VISIONARY LEADERSHIP: Asking the 100-Year Questions

Overused concepts lose their significance over time. The word “hero” is applied equally to extraordinary acts of courage as well as to casual attempts at civilized behavior. The same is true for words like service, sacrifice, and generosity. One particularly worn out concept is leadership. Over the years I have had the privilege of working with leaders so extraordinarily effective that their efforts seem to demand a new term to describe what they do. I don’t have any new words, but I’ll use one, which has also been over-used to the point of exhaustion — “VISIONARY LEADERSHIP. “

As the term suggests, a visionary leader is one who leads today with clear understanding of where they want to be many years down the road. The difference between visionary leaders and those who are just plane ole visionaries is that leaders actually ask the questions, make decisions, and take steps today that will affect their organizations far into the future. Some organizational leaders focus their visionary leadership on next year’s budget or even upon a three-year plan. Then there are those who lead on a level that demands that they continually ask 100-hundred year questions.

My doctoral dissertation at Vanderbilt focused on the characteristics of non-profits in the U.S with track records of long-term growth and institutional leadership at the highest level. These premier institutions were able to remain on the cutting edge for multiple decades because of visionary leadership, particularly as it was applied in a long-term approach to funding.

These premier institutions were able to remain on the cutting edge for multiple decades because of visionary leadership, particularly as it was applied in a long-term approach to funding.

Many organizations are not sufficiently established to focus their concerns that far into the future. They need to concentrate their attention on more immediate issues. However, a much more common leadership neglect is among those who really need to be asking the 100-year questions. Unfortunately, their vision is focused on the urgent and the immediate.

It’s like the difference between riding a jet ski and commanding the bridge of a 500,000-ton crude-oil tanker. Jet skis are quick and nimble, but the turning radius of the supertanker requires more than a mile to make a 180-degree turn and about fifteen miles to stop. Consequently, when it comes steering a large institution, the president and board of trustees have to thinking far into the future. The vessel just doesn’t respond to rapid course corrections. If a leadership team attempts to drive a supertanker like a jet ski, the only noticeable result will be in lost momentum.

Other common characteristics of those premier institutions I studied:

1) They were large enough to plow through almost any kind of storm. That is why other organizational leaders looked to them in times of crisis. The premier organizations maintained their heading rather than making strategic compromises in order to circumvent the storms.

2) Because of the size and complexity of the organization, it was often difficult for them to respond quickly to opportunities. That is just the reality that comes with size. However, even in the best organizations, a complacent attitude towards best practices can take hold and grow like that insidious black mold. The underlying assumption is that because those organizations are so big, they are doing things with excellence. That is not always the case.

Jet skis are quick and nimble, but the turning radius of the supertanker requires more than a mile to make a 180-degree turn and about fifteen miles to stop. 

3) In these premier organizations the leaders are always concerned about issues that seem almost irrelevant to the more near-sighted. Though they may currently be riding on the cutting edge of their industry, they realize that if they wait until change is upon them, it is usually too late.  They will be forever trying to catch up with strategies that should have been employed decades earlier, only to realize that they just could not make that turn.

4) These large institutions, like big ships, require an extraordinary amount of money to operate. Each premier organization at some point came to the conclusion that the only way they would remain as leaders in their field was with a long-term funding strategy based largely on gifts from donors’ net worth

ONE OF GREATEST VISIONARY LEADERS I have known was a businessman from south Louisiana who I met in the early 1980s. By then he was already in his late seventies. Not being an overly religious man resulted finally resulted in him being  kicked out of Lipscomb University, the religious school he was attending. My friend went on from there to earn doctorates from both Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M. I. T.) and Princeton. He was a really tough guy who knew exactly where he wanted to go. Even in his late seventies, he remained focused on the next twenty-five years and the issues his companies would face.

While we would say that the focal length of our vision and the measure of our seriousness are two different things, to this particular visionary leader, they were one in the same. 

I was surprised to discover this highly successful visionary leader was not a board member at any non-profit institution and suggested he offer to serve at M. I. T. He seemed to be a great candidate. He was a brilliant and worth about $100 million. His reluctance had nothing to do with being uncharitable. It was that he had become so frustrated with short-term perspectives of non-profit leadership that he just quit serving.

“Eddie,” he said. “These people are not serious about these institutions. They’re just serious about today.”

Isn’t that interesting! While we would say that the focal length of our vision and the measure of our seriousness are two different things, to this particular visionary leader, they were one in the same. 

What are the 100-year questions your leadership team and you need to be asking? How far into the future is the focus of your funding strategy? The difference between visionary leadership and just plane ole visionaries is that the later merely dream about the future while the former actually do something about it.

Eddie Thompson, Ed.D.

Copyright 2012, R. Edward Thompson
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