Visionary Leaders Must be Stopped

Several years have gone by since my family lived in Chattanooga, TN, but I still think of it often. Chattanooga is an interesting city, with a made over downtown that is teeming with art, culture, and good food. Chattanooga, like many other places, is still trying to find an identity not connected to a history of racial tension and injustice—but we were, and are still quite fond of it.

All of these features are set into one of the most picturesque low-mountain landscapes I’ve ever seen. It was in the course navigating the narrow interstates that cut through Chattanooga’s low-mountain landscape that I was granted perhaps one of the greatest leadership lessons I’ve ever learned.

Because the interstates are both narrow and winding, as they cut through the mountains near downtown Chattanooga, at certain points you can see for miles in front of you, completely unobstructed. This ability offers you an incredible opportunity to plan the route you’ll take: what exit, if any; where the traffic is building up; if you should change lanes. It’s a visionary’s dream, because you can see, of course in a sense limited to the moment and medium, the future and determine with all the given information exactly what to do further down the road.

One day, as I was driving, I found myself lost in looking down the road. Lost in looking toward the future moves I needed to make. Lost in looking toward how the route needed to shift in order for me to get where I was going as quickly, and unimpeded as possible. I got so lost in looking down the road that I neglected to see what was right in front of me—rapidly slowing traffic.

Apparently an accident had happened up ahead of me, and a line of cars had all gotten a clue and slowed down appropriately. I did not, and came within inches of a major accident. And that’s when I realized looking too far into the future puts you in danger of causing a major crash in the present. The speed at which I was traveling, and my vision being directed down the road almost caused a major pile up, and worse, could have injured my wife and children. My wife’s scream snapped me out of my long-term visionary trance, and some God-given reaction time helped me avoid a potentially fatal crash. This moment taught me more about leadership than almost any other.

Leaders, particularly highly visionary leaders, are consistently in danger of causing a major crash in their churches or organisations, because in being hyper future-focused they have neglected what is right in front of them.

This has been a consistent hurdle in my life as a leader. The question is, how do we combat it? The answer is certainly not to overcorrect and become so present-oriented (Follow Up Post) that we never think through future needs or realities.

Here are a few things to consider if you, like me, are plagued with this problem.

  1. Keep a running list of future ideas, goals, directions & priorities. I call these dream sessions, and I actually calendar them. I’ve found that being able to regularly mind-dump into a notebook where I believe Renovation Church should be going next (hires, buildings, re-orgs, ministry focus, etc.) frees me from the trap of dwelling on the future at the expense of the present.
  2. Keep process-oriented people around you, and give them permission to be mean. Leaders like me need kill-joys in my life. I say that tongue-in-cheek, but here’s what I mean: I need someone to ask me good questions and say hard things to me about present priorities. They also have to challenge me to tether my vision to where we are RIGHT NOW, and consider the STEPS necessary to get where we want to be.
  3. Keep a keen eye on Operations. Yep, it is the nightmare that it sounds like, and I actually kind of enjoy crunching numbers, and thinking through HR. This is probably the last thing a visionary leader wants to think about, but it is the context through which much of your vision has to pass. Staying in the ops conversation will help fuel a thoughtful balance between future-oriented thinking, and present realities.

Those are three things that have been really helpful for me, and I hope they can be for you too, no matter where you fall on the visionary leader scale, or whatever type of leader you may be, for that matter…

Let’s chop about it in the comments!

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  1. Great post Pastor!

    I believe that to be incredibly and harmful for someone just starting out as well. Visionaries are constantly thinking of how to impact people or get information out in the most effective way. The danger is trying to do it on several platforms. I have had that as well and still struggle with it. This is a great post and would love to share it.

  2. Pastor Leonce,

    There was awesome wisdom in your article. I know I often find myself stumbling by focusing so many steps ahead and forgetting to love people rather than use them, focus on mundane yet essential tasks, and accomplish the current goals–all vital to honoring God TODAY. Thank you for the big picture points along with a few key action steps. This lesson reminded me of a CS Lewis quote, “He (God) would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity or with the Present–either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.”

  3. Love the post. I tend to be the other side of the spectrum – process, ops, nuts and bolts. I can have a great vision, but only within the construct of the current framework or any deficiencies of it. Give me the end point and I can help lay the course, figure out what is broken, fix it and keep moving.

    All that is to say, I’m not so great at coming up with revolutionary ideas, or visionary to say the least. So I really appreciate working with people that are good at that. Come up with great ideas and the team can work on logistics.

    Maybe vision and visionary are two different things?

    1. Bryan, I don’t think vision and visionary are different. Visionaries cast vision, and inspire grand goals. Process oriented people poke holes, and create action steps (the follow Up to this post). You remind me of my resident “killjoy.” We call ourselves “Jordan,” and “Pippen” because we work so well together. He is the guy that takes almost all of my “revolutionary ideas,” pokes holes in them, and puts legs on them. He also has great “vision,” within the construct of any framework I’ve built. That type of ‘vision,” I would more readily classify as insight, understanding, and directional clarity. You see the end, and have a keen insight on how to get there within the boundaries established. Two people like that, together, make the most effective and dynamic teams. Who’s your “Jordan?”

  4. Great parallel to drive (oops, pun!) a very critical point home. When we really think about it this present is all we have.

    Living down the road has too been my struggle, and I’ve even undertaken yoga to become more comfortable being still and in the present. Consequently, I’ve found that my “present” focus also better aligns my faith — because I stop doing all the reaching. Reaching to control/manipulate a future that in fact can’t predict nor control.

  5. It is useless for a leader to be a visionary in the abstract; he must be a successful communicator whose vision can be translated into specific, applicable principles – not knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but knowledge that can actually help improve the world.

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