5 Reasons Visionary Leaders May Fail to Execute

Visionaries who can't executeThere is very little I’ve experienced in the business world that is more frustrating than working with a visionary leader who inspires me completely and yet can’t execute. At the same time, I’ve discovered during the course of my career it’s rare to find a truly visionary leader who excels at both. When you find this magical combination you find extraordinary companies like Apple and Virgin.

Having read Les McKeown’s The Synergist, where he takes a very detailed look at the four main roles on any organizational team (visionary, operator, processor and synergist), it’s easy to see why a visionary might struggle with execution, especially if they don’t have a balance of these roles on their teams.

But even visionaries who have highly balanced, talented, and complementary teams may fail to execute their vision for the following reasons:

1. Not enough funding

Especially during start-up mode I’ve watched visionaries fall short because there is not enough funding to support the execution of key strategies needed to get off the ground successfully. Planning for this stage is critical.

2. Misaligned strategy

As I wrote about in, “How to Screw Your Business in One Easy Step,” strategies must be aligned with the vision in order to prevent the business from heading off-track. Visionaries who do not understand this may find themselves seemingly moving in circles, and teams experience the frustration of a lot of activity with no results to show for it.

3. Lack of Confidence

Most of us probably think of visionaries like Steve Jobs and Richard Branson who are highly confident in their vision and them self. Yet I worked with one who could not trust herself to follow her vision. She sought the opinion of so many people over the course of a few years in regard to whether and how she should pursue her vision, and changed her strategies so often based on this divergent advice, that she eventually ran out of resources and commitment.

4. Lack of Empowerment

Some visionaries don’t have the ability or inclination to execute their visions, and yet won’t empower others from their team to go make things happen. Instead, they cling to control, especially when the company or initiative is “their baby.” When a visionary does not have the skill set to execute, they need to fully empower their team to do so.

5. Teams hiding the truth

I worked with one CEO whose business heads were not honest with him about how bad their respective business situations were (backorders, recalls) until it was too late. The Board had no choice but to let him go. He was a beloved leader and his team didn’t want to disappoint him, but in the end they hurt him and the company. The organization learned a great deal from that experience.

My advice to visionary leaders is:

  • Make sure you hire a team that complements you, balances you, and makes up for your areas of weakness
  • Create relationships with individuals based on the essential need for openness and trust
  • Accept that to bring your vision to life you need to empower others to do their jobs, and provide the resources needed for them to do their jobs well
  • Make sure you’re planning up front for the full cost of executing the vision
  • Know your vision. Remember, you should be able to see, smell, taste and feel what the world will look like when you bring your vision to life.

Believe in your vision wholeheartedly…no one else can do this for you!

What’s your advice to visionary leaders who struggle with execution? Join me and my Leadership Chat Co-Host Steve Woodruff tomorrow evening, March 20th, as we explore this topic in our weekly, global leadership conversation! As always, there will be plenty of Tuscan food and wine and great conversation. Please join us at 8:00 pm Eastern Time on Twitter!


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  1. Good stuff, Lisa. As you imply in point 4, it pretty much boils down to hubris or humility – either a readiness to embrace the need for others to “fill in the gaps” (and we all have gaps), or a tight-fisted control-freak mentality that is sure to end up broken on the shoals. I think we’ve seen enough of the latter kind in recent years…!
    Steve Woodruff´s last blog post ..You or Me – Who’s on First?

    • Thank you, Steve! Yes, sometimes it’s hard to admit with have those gaps and to be trusting of others to fill them in precisely the way they need to be filled. I look forward to a fascinating conversation tomorrow night! :)

  2. I’m an Inventor and entreprenureal newby with something to wrap a business around that a large percentage of the globe is, and uas been screaming for, while the rest seem to be trying to quickly catch up with the near decade of process development done at my own expense. My observation is that all but one or two are doomed to fail no matter what technologies they they devised, as what I have created appears to be economically viable in only a couple of different configurations assuming it works in more than one at all.

    Failure is simply not an option for valid reasons far beyond myself or scratching the itch of wanton greed. I purposefully designed in a ridiculous amount of, “under promise & over deliver” into it all to satisfy any rational expectations held by investors. Yet, success eludes me for reasons I am unable to determine.

    Any chance for a quick email?

  3. Lisa, your advice definitely hit home for me, especially the openness and trust. I volunteered to manage a culture survey for a non-profit (volunteering is always fun!). We are still collecting the responses and the initial reaction to what I am reading, is your points can really hit home for them. I am still learning more about the organization and the leadership. I wonder how this information will sit with them. Thanks, the post is very timely.
    Steve Bell´s last blog post ..Keeping it Real, Get Dirty

  4. In my experience, the visionaries who were able to clearly articulate their vision and the strategies behind it, seldom failed to execute. The biggest problem is finding the visionary. So I’m inclined to pay more attention to pushing for more visionary leadership than fretting the roadblocks to success. Nonetheless, good to have a perspective from the other side – Lisa’s view would not have been expressed without seeing some examples, first-hand.

    • John, I love that you point out the biggest problem may be finding the visionary and that you prefer to push for more visionary leadership than fret the roadblocks to success. So well said! Hope to see you this evening at Leadership Chat.

  5. Lisa,

    As to be expected, great insight. I bear witness to #2 Misaligned Strategy so often it is painful. Organizations can be rigid in their focus and compromise flexibility or the ability to adapt to their strategy in response to external (or internal) forces. As leaders we have to ask ourselves, “are we nimble?” Of course we do have the other extreme in which we operate so loosely we can lose sight of the desired visionary outcomes.

    Thanks for sharing, time for staff polygraphs (#5), ;)

    Mike Cassidy´s last blog post ..Put Me In Coach…I’m Ready

  6. Great list Lisa. #5 can be very important because the business heads often have the truth hidden from them too. Hence, a culture of avoiding a phoney sense of progress by highlighting and fixing bugs with alternative solutions is critical. Transparency by the leader on this issue can make a huge difference.
    Alan Kay´s last blog post ..Making macro-level change happen…now!

  7. Je suis jeune de 39 années .
    Je m’appelle Edmee.
    Mon occupation principale, libraire . Mon naturel est plutôt réservé.
    Voyage´s last blog post ..Voyage


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