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Recently, I was reading Leading Afrika, by Zimbabwean author and leadership development expert Mandivamba Rukuni, when I ran across the following sentence in chapter four, “It is more important to be a visionary leader than it is to be a leader with a vision.”
I stopped and re-read that sentence several times, thinking that Professor Rukuni obviously made a typographical error and actually meant to write something else. After all, what’s the difference between being a visionary and having a vision? I read the rest of the book, still confused by that simple sentence, until, at the last, I had an epiphany; he hadn’t made a mistake; instead, what he’d written made perfect sense.
You see, the devil’s always in the smallest details, and I’d not paid sufficient attention to his sentence; a carefully constructed grouping of words in which every word contributed to the overall meaning; but it was the single word, a single letter in fact, that made all the difference. He wrote ‘leader with a vision,’ not ‘leader with vision.’ The second construction would indeed have made the sentence duplicative, whereas the way he wrote it carries a whole different meaning.
A leader who has a vision is not necessarily a visionary. He is just a person who has a specific end-state in mind. How he sets about achieving that end-state marks the kind of leader he is. A visionary does have a vision, but it is not of the one-off kind that with some leaders is achieved through force and coercion, or by cajoling people to do what you want them to do. Rukuni, in his book, was referring specifically to African (or, to use his spelling, Afrikan) leaders; but, what he says, in my opinion, applies universally to leadership. My own study and experience of leadership tells me that a visionary, instead of seeing an end-state, sees a continually evolving environment; forever striving for improvement; a constant seeking for perfection if you will.
A leader with a mere vision will seek practical ways to induce others to achieve it. A visionary leader, on the other hand, will instead seek ways to get others to seek to improve themselves and their environment; achieving specific visions or objectives along the way. Visionary leaders sometimes aren’t practical, seeking others to do the practical things needed to keep the journey on track.
One could say, for instance, as one of my interlocutors on my Facebook page noted, that Hitler was a leader with a vision; a world ruled by a super race; more lebensraum for that super race; and, he adopted practical, though gruesome, ways of achieving his vision in the form of concentration and extermination camps and a dreaded secret service. He was not, though, a visionary, and in the end, he wasn’t even very practical; leading his country to destruction, and finally ending his own life. He wasn’t visionary; he didn’t envision a better world, only a world under his control.
The world needs practical people; people who can take abstract concepts and convert them into actions. But, it also needs visionaries; people who can see a world constantly improving itself. Practical people without vision too often focus only on the short term; that which can be completed in a lifetime, or an even shorter period, often neglecting the human element in the process. Visionaries, without someone who can convert their visions into practical application, are little more than dreamers who contribute little to the common good. Of the two, the most important, though, is the visionary; someone who can help us see that we can be better than we are.