Communication & Alignment

7 questions for visionary leaders to ask themselves 

Visionary Leadership

Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos are often considered visionary leaders for their ability to imagine and create products that society will come to rely on, but “seeing around that corner” is not what makes a visionary leader, according to Vistage speaker Luke Carlson.

Carlson, CEO and founder of Discover Strength in Minneapolis, Minnesota, believes that visionary leadership is about more than the leader.

“We have mistakenly thought a visionary leader is someone who knows where they want to go and has great ideas, but that’s not what visionary leadership is,” Carlson said. “Visionary leadership is inspiring a shared vision across an entire organization.”

So, how do you go about instilling a shared vision? Whether you want to build a $1 million company or a $2 billion firm, Carlson said it all comes down to 7 questions. If everyone in the organization can answer these questions similarly, then you’ve created a shared vision and demonstrated visionary leadership. 


1. What are your core values?

It’s no surprise that a business should have core values, but organizations with visionary leaders are ones where every team member knows and aligns their behaviors with those core values. A sales representative who answers client phone calls should be able to recite and explain the values just as well as someone in the C-suite.

But memorizing the values is not enough. If a company’s core value is perpetual learning, then each employee should be able to demonstrate how the company has put them in a position to learn and grow in the past 90 days.

2. What is your core purpose?

Beyond making money, what is your organization’s reason for being? The answer should not have anything to do with technical abilities, and it shouldn’t be a goal or purpose. The answer should be why you believe your organization exists in the first place. Carlson confessed that of the seven questions, this one is often the hardest to answer.

3. What is your strategic niche?

The answer to this question should explain where your organization makes its money. Imagine a collection of sandboxes, each representing a different industry or possible sub-industry. What sandbox does your business play in? All your revenue should come from that niche. For Southwest, for example, its niche is air travel. That’s easy. For many leaders, the answer isn’t so simple.

The value of knowing your niche is it makes it harder to be distracted by bright shiny objects being developed in other sandboxes. Similarly, if you know your niche, you’re able to focus your ideation and innovation into that space, as opposed to committing time and resources to something that doesn’t ultimately represent your niche.

4. What is your big, hairy, audacious goal (BHAG)?

The answer to this question should be the long-term goal for your organization. Where do you want to be 10 years from now? The answer should be directional, measurable, and ultimately tie back to your core purpose. Ten years from now, you should easily be able to say that you either did or didn’t accomplish the goal. Whether or not you reach the goal is not as important as whether you’re heading in the right direction toward it.

If you and a colleague are setting sail from Virginia out into the Atlantic Ocean, the only thing you truly have to be on the same page about is where you’re going. You can’t have one person thinking they’re heading to England while the other is focused on making it to the Caribbean.

It ultimately will depress a team member if they don’t know how their work contributes to the larger objectives of the organization, and that has the potential to destroy a company’s culture. It’s one thing to call yourself a bricklayer — it’s another to be a bricklayer building the foundation for the Notre Dame Cathedral. It’s the responsibility of a visionary leader to make sure everyone within the organization understands what they are a part of and where the organization is going. 

5. What is your 3-year goal?

While the answer to question #4 is aspirational, the answer to this question should be more concrete. As an organization, what should your revenue and profit look like on this date 3 years from now? Beyond those measurables, consider 4 or 5 other key attributes that can be assessed after that 3-year window to determine whether or not you’ve achieved your goal. 

6. What is your 1-year goal?

This is more tightly focused than the last one because it’s critical to understand your goals for the next year. “Weak execution often stems from a lack of clarity around the objective,” Carlson said, so everyone needs to be aligned and understand what they’re trying to achieve for the year. Again, set a target for revenue, profit, and four or five supporting attributes that — if achieved with excellence — indicate successful completion of the one-year goal. 

7. What is your strategy?

Carlson said there are several ways to interpret strategy, but for visionary leaders, strategy means the way your business goes about differentiating itself in a crowded marketplace. A successful strategy is built on three strategic anchors that make your business different — not better, but different. The key is your competitors have to agree with your anchors.

That means you can’t say you have better people or good customer service, because any company can say that. Most entrepreneurs think in terms of good or great, Carlson said, but consumers don’t think that way. They think about what’s different. 

IKEA does not advertise itself as a better furniture company than others, it’s just different. It doesn’t deliver furniture. It gives you components of the furniture to build on your own. And its prices are lower than the competition. Those are IKEA’s strategic anchors, and they’ve made the company the world’s most successful furniture retailer. 

What are your strategic anchors? What makes your company different from any of your competitors? 


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About the Author: Vistage Staff

Vistage facilitates confidential peer advisory groups for CEOs and other senior leaders, focusing on solving challenges, accelerating growth and improving business performance. Over 45,000 high-caliber execu

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