months of slogging through asbestos and bad wiring, you’re suddenly raking in $15,000/month on Airbnb while paying a $5,000/month mortgage for a house that had been sitting empty on the market for 6 months at a time when most houses were selling in a few days.
Why? Because you could see it. Thousands of people looked at the listing online, and they passed. Hundreds came to visit it in person, and they passed. Everybody else saw what it was, you saw what it would become.
This story is entirely possible, because it’s mine (even the part about the paint!) I bought one person’s trash and turned it into my treasure. And I did it not by believing it was possible, but by knowing that it was true. I spoke the truth of my vision to every contractor who came through the door, and said “Make this happen!”
And you know what? That’s exactly what they did.
Here’s another one.
At the beginning of the year, I said to the team at my IT support company, “We suck at security for our clients. They’re leading us, instead of us leading them. Here is my vision: We need to lead our clients to safety.”
Eight months later a client paid us a huge sum to conduct a mandatory government security audit. This story is impressive because the exact same client almost fired us a year earlier because they thought we were doing a bad job of keeping them secure.
We also sold and executed a huge cybersecurity project for an aerospace engineering firm that led to record profits for our company in the first quarter, and we started selling security products from four new vendors.
Today, we’re repricing our core products entirely around the success of that vision. That is groundbreaking. And it all happened because I said “This is the problem, this is who we are, this is what we do now.”
I crafted a compelling story, made the conclusion the only obvious thing to do, and then led my team to put the right pieces into place to succeed.
That, my visionary friend, is what it’s all about.
Sounds great, right? But if you imagine yourself crossing the finish line to throngs of adoring fans while the theme song from “Chariots of Fire” plays in the background, think again. The reality of being a visionary means that everyone will think you’re either wrong or obvious — and neither comes with a trophy.
If no one else can see the big picture yet, they’ll tell you you’re wrong. If it happens to become a huge success, it will (finally) become obvious to everyone else that it was the only possible outcome, so you’re not a visionary — you’re just a schmuck who did the obvious thing.
The worst part is, you have to do it even if it’s thankless in the end. Because you know what happens if you don’t? Nothing. (Nothing in your control, anyway.) The future is going to happen with or without you, and only you have the power to keep yourself in the right timeline.
How to Be a Visionary
To win. To get to your chosen future. To build the smooth road where everybody else sees snakes and spiders, you need to see the future and break it down into the story of where you are, where you need to be, and how you’re going to get there. But that’s only the beginning. Somehow, that part is the easy part.
The hard part comes next. One of the biggest mistakes visionaries make is that once this stage is over, they abandon ship and leave the rest up to the crew. “I drew you a map, follow it!” That never works. To turn your vision into actual, successful reality, you have to be there, paying attention, for all the rest of it, too. You have to pay attention to the direction your path is headed, encourage others to follow it, provide markers to guide the way, and be prepared to plot a different course if needed.
In other words, you need to
Lead With Purpose
Be Your Own Champion
Set the Example
Adjust, Adjust, Adjust
Lead With Purpose
If you’re freaking out a little at this point, rest assured that no one else is. People accept leadership. When you walked into the third grade and your teacher said, “I’m in charge, learn to spell.” Nobody said “First, tell us by what divine authority you deign to tell us that you are in charge of us?” People accept leadership when it’s right and true. They follow a good leader, and you’re going to be the best damn leader they’ve ever had.
To win, all you need to do is to get people to follow you. Not just because they have to, but because they want to. Because following you is the obvious thing to do. Sounds easy right? No. Of course not. Getting people to follow you, especially when all they see are the snakes and the spiders, is a thankless task.
If I say to my hardworking IT team, “Our new thing is ice cream. This is now an ice cream company!” and then go on vacation, I will not return to find some of the world’s best programmers scooping soft serve. More likely, I’ll come back to an empty office devoid of employees because they have already found new jobs. And would you blame them?
However, if I take them through the how, the why, and then more of the why we’re converting from cybersecurity to waffle cones, they will try, they will follow, they will receive this idea and they might start to turn down the path on which I’m leading the way.
Be Your Own Champion
The next obvious question is, how do you lead without being a dic…tator?
You do it with passion and conviction and an air of, well, leadership. It can also include compassion and humor and approachability, but never, ever give an impression that says “Yeah, I don’t take myself seriously either.”
If you say “Follow me into battle!” end it there. None of that “It’s this way, I think.” Your team members will see a crack in the foundation and soon you’ll be at the bottom of the Atlantic and turned into a James Cameron movie.
(Side note to the readers from disadvantaged groups: You’ve been conditioned your entire lives to hedge your statements so you don’t seem too powerful, or more powerful than the men in the room. That’s complete horseradish. Let the last time you said “Only a suggestion!” be just that — the last time. You are more powerful than the loud men in the room. Never let anyone tell you otherwise.)
Craft your story with detail, flavor, and texture. Know how to recite it with belief, clarity and confidence. Tell it with an attitude that says “Well of course this is how it’s going to be.” Talk about it like it’s already a huge success. Not only does this inspire confidence, it’s manifestation. It *will* be, and when it *is* it will be obvious that it *always was.*
Set the Example
Now, do the hardest thing you’re ever going to do — get deep into the weeds of how the project proceeds. I know you hate this part. You want to have *the next big idea.* Well, someday, when you have millions of dollars and hundreds of employees, you may just throw concepts over your shoulder and let others catch them. If you’re reading this article, that ain’t you. Not yet. So get in the weeds. To inspire your team to continue action, you have to walk the walk, even when it feels like stepping through fields of broken glass and dog poo.
We once had a customer tell us that we were not reliable in our communication, that they didn’t trust us to respond when we said we’d respond.
I knew we needed to fix that ASAP, and as the visionary leader I set a plan in place to do it. And then *I had to do it.* For months, every day before I went home, I went through all my communication and made sure I wasn’t dropping any balls with clients or employees. I needed my people to see that I will do what I’m asking them to do and it will make a difference. I can’t just say that and then sit back and expect it to happen. People smell hypocrisy like a dog smells a hot dog dangling off a kid’s plate at a birthday party. They’re on it before you figure out why the leash isn’t in your hand anymore.
And I held us all accountable. If I said I’d have something for them by next week, that’s what I did. If a team member told me that they would get back to me on Tuesday and I hadn’t heard back from them by 5pm, I scheduled a meeting for Wednesday morning to talk about why they didn’t deliver on that promise.
Does this suck? Of course it does. I hate being accountable, I hate following up on small details, I hate tracking minutiae. I want to be out, doing big things, having more visions! It’s the difference between your friend who “always has a great business idea” but still lives in his mom’s basement, and your buddy with millions in the bank and millions more on the way.
Staying on top of yourself isn’t easy, especially in a world where the dings and beeps and notifications and random emails make it so easy to get sidetracked. Self-discipline isn’t innate for most of us either, which doesn’t help. It’s a skill that we all choose to learn. Excellence is a choice we make every day. A choice I’m making. And if you’re going to be a visionary, it’s a choice I need you to make, too.
But rest assured that even if you follow my prescription perfectly, you’ll always be doing it wrong in the eyes of those who are watching you. To be a visionary means to exist in a constant state of “wrongness.” You’re always too extreme, or not extreme enough. What you see isn’t realistic, or it’s too obvious. Where you want to go isn’t worth visiting, or everybody else is already there. No matter what you do, say, or try, you will be wrong. Accept it, accept a state of constant wrongness. And do it anyway. People will always be quick to complain because they have no idea how hard it is to be a visionary, or to have a vision, or to implement it.
Adjust, Adjust, Adjust
And because you’re constantly wrong, you need to constantly filter the information you’re getting to keep building the road in the right way. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to read the comments. Listen to the complaints, hear them, and make changes where necessary. I know I said to keep your eye on the prize, and that means *on the prize* not on the *route.* If it’s too hard to go over this hill, dig a tunnel. If it’s too unstable for a tunnel, go around. It’s okay to adjust the speed or track as long as the destination remains the same. Start to parse and learn the difference between the complaints that matter and the ones that don’t. If you’re always wrong, it’s hard to know which kinds of wrong mean make a change, and which kinds mean tell someone to shut up and get on board.
It’s also on you to remain grounded in reality, trust your numbers, and be willing to admit when you’re wrong. Sometimes, the vision just won’t work, or it’s misguided, or based on partial information. It happens all the time, as humiliating as that is to think about. A wiser person than me once said, “Fail early, fail often, but always fail forward.”
If you haven’t already caught on, this isn’t a job for the faint of heart, the thin-skinned, or the inflexible. In this position, you’ll encounter a lot of asterisks:
but not so big nobody believes in you.
but not so hard you destroy everything.
Believe in yourself*
unless it becomes clear that you’re wrong, and then adjust your course.
On top of your internal struggles, you’ll suffer the slings and arrows of everybody on the sidelines telling you that they know better than you, but never offer a better option.*
ignore those people
Is This You?
So, how do you know if you’re meant to be a visionary? Because reading about how hard this is going to be makes you excited to try. Because even when your logical brain says, “GET A JOB!,” your soul knows better. Because it’s horrifying for you to even consider other options. Because this is who you are. Being a visionary is in your DNA. You’re constantly bombarding yourself with big ideas and you’re compelled to find a way to make them exist in the world.
I’ll leave you with this: If you can, you should quit — now. This is a silly idea and it’s not worth it. Leave. Get a better job, a lower-stress job, a job where you can throw rocks from the cheap seats at some other poor sap with an idea and a dream. Make more money, do less work, and sleep better on Sunday nights.
But if you simply can’t walk away, then scroll back to the top, read this again, and get to work.