Why Visionary Leadership Fails

Visionary leadership is widely seen as key to strategic change. That’s because visionary leadership does not just set the strategic direction — it tells a story about why the change is worth pursuing and inspires people to embrace the change. Not surprisingly, then, science and practice have a very positive view of visionary leadership as a critical leadership competency.

But our research finds that the positive impact of visionary leadership breaks down when middle managers aren’t aligned with top management’s strategic vision. This can cause strategic change efforts to slow down or even fail.

When we think of visionary leaders, our first blush response is to think of CEOs. Widely celebrated people like Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, and Oprah Winfrey come to mind. But visionary leadership is not just important for senior managers; it also matters for middle and lower level managers, who play a key role in carrying out strategic change. Their ability to inspire their own teams and create strategic alignment — a shared understanding of and commitment to the company’s strategy — within them is a core element in successful strategy execution.

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