Visionary Leadership: How to Motivate your Employees Using Bright Future Images

by Vanessa Karnani, Magdalena Kasberger, Daniela Fröhlich, and Jasmin Mahnke |



Visionary leadership has many aspects and characteristics, thus definitions of this leadership style are slightly diversified in literature. Nevertheless it is nonessential to compare multiple definitions as they complement each other to a certain extent. Hence the working definition in this post is a combination of multiple perspectives on visionary leadership. This type of personnel management requires, as the name suggests, a prospectively oriented way of thinking (Rowe, 2001: 85). The near and remote future is being presented as an irresistible and almost tangible vision by an exceedingly charming but also risk-taking leader (Merritt & DeGraff, 1996: 72). Also it is important to accentuate the interactivity of this leadership style: leaders communicate their ideas in order to inspire their followers, make them share their values and goals and ultimately enable them to set free all possible potential to reach said goals (Westley & Mintzberg, 1989: 18). Therefore, visionary leadership aims to encourage and stimulate the employees to contribute to the company’s success with self-determined actions. However, it does not try to give explicit guidance, but stays relatively vague (Deverell, Hodgson, & Moorhouse, 1998: 89). This also opposes the typical notion of leadership; here the leader is detached from the organization and does not have to follow their rules too closely, as it is not his task to control or coordinate his followers (Rowe, 2001: 82).


How to Lead with Visions

For visionary leadership to be effective the leader has to have certain, not necessarily, natural traits. Charismatic and persuasive poise is crucial in order to channel their followers’ beliefs and activities into a desired direction (Rowe, 2001: 85). Furthermore, a leader should be rather eloquent to be able to communicate his visions both clearly and in an appealing way, as he or she is creating a fantastic vision of the future (Westley & Mintzberg, 1989: 20). This often requires the ability to interact with their followers in an empathetic way, especially, if an individual or the whole group initially don’t share the leader’s values (Deverell et al., 1998: 89). The response a visionary leader pursuits is mainly an emotional one, because it causes the biggest involvement in the company’s goals due from the employees. Therefore, a visionary leader plays a proactive role, especially while developing ideas into visions and communicating them (Rowe, 2001: 85). Accordingly the way of presenting is equally important to the quality and the content of the presented vision (Westley & Mintzberg, 1989: 19). Consequently, the leader himself has to be consistent in his words and actions to avoid losing credibility, which would be devastating as a visionary leader. Integrity and appropriate self-presentation are essential to transport a visions message and add weight to it (Merritt & DeGraff, 1996: 73). Moreover visionary leaders are accustomed to think or solve problems in nonconventional ways. This is caused by the nature of visions, which are, other than goals, commonly hypothetical, nonconcrete and not automatically meant to be specifically accomplished (Stam, van Knippenberg, & Wisse, 2010: 500). Also, as the development process of visions is hardly projectable, visionary leaders have to be willing to take risks and invest in sometimes ambiguous outcomes. Another potential danger lies in the emotional involvement between leader and follower. Visionary leaders often don’t belong to the organizations they work for – which also implies a rather broad than deep knowledge compared to sectional experts – and thus are confronted with long-lasting or procrastinated challenges and require to be treated with a little bit of tact (Rowe, 2001: 82).


Does Visionary Leadership Work?

In his paper, Kevin S. Groves (2005) found that leaders’ emotional expressivity moderates the relationship between visionary leadership and organizational change magnitude. In his study, 108 senior organizational leaders from 64 organization across different industries, completed measures of emotional expressivity and organizational change magnitude, while 325 of their direct followers provided ratings of visionary leadership, leadership effectiveness and organizational change magnitude. His findings demonstrate that visionary leaders with high emotional expressivity skills facilitated the greatest organizational changes in their respective organizations. He also suggests that visionary leadership behaviors alone may be inadequate for generating sufficient follower commitment to significant organizations changes and that leaders must demonstrate genuine emotional commitment to their position in order to result in significant organizational changes (Groves, 2005: 566 seq.).

Several empirical studies provide support that the impact of visionary leadership behaviors depend heavily on one’s ability to exercise emotional competencies. One finding demonstrated that effective visionary leaders have the ability to powerfully communicate a compelling vision that inspires followers. Laboratory studies, amongst others, by Holladay and Coombs (1994) found that a strong delivery style is an essential determinant of leadership effectiveness. In this study, nonverbal communications skills, such as eye contact, animated facial expressions, body gestures and posture were delivered by trained actors. The results demonstrated that leaders who communicate highly visionary messages using a delivery style characterized by nonverbal expressiveness elicit the greatest follower perceptions of charisma and leadership effectiveness. Furthermore, Holladay and Coombs (1994: 165 seq.) found that non-visionary content and emotionally expressive delivery elicited greater perceptions of charisma than visionary content and a weak delivery. These findings illustrate both the sheer power of highly expressive communication skills, because vision delivery may have a strong impact on follower perceptions regardless of vision content.

Stam, van Knippenberg and Wisse (2010: 499–501) examine effectiveness of visionary leadership by researching the content of the communicated vision. They made out two different ways a leader can motivate his or her followers: prevention-appeals and promotion-appeals. Whereas the prevention-appeal aims at communicating a vision for avoiding an undesirable outcome, e.g. Al Gore’s commitment to stop global warming, the promotion-appeal focuses on a vision for reaching a desirable outcome, e.g. Kennedy’s vision for Americans landing on the moon. Berson, Shamir, Avolio, and Popper (2001: 67) concluded that optimism and confidence in a positive future are crucial characteristics of visions promoted by successful leaders. Therefore, providing an optimistic outlook on the future can enhance the effectiveness of vision communication. Even though most research centers around such promotion-appeals i.e. approaching a desirable outcome, prevention-appeals are also suggested to be effective (Stam et al, 2010: 501).

Stam et al. (2010: 502) argue that the effectiveness of both vision communication strategies (promotion- or prevention-appeal) depends on the follower’s regulatory focus. Promotion-focused team members are motivated by reaching a positive end state and will therefore perform better under a promotion-appeal vision, whereas prevention-focused followers aim at averting pain and, hence, will be more motivated by a prevention-appeal vision. In order to test their hypothesis they conducted two experiments surveying 87 and 88 business and economic students and found support for their hypothesized effects. Therefore, visionary leadership is most effective when not only paying attention to the way a vision is communicated but also to vision content (Stam et al., 2010: 510). For example, leaders of an organization aiming at expansion and maximizing profits will be most effective by communicating a promotion-appeal vision whereas leaders of an organization facing financial problems or even job losses will be more effective in communicating visions for averting such crisis, i.e. prevention-appeals (Stam et al., 2010: 512).

Therefore, we can argue that the visionary leadership style is effective under the following circumstances: Leaders have to be able to communicate powerfully and show strong non-verbal communication skills in order to win over and inspire followers. Groves’ study’s findings also implicate that emotional expressivity skills allow visionary leaders to estab-lish an emotional connection with followers that may overcome resistance and produce meaningful organizational changes.



Visionary leadership is an effective leadership style in organizations. Moreover, we demonstrated under which circumstances visionary leadership style is effective. Visionary leadership is especially effective, when the leader can communicate a vision on an future objective optimistically and can equally provide the vision content. Since effective visionary leaders are able to powerfully communicate a vision they simultaneously inspire followers. In addition to these findings, visionary leadership may have a significant impact on change management issues.

Visionary leaders with high emotional expressivity skills could forward greatest organizational changes in institutions. In this way, an managerial recommendation is that managers should ensure relevant leaders competencies in change management processes. Visionary leaders should be able to communicate powerfully, have high emotional expressivity skills and should provide a vision to followers in order to be effective in change management processes. Although, visionary leadership implies charismatic personality traits like personnel development measures, e.g. management coachings, will support leaders in organizations to develop the necessary leadership skills.

All in all, visionary leadership is effective when the leader has sufficient communication skills and charismatic personality traits. Furthermore, emotional skills are beneficial to win over resistant employees. In conclusion, as a visionary leader it is not only important what you communicate but also how you communicate it.



Berson, Y., Shamir, B., Avolio, B.J. & Popper, M. 2001. The relationship between vision strength, leadership style, and context. The Leadership Quarterly, 12(1): 53–73.

Deverell, J. F., Hodgson, P., & Moorhouse, A. 1998. Can you teach leadership? RSA Journal, 146(5486): 87–91.

Groves, K.S. 2006. Leader emotional expressivity, visionary leadership, and organizational change. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 27(7): 566– 583.

Holladay, S.J. & Coombs, W.T., 1994. Speaking of visions and visions being spoken: An exploration of the effects of content and delivery on perceptions of leader charisma. Management Communication Quarterly, 8(2): 165–189.

Merritt, S., & DeGraff, J. 1996. The Revisionary Visionary: Leadership and the Aesthetics of Adaptability. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 30(4): 69–85.

Rowe, W. G. 2001. Creating Wealth in Organizations: The Role of Strategic Leadership. The Academy of Management Executive (1993-2005), 15(1): 81–94.

Stam, D. A., van Knippenberg, D. & Wisse, B. 2010. The role of regulatory fit in visionary leadership. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 31(4): 499–518.

Westley, F., & Mintzberg, H. 1989. Visionary Leadership and Strategic Management. Strategic Management Journal, 10: 17–32.

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