Who are the Real Visionary Leaders?

Mazie Nakhro

When we say about certain politicians of ours, “He’s a visionary leader,” do we really know what we are talking about?   In 2004, both Neiphiu and Shürhozelie came up with what they called “Nagaland 2020—A Vision.” In it, they talked about implementing a vision of a comprehensive agriculture and forest policy; promotion of industries based on agro-forestry; sustainable exploitation of oil, gas and mineral reserves; heavy investments in infrastructure development; and equitable access to quality education and healthcare services. But till today, sadly all these remain only in paper.  

Or if one were to check the NPF’s amended Constitution of 2005, they talked of pursuing the following objectives: to strive to bring about electoral reforms, to fight against corruption and restore the good name of the Nagas, to develop the economy and remove disparity in the society, to strive for a clean and efficient administration, and to strictly abide by the rule of law.  

But now even after 16 years, their so-called vision has not been implemented. Nor did they really fulfill those objectives mentioned in their Constitution. So then, can we call them visionary leaders? Truth be told: only a mere statement of a vision or objectives on paper doesn’t automatically qualify anyone to be considered visionary. A vision requires a personal embodiment of a creative idea that inspires others and generates real transformation in its path.  

At its simplest, visionary leadership begins when a person imagines a state of affairs not presently existing. This initial creative insight or spark is elaborated into a vision of change. But because most new ideas that call for change make some followers and others opponents, conflict inevitably arises. Few have expressed this conflict more eloquently than Robert F. Kennedy, borrowing from George Bernard Shaw: “Some people see things as they are and say: why? I dream things that never were and say: why not?”  

A visionary leader is very different from an “eventful” man who happens to be involved in historic situations but without really determining its course. While an “eventful” man is a slave to history and cannot free himself from becoming a pawn of situations, a visionary leader is confident of changing the existing situation and replacing it with a completely better alternative. The great German philosopher Georg Hegel called such men the “clear-sighted ones” in the land of the blind.  

Visionary leaders are the builders of a new dawn, working with imagination, insight, and boldness. They present a challenge that calls forth the best in people and brings them together around a shared sense of purpose. They work with the power of intentionality and alignment with a higher purpose. Their eyes are on the horizon, not just on the near at hand. They are social innovators and change agents, seeing the big picture and thinking strategically.  

Let’s look at some visionary leaders. In the arts, we have Leonardo da Vinci whose great works brought about artistic transformation and the Cultural Revolution not only in Italy but also in many other parts of Europe. In the sciences, we have Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton. In the media world, the CNN founder Ted Turner proved himself to be a visionary leader. He transformed the mass media and communication industry by boldly creating an around-the-clock international TV news network which brought the world closer. In the entertainment industry, it was Walt Disney. Despite facing many challenges and great adversity throughout his career, Walt dreamt big and forged ahead, seeing things others couldn’t see and constantly proving his critics wrong. All these people are especially known for transforming old mental maps or paradigms and creating strategies that are “outside the box” of conventional thought.  

What about visionary politicians? Rather than being corrupted by power, visionary politicians are elevated by power to accomplish greater things. Nelson Mandela clearly held a positive vision of a racially harmonious South Africa during his 28 years in jail and helped bring it into reality peacefully—to the amazement of the world.  

Mahatma Gandhi certainly believed in a vision of an independent India, made of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs. But for that to become a reality, he appealed to the moral conscience of Britain, using the principle of Satyagraha (“the power born of truth and love or non-violence”) to resist the evil of the British Colonial power. He also employed the concept of Swaraj (“self-rule”) when he refused to depend on the British supply of salt and, instead, mobilized millions of Indians in a peaceful procession to the coastal village of Dandi to produce salt from the seawater for themselves. Another creative means he came up with was the use of fasting as a political tool to solve communal strife until sanity returned to Kolkata. These were all value-based, morally-driven, peaceful, and self-imposing tactics. He exemplified what his vision called for. That’s why he could say, “I must first be the change I want to see in my world.” In fact, his politics was grounded on his moral values and religious beliefs. He had no trouble bringing his spirituality and politics together. He said, “I could not lead a religious life unless I identified with the whole of mankind, and that I could not do unless I took part in politics.”  

Visionary leaders are able to inspire people to be better than they already are by offering a clear vision of what is possible. They can successfully present a positive picture of the future and clearly show people how to get there. They lead by example. Their focus is on opportunities, not on problems.  

So the ultimate test of visionary leadership lies not only in having a new idea but in bringing to life a real transformation, accomplishing the real-world change it promises.