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Visionary leaders inspire their followers to pursue their path. In this paper, the most essential features of visionary leadership are analyzed. The figure of Ronald Reagan is used to exemplify visionary leadership in practice. The paper describes the fundamentals of visionary leadership. The reasons why Ronald Reagan can be considered as a visionary leader are discussed. The value of visionary leadership for modern organizations is evaluated. The conditions that favor the implementation of visionary leadership are specified.
Keywords: visionary, leader, Ronald Reagan, organizations, vision.
Visionary Leadership, Cross-Cultural Leadership, Facilitating Change
Leadership is more than vision, but it is vision that makes leaders inspirational, motivational, and advanced. Visionary leaders have the capacity to change the political landscape and empower their followers to take responsible decisions. The history and politics in the United States witnessed the emergence of more than one visionary leader. Their political, cultural, and historical legacy continues to persist. Ronald Reagan is one of the brightest and, at the same time, most unusual examples of visionary leaders. In the atmosphere of the Cold War, only visionary leadership could strengthen the United States in its moral fight against totalitarianism. Today, vision is giving place to interconnection and technological ethos. People and organizations still need visionary leaders, but only when vision is supported by cooperative connections, coupled with independence and power.
Ronald Reagan: An Outstanding Visionary Leader
Most organizational managers recognize visionary leadership as essential for anticipating future challenges, setting the direction for strategic movement, and inspiring managers and employees to achieve ambitious goals (Gill, 2006). Visionary leaders have a unique talent to synchronize their and others' realities and frame the future organizational identity. Visionary leadership is always "future-oriented, concerned with risk-taking, and visionary leaders are not dependent on their organizations in the sense of who they are" (Gill, 2006, p.125). Visionary leaders inspire greater compliance with the most essential organizational norms through socialization, communication, and persuasion.
Visionary leaders normally have an idea of how and where the world is moving (Gill, 2006). They do not simply set the direction but make everything possible to make their followers pursue this path. Visionary leadership often acts as a drama of communication and action, when followers are involved in a rich and multifaceted process taking place at the multiple levels of social reality (Westley & Mintzberg, 1989). For many others, visionary leadership is the process of path finding. Visionary pathfinders make their organizations and followers successful, by helping them to shape the reality they have envisioned for them (Gill, 2006).
An inspirational and clear vision. Visionary leaders create a comprehensive, compelling, inspirational, and clear vision of the future. They always have a perfect sense of direction and know how to achieve their goals (McLaughlin, 2001). In June 1980, Ronald Reagan held a meeting with journalists and editors at the Washington Post (D'Souza, 1999). Some of them expressed their concerns about the risky future of the arms race (D'Souza, 1999). What Reagan said during the meeting was astonishing and even unbelievable at that time: "The Soviets can't compete with us" (D'Souza, 1999). That was the first time Reagan communicated his vision of the Soviets' economic vulnerability and his strong commitment to the liberalization and freedom of the whole world (D'Souza, 1999). Reagan knew that the end of Communism was close. He was willing to break the iron wall of political misunderstanding and silence. He understood that the West would never accept communism; rather, it would transcend and dismiss it as the most controversial chapter in human history (D'Souza, 1999). Reagan envisioned the future of the world without communism, and he was ready to follow his path.
Spiritual values. According to McLaughlin (2001), all visionary leaders are strongly committed to core spiritual values. They radiate the sense of energy and integrity, while cultivating self-awareness, self-knowledge, self-confidence, and will needed to stand for their vision (McLaughlin, 2001). Throughout his career, Reagan was building his political decisions on the premise that communism and freedom were incompatible. He stood for human dignity and freedom (D'Souza, 1999). It is not a secret that Reagan wanted to invite Soviet President Gorbachev to the U.S, to show how freedom and economic prosperity benefited his nation. Reagan could have been idealistic and even romantic in his desire to reverse the course of the Cold War, but he invested huge efforts in building up the U.S.'s military strength. Simultaneously, he envisioned the future without nuclear weapons. He often spoke of God, and he was passionate about restoring the spiritual and family values in the American society (D'Souza, 1999).
Respect and empowerment. Visionary leaders view their followers as the most valuable asset (McLaughlin, 2001). Visionary leadership is more receptive and dynamic than other models of leadership. Many visionary leaders develop productive partnerships and exhibit deep respect for others in their team (McLaughlin, 2001). Reagan was one of the few American Presidents, who felt at ease with everyone, regardless of their social status and political belonging. D'Souza (1999) writes that "he was comfortable consorting with aristocrats and playing golf with millionaires, who considered him one of them, yet he was equally at home with miners and construction workers, who were convinced that he shared their values and had their interests at heart" (p.12). The American electorate loved Reagan for his obvious simplicity and, at the same time, effective leadership decisions. He maintained the image of a "regular guy", and American voters could easily identify themselves with their President (D'Souza, 1999).
Innovative action and courage. McLaughlin (2001) says that visionary leaders engage in innovative and courageous actions. They are oriented towards transforming outdated beliefs and old mental paradigms. They seek to create unconventional strategies and think "outside the box" (McLaughlin, 2001). All these features were characteristic of Ronald Reagan. His innovative thinking and unusual ideas turned his Presidency into a real leadership enigma. Neither his followers nor his critics could understand how he accomplished so much with so little knowledge (D'Souza, 1999). He was trying to do the most impossible things, for instance, increase defense spending and, at the same time, cut taxes (D'Souza, 1999). Economists asserted that Reagan's ideas were unrealistic and irrational. Still, he managed to serve the two consecutive terms and bring his country to economic and political prosperity.
Reagan's Visionary Leadership: Unusual Features
Reagan was an unusual visionary leader. On the one hand, he exemplified the most fundamental features of visionary leadership. He was an outsider, as Gill (2006) state. The outsider is anyone, who has a deep understanding of the human society's unstable foundations. A visionary leader is an outsider, because he feels the anarchy and chaos deeper than anyone else (Gill, 2006). According to D'Souza (1999), even Reagan's family could not grasp his visionary talent in its entirety. His family regarded him as enigmatic and impenetrable, and he managed to preserve that image until the end of his life (D'Souza, 1999). On the other hand, visionary leadership is impossible without followers, who make a visionary leader successful and effective. Kantabutra and Avery (2006) write that visionary leaders depend on followers, but Ronald Reagan never let anyone come too close (D'Souza, 1999). He was able to gain almost unilateral support of his electorate, but his closest allies were also his most scornful critics. As a result, Reagan had to operate in a controversial environment, which equally facilitated and impeded his development as a leader.
The Added Value of Visionary Leadership
The value, which visionary leaders bring to the organization, can hardly be overestimated. Visionary leaders create an environment of heightened excitement and positive emotions, where followers are empowered to use their talents and become self-confident of their capabilities and skills (Kantabutra & Avery, 2006). Members of Reagan's team, especially those who were working on his military initiatives, were fascinated with his anti-communist vision (D'Souza, 1999). Reagan provided extensive moral encouragement through open communication and renewed the sense of patriotism in his followers. Everyone in Reagan's team was working in the same strategic direction, which eventually turned the President's vision into a political reality.
At the same time, the controversial surrounding of visionary leaders should not be ignored. As mentioned earlier, visionary leaders are outsiders, and their vision of the world differs greatly from that of their followers (Gill, 2006). As a result, not all of the followers may easily comprehend their vision. Reagan generated much hostility around his public image. The public, and especially his surrounding, could not capture the paradox of his success, because visionary leaders think outside the box, they must be prepared to face misunderstanding, envy, and resistance. If they cannot cope with these challenges, the value they bring to the organization will be zeroed.
Visionary Leadership – Needed or Not?
At the times of the Cold War, only motivated leader such as Ronald Reagan could unite his people around the core spiritual values and set the direction for the country's movement towards success. Today, the need for visionary leadership is no longer acute. Cameron and Green (2004) suggest that the world is changing, and organizations are becoming less hierarchical and more dispersed. With the growing availability of information, visionary leaders may not need to provide and explain their mission and motivation. Instead, people will be creating effective relationships with a reasonable degree of personal independence (Cameron & Green, 2004).
Most likely, visionary leaders will soon lose their authoritative position and have their roles limited to the development of a comprehensive vision. It is also possible that visionary leadership will be mostly used at the times of crises, since the crisis-responsive capabilities of visionary leaders have been thoroughly documented (Hunt, Boal & Dodge, 1999). Nevertheless, the society does not give up its hope to translate the stories of successful organizational transformations into macro-changes. Many professionals continue to believe that only through vision, capability, and courage businesses will manage to change the existing status quo (Levin, 2012).
Visionary Leadership and Performance Conditions
Despite its visible universalism, visionary leadership cannot work in all organizational conditions. The most imperative are the times of crises, when organizations and individuals are lost and confused. In these conditions, visionary leaders can capture the moment and inspire their followers to pursue the predetermined path. Visionary leadership is also culturally-mediated, and its effectiveness is determined by cultural norms and requirements (Casimir & Waldman, 2007). Finally, visionary leadership can work only when followers are ready to accept and understand its message (Kantabutra & Avery, 2006). The success of visionary leadership is in its flexibility and openness, and every visionary leader must constantly monitor and adapt to the changeable conditions of political and organizational performance. As globalization, information, and knowledge exchange are gaining momentum, visionary leaders will need to reconsider their earlier approaches to making decisions in business.
Visionary leaders are unique in their capacity to inspire followers and frame the best future for the organizational. Visionary leaders rely on the core spiritual values and empower their followers to utilize their best talents. The example of Ronald Reagan uncovers the most hidden facets of visionary leadership. These features make it equally desirable and problematic. Reagan had a strong and comprehensive vision of the world without communism. He was extremely persistent in his striving to translate his vision into reality. At the same time, his public image was paradoxical and controversial. Reagan emerged when the time for visionary leadership was right. At present, visionary leaders are giving up their positions to interconnection and technological ethos. In the era of globalization, all of the visionary leaders need to reconsider their past approaches to ensure that their models fit in the multicultural and unstructured conditions of doing business.
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