Visionary leadership is being able to see the big-picture that others cannot. They are able to grasp the trajectory of trends before others and understand the value of moving in that direction.
Most industries in the 21st century are both the benefactors and victims of change. The speed of innovation and technological advancement is unprecedented in history. Therefore, it is essential that companies can take advantage of change before their competitors.
That is not easy.
It takes a special kind of talent to be able to anticipate change, and then be able to persuade others that you are right.
Examples of visionary leaders include great minds that have created great consumer products, sometimes even before consumers realized they wanted them. This includes Steve Jobs, Reed Hastings, and the amazing Richard Branson.
Definition of Visionary Leadership Examples
There are many traits that visionary leaders possess to varying degrees. For example, they are big-picture thinkers that are enthusiastic and able to inspire others to share their goals.
Their open-mindedness and ability to focus allow then to see possibilities that others do not.
When compelled to achieve, they are focused, determined, and show an incredible resilience in the face of challenges.
Many of these attributes are shared by other leadership styles to one degree or another. But it is the visionary leader that encompasses the entire package of these incredibly unique characteristics that truly sets them apart.
Examples of Visionary Leadership
1. Sam Walton, Wal-Mart founder
Sam Walton opened his first store in 1962 and began an incredible journey of reinventing the retail industry.
In less than 5 years, he had 20 locations. Most people recognize the concept of “one-stop shopping” as Walton’s greatest visionary contribution, but his genius ran much deeper.
As described by TIME magazine, Walton was truly ahead of his time and “may have been the first true information-aged CEO.” He hired a computer whiz to reinvent the company’s logistics and inventory systems that revolutionized business operations forever. This visionary approach enabled the company to function at a level of efficiency, and accuracy, that competitors were unable to replicate.
He was also a mastermind of marketing and understood consumers on a very personal level. He created a store atmosphere on Saturdays (the biggest shopping day for families) that was cheerful and exciting. This included shopping cart bingo and hiring bands and circuses to perform in parking lots.
2. Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix
Netflix began in 1997 as an upstart DVD rental service. At the time, most people rented movies on VHS tapes by driving to a nearby Blockbuster Video.
However, Reed Hastings and his partner Marc Randolph saw an opportunity that no one else could imagine. Instead of customers driving to the nearest store, they could order a DVD online and have it delivered within days. DVDs are super light and therefore very inexpensive to ship.
Then, in 2007, with bandwidth large enough to stream movies at home, Hastings saw the future. He had a clear vision and the confidence to see it through. Customers could just pay for a movie online from their home computer and watch it instantaneously. The level of convenience was amazing.
Netflix is now the number one streaming service in the world. It has an outstanding portfolio of programming and also produces its own shows.
3. Richard Branson
Richard Branson has demonstrated visionary leadership since he was only 16 years old when he started his own celebrity magazine called Student. Later he started a mail-order record business and by 1973 he had 14 stores and his first million dollars.
From there he kept capitalizing on his incredible knack to see opportunities that no one else could. He founded the music label Virgin Records and signed controversial groups such as the Sex Pistols, Ozzy Osbourne, and The Rolling Stones.
In 1984 he started Virgin Atlantic airlines and offered services no one in the industry would even consider, such as free ice-cream and seat-back video screens. It was a bold move to offer so much for the price of one airline ticket, but it paid off tremendously well.
He founded the Virgin Group in 1989 and today it’s a multinational company with over 400 businesses and 50,000 employees around the world.
4. Henry Ford
Henry Ford could see the necessity of paying workers well at a time when most people were just happy to make enough money to put food on the table. He started paying his employees a very generous salary of $5 a day in 1914, nearly double the minimum wage at the time.
But he understood the economics of creating a middle class that could actually afford his cars. This helped propel the rise of the middle class and start a revolution in how companies treated their employees.
He was one of the first in the industrial economy to recognize the value of treating his employees well and ensuring their needs were taken care of.
It was an example of visionary leadership that paid off not just for his company, but for the entire nation as well.
5. Allan Mulally, former CEO of Ford Motor Company
Alan Mulally is responsible for one of the most impressive corporate turnarounds in U.S. history, making him an amazing visionary and transformational leader.
When he took over Ford Motor Company in September 2006, it was about to post a loss of over 12 billion dollars and was on the cusp of complete bankruptcy. Most U.S. automobile companies needed huge government bailouts to survive the economic crisis that came just a year later.
But Mulally created a vision of survival that allowed the company to transform itself worldwide. He changed the corporate culture to one of accountability and teamwork like never before seen in the industry.
Not only did he demonstrate an incredible form of visionary leadership, but displayed one of its most admirable traits: resilience. He took over a company in its worst time in history and turned it into a global leader.
6. Warren Buffet
Warren Buffet is the most stable and enduring example of a visionary leadership style in the last 100 years.
He has been in the forefront of high-finance and huge fortunes for decades, preceding the turn of the century.
Unlike what most people imagine when they think of Wall Street success stories, Warren Buffet created his fortune by sticking to strong principles and ethics.
His vision of leadership is steeped in consideration and respect for his team, whom have been along his side for many years. They are loyal to his brand of investing and value his honest, well-intentioned nature.
He has collaborated to establish the largest charitable foundation in history and will donate nearly all of his fortune to help others in need. Warren Buffet is an example of great visionary leadership and philanthropy.
7. Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin D. Roosevelt served as president of the United States during its most difficult times in history: the Great Depression and World War II.
One of his many achievements was to create the New Deal to lift the country out of an economic depression. The New Deal utilized all levels of federal and local governments to expand and upgrade thousands of roads and bridges, build hospitals, schools, airports and parks across the country.
He was also able to galvanize congress to implement a federal minimum wage and establish the Social Security system.
Although he was struck with polio as an adult and became paralyzed from the waist down, he remained a humorous and compassionate human being. His ability to inspire others to work towards numerous common goals, along with his determination and focus, make Franklin Roosevelt one of the best examples of visionary leadership in history.
8. Coco Channel
In the 1920s, only a very small percentage of women had the financial means to wear high-fashion luxury brands like Channel. And then came the LBD; the little black dress.
The LBD is a simple piece of fabric, cut in just the right way, and hemmed-in at all the right places. It was a simple dress that exuded elegance and poise.
At the time, it was an example of a vision of fashion that was strikingly different from the colorful and fanciness of dresses in that era. The day it hit the cover of Vogue, it shook the fashion world to its core and took society by storm. Now, any woman could look sophisticated and chique.
Coco Channel single-handedly revolutionized the concept of fashion. She was bold and focused, and created an iconic dress that is still amazingly popular 100 years later.
9. King James
King James became the King of Scotland at the age of one. He later united Scotland and England and achieved so many incredible accomplishments that it is impossible to describe them all.
He formed a parliament to represent both countries, was a great supporter of the arts and sciences, and tried to install English as the only language of government. These are all examples of seeing the big-picture and taking substantial risks to see them through.
Perhaps one of the most notable examples of his visionary leadership was the creation of the world’s most published book, the Bible. Although it required hundreds of scholars and many years to accomplish, it was a remarkable achievement.
King James is an example of a leader that is bold and focused, and so enlightened by his vision that he nearly sacrificed his own life to see his goals realized.
10. Mahatma Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi was the driving force behind at least three revolutions. He worked tirelessly as a servant leader to end racism, violence against the oppressed, and colonial rule of India.
Gandhi is an example of an amazing individual that possessed some of the most admirable attributes of a visionary leader. He was focused and determined; and resilient and strong, especially in the face of seemingly insurmountable opposition.
He spoke with a level of wisdom and eloquence that inspired millions of people to take action, even at great personal expense. Even though he endured physical assaults and imprisonment, he refused to accept defeat. He has gone down in history as one of the greatest leaders of mankind.
11. Elon Musk
Elon Musk made his first fortune starting and then selling a company that we know today as PayPal. From there, he took the profits to start Tesla and SpaceX.
There is no doubt that these two ventures are a result of an incredible vision of the future. Afterall, not everyone walks around wearing a t-shirt that says “Occupy Mars.”
Musk doesn’t neatly fall into one style of leadership category. He displays characteristics of several different styles, like a lot of leaders. However, he definitely has many of the attributes that fit into the “visionary leader” role.
For example, he has a bold personality, is highly organized and determined, and is able to persuade others to accept and follow his vision. He also takes responsibility for failure and actually understands that failing is also learning. This is an exceptionally valuable attribute of a visionary leader working in high-tech.
12. Nick Woodman
A lot of people will not recognize the name, Nick Woodman, but they will recognize the product of his dream to take amazing photos of life in action.
When most of us think of photos, we think of a beautiful still image. Beautiful, but still.
However, Nick Woodman wanted something more and was able to gather a small band of like-minded enthusiasts to create one of the most amazing cameras anyone has ever used: the GoPro.
The idea was simple but required a vison and drive to turn to a reality. Taking great photos was easy, but taking great action photos was a feat no one had been able to accomplish until the GoPro.
With determination and an incredible ability to focus on a single goal, Nick Woodman encapsulates two of the most essential traits of visionary leadership.
13. Nelson Mandela
Not all visionary leaders come from the corporate world. Visionary leadership is about more than generating great sales figures behind products and gadgets.
Some forms of visionary leadership shape history. And that is what Nelson Mandella accomplished.
His vision, his incredible will power, and his steadfast determination is what made him survive nearly 30 years in jail to eventually become the first democratically elected President of South Africa (we also list him as an example of a democratic leader).
He fought against racial discrimination his entire life because he knew what was right and just. He held a vision of society that was not shared by those in power but held deep in the hearts of the oppressed.
Nelson Mandela is one of the finest examples of visionary leaders the world has ever known, and his mark in history will last forever.
14. Ratan Tata
Ratan Tata is one of the most influential leaders in India and has exhibited a true visionary style of leadership.
When he first became chairman of Tata Group in 1990, no one expected the company to become a global force across so many industrial sectors, which today ranges from automobiles to IT services.
But Ratan Tata had a clear global vision and worked tirelessly and methodically with his team to transform the company into a multinational conglomerate. The company purchased some of the most well-known brands in the world, including Jaguar, Tetley, Land Rover, and Corus. The company went from a market cap of 1.5 billion to over 100 billion.
He was able to create a vision of the company that others could follow by implementing a management style that was people and team-oriented. The company went from a highly centralized decision-making structure to a philosophy that allows employees and managers to have much greater responsibility.
15. Steve Jobs
Perhaps no other individual in the corporate world is as well known for a visionary leadership style than Steve Jobs. He was a visionary in technology, in product design, and in marketing.
He was driven with a passion to revolutionize the consumer experience with amazing technological innovations that created a near cult-like loyalty to his company and its products. He compelled his teams to push further than they imagined possible by creating a vision that was awe-inspiring.
Steve Jobs was the driving-force behind success wherever he went and exuded a level of confidence that was unmatched. His ability to imagine what others could not made him one of the most admired innovators in the world.
Other Leadership Models
- Autocratic Leadership Examples
- Bureaucratic Leadership Examples
- Affiliative Leadership Examples
- Adaptive Leadership Examples
- Situational Leadership Examples
A visionary leadership style involves a number of admirable character traits that combine to form a leader that can drive dramatic change. That change can be in the form of transforming an organization, revolutionizing society’s concept of fashion, or creating a vision so compelling that it inspires entire countries to unite together.
Visionary leaders are able to make bold decisions based on a nuanced understanding of a situation that others simply do not possess. They have an incredible degree of focus and determination. When they fail, they simple don’t give up and are able to push forward with resilience and fortitude.
Visionary leaders have shaped our lives in enduring and profound ways that we may never fully appreciate.
Conger, J. A. & Kanungo, R. N. (1987). Toward a behavioral theory of charismatic leadership in organizational settings. Academy of Management Review, 12, 637-647.
Taylor, C. M., Cornelius, C. J., & Colvin, K. (2014). Visionary leadership and its relationship to organizational effectiveness. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 35(6), 566-583. https://doi.org/10.1108/LODJ-10-2012-0130
Kantabutra, S., & Avery, G. C. (2006). Follower effects in the visionary leadership process. Journal of Business & Economics Research (JBER), 4(5), 57-65. https://doi.org/10.19030/jber.v4i5.2665
Worley, J.A. (2018). Visionary leadership in a team-oriented setting. In Marques, J., Dhiman, S. (Eds.) Engaged leadership. Management for professionals. (pp. 63-83). Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-72221-4_4