The 3 Lenses of Visionary Leaders

This is a guest post by Tor Constantino. He is a former journalist, has an MBA, and works in public relations where he has directly reported to several CEOs in his career. He lives near Washington, D.C. with his wife and two daughters. You can read his blog and follow him on Twitter. If you want to guest post on this blog, check out the guidelines here.

Good leaders create a vision, passionately articulate the vision, and relentlessly drive the vision to completion.”

– Jack Welch

Every leader needs a clear vision. However, much like common sense, vision is anything but common and rarely clear. When it’s fuzzy or cloudy, it needs a lens to make things more clear.

Three Business People Looking Through Telescopes - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #20339716

Photo courtesy of ©

Before we look at organizational vision, consider the literal example of vision and the human eye. Very few people have perfect 20/20 vision. According to the National Eye Institute (of America):

  • More than 12 million Americans can only see things clearly at a distance (farsighted);
  • More than 32 million can only see clearly those things or people who are close by (nearsighted);
  • While a full third have blurry vision due to a less than perfectly round eye surface (astigmatism).
  • More than 150 million Americans use corrective eyewear to improve their sight.

There are corrective lenses for each of these conditions, enabling people to improve their sight. This principle has application to visionary leaders as well.

Here are three lenses you need to apply to your organization in order to create, articulate, and drive your vision forward. Think of these metaphoric lenses as perspectives or filters if it helps.

  1. Diagnostic Lens. Before a vision can be created, you need to clearly understand what’s worked and what hasn’t. It’s also critical to recognize the current position of your organization and use that as a starting point.

    Additionally, you also need to identify existing obstacles, procedures, and personalities that may undermine your vision at various stages. These may be difficult for you to see, especially if you’ve been with the organization a while.

    Why? You may have developed an institutional “blind spot.” (Eventually, this happens to every leader.) If so, this may require you to solicit input from a “fresh pair” of eyes—an unbiased insider or an external consultant.

    Once you have completed your diagnostics and you have a clear view of the organization and its needs, you need to incorporate your findings into the overall vision.

  2. Innovation Lens. Innovation is often “hiding in plain site.” It requires you to cultivate a specific perspective in order to enable it to jump into view.

    For example, consider the challenges of trying to innovate the following commoditized products: paint, glass, and duct tape – pretty dull and boring at first glance with little opportunity. For decades, industry leaders did not see anyway to innovate on those products and increase their revenue. Yet:

    • Sherwin-Williams developed a square, stackable, pourable paint container that revolutionized the industry.
    • Corning innovated away from cookware, to fiber optic cables, flat-screen TVs, and biotech lab tools.
    • Duck Brand duct tape breathed new life and profitability into the category with fashion-focused line extensions in a rainbow of patterns and colors.

    In each case, the opportunity for innovation was always there. But it took visionary leaders to create an environment where others within the organization could see the opportunity that was right in front of their eyes, articulate it, and bring it forward.

  3. Unseen Lens Ultimately, as a visionary, you are going to have to lead your organization down a path it’s never been before. This requires the use of the “unseen” lens which will set the course for the desired future state.
    • Christopher Columbus had to apply this lens when he set off to find the new world, at a time when everyone thought the world was flat.
    • President Kennedy had to apply this lens when he pledged to put an American on the moon in the 1960s.
    • Steve Jobs did it time and again when he challenged Apple to launch the iPod, MacBook , iTunes, and iPhone.

    As a visionary leader, you need to be your organization’s eyes into the future, driving it’s performance down a pioneering path.

In order to be a positive, transformational leader you need a clear vision if your organization is going to survive and thrive. But you and the vision are indistinguishable. Without a clear vision, you won’t last. And without a visionary leader, neither will the vision.

Question: What do you think is required to be a visionary leader? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Joe Lalonde

    Tor, congratulations on getting a guest post on Michael’s site!

    I think leaders also need the “Big Picture” lens. Being able to form and articulate the big picture to the team. If you can’t let your team know where you want the organization to go, you’re not going to get there.

    • TorConstantino

      Thanks Joe! I completely agree that leaders need the “Big Picture” perspective – there’s a lot of truth in the cliche, “Not being able to see the forest through the trees.”

  • Dave Baldwin

    A great post Tor. Perhaps my observation fits under the Unseen Lens. While working on my doctorate I found Christian Educators who were transformational leaders practiced what I called The Art of the Long View. They could look down the corridor of time and know how the decision at hand would work out. It could be the smaller details or larger issues. It seemed to be a natural art that came to them without knowing how they came to their conclusions. Those working with them also talked about that skill these educators possessed. I wish it was an art I practiced, but don’t have that gift.
    Thank you once again.

    • TorConstantino

      Unfortunately, the “Art of the Long View” is a perspective that tends to be lacking in Western culture Dave. If you look at Wall Street, the average tenure of a CEO or corporate leader is 18-24 months – that’s not much of a long view. Conversely, quality/management guru Peter Drucker found that post-WWII Asian-based businesses measured their long-term planning by generations. I think it comes back to our culture’s under appreciation of the virtue of patience!

      • Aaron Johnson

        Might be the reason that Japan has the highest GDP second to the US? There is a huge lesson to learn here, isn’t there? Makes me think of Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hours.

        • TorConstantino

          Great points Aaron – in fact I just checked statistics from the World Bank for 2012 and Japan has a population of 127M while the US has an estimated 311M. Despite the recent recessionary problems in Japan they still manage to outperform on a per capita basis…

  • Russell Blinch

    Thought provoking post, thank you. In my experience I always liked to follow the person with the vision who seemed to really want everyone to share in success. That is, follow me and we will all do great together, not follow me and help make ME look good.

    • TorConstantino

      Great point Russell. I recently read an anonymous quote along the lines, “Great leaders take all the blame when things go wrong and share all the credit when things go right.” That’s a vision that I think most people could support.

  • Joey Espinosa

    Great piece, but please don’t pass on the fiction that everyone thought the world was flat in Columbus’s time. Everyone had known it was round for centuries, if not a couple of millenia.

    The issue was on the size of the earth, not the shape. Columbus miscalculated the curvature of the earth, thinking the earth was much smaller than it was.

    • TorConstantino

      Thanks for the clarification Joey. Then I guess you could be grateful that I didn’t include the following questionable factoid, “….President Kennedy had to apply this lens when he pledged to put an American on the moon (which was made of green cheese) in the 1960s…” – Thanks for commenting ;-)

      • Joey Espinosa

         Ha. That’s great.

        But the cool part is that even though he was fabulously wrong, Columbus still had a vision. Sometimes just having the vision to move forward is the most important part, not having all the right answers.

        • TorConstantino

          I like that thought, “…Sometimes just having the vision to move forward is the most important part, not having all the right answers.” Good stuff Joey!

  • Business Coach Steve

    Most leaders don’t like to focus on vision. The word “vision” is associated with sight yet a vision is hard to see. 

    Leaders must share the vision and aspirations with the team. It’s best to get the teams insights and have them collaborate and help build the vision. This way the vision isn’t just coming from one, it’s coming from many. More powerful.

    • TorConstantino

      I appreciate that perspective Steve and that’s a great way to lead. However, I would respectfully submit that transformational leadership requires a leader and vision that can overcome organizational stagnation and inertia. 

      The leadership successes of Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Lincoln or Steve Jobs were not built on consensus but rather the vision of the leader.

      • Bonnie Clark

        I’m all for engaging your people, but I agree with Tor.  For transformational change, the idea will usually come from the leader.

        If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse – Henry Ford. 

        • TorConstantino

          Bonnie, I love that quote from Henry Ford – thanks for sharing it!

      • Les Dossey

        It has been my experience that so few people can see “have vision” that any attempts to collaborate becomes nothing more than an exercise in futility.

        And the primary reason is that seeing takes courage, all or nothing, burn the boats courage.

        But, that doesn’t mean the perspective of others is excluded rather it’s used as hues to add depth to the picture.

        • TorConstantino

          Well said Les – I especially like your description of “…the perspective of others…” as hues that provide depth and texture to the full picture!

  • Aaron Johnson

    A lot comes down to being able to craft a story, to use imagery, and language that is clear. I think of how Churchill was constantly helping his people get clear on what it was going to take, what victory would look like for them.

    • TorConstantino

      Aaron, Churchill is a fantastic example of a transformational, visionary leader. I think you nailed the point that great leaders must be able to communicate their vision to those who implement it – otherwise the vision will fail.

      • Aaron Johnson

         Tor, historian Paul Johnson has a fantastic little biography on Churchill. I’ve taken so many lessons from it.

        • TorConstantino

          Thanks for the recommendation – looks like I’ve got another addition to my end-of-summer reading list!

          • Les Dossey

            Reagan should be in that top 10 list

          • TorConstantino

            Thanks for the recommendation Les – I’ve only seen the massive bound edition for Reagan. I’ll have to see if it’s on Kindle.

  • DS

    Enjoyed the illustration with vision, glasses, lens, etc.   Personally I’m near-sighted with astigmatism.

    I believe communicating the vision and getting buy-in are also huge keys.  If you can’t make a compelling point regarding the vision, or communicate it in a clear and succinct way, your vision won’t matter.

    • TorConstantino

      You’re absolutely right DS. One of Newton’s laws of motion is that bodies at rest tend to stay at rest – great leaders must instill a vision within their teams to inspire them to move toward the visionary goal!

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  • Kelly Combs

    Tor – congratulations on your guest post. Great writing! I just noticed you are also a community leader now. Wow. Good for you.  Looks like your visionary leadership is paying off. Great post.

    I did notice that your bio in the post needs updating. It should read “with his wife, two daughters and precious newborn son.” God bless your new addition!  

    • TorConstantino

      Thanks for the kind words Kelly – you’re very gracious! Our son is doing great; however, my wife and I have a vision of eight straight hours of sleep a night. Unfortunately, our four-week old isn’t on board with that vision yet ;-)

      • Kelly Combs

        I believe you are at least eight weeks from your vision. At least. But it’s important to have long term goals. ;-) A great short term goal would be a nap. I know Michael Hyatt would approve.

        • TorConstantino

          Good advice – I’m actually napping while I write this particulzzzzzzzz….

  • John Richardson

    Good to see you posting here today Tor. And congrats on making the sidebar! I think one component that visionary leaders need is to be willing to do the impossible. If you are going to create something exceptional, it needs to be big enough and hard enough that someone tells you it’s impossible. That simple word highly motivates me for the challenge that lies ahead!

    • TorConstantino

      John I love that thought! It echoes Kennedy’s sentiments that we don’t avoid challenges simply because they’re difficult – rather we should boldly engage them precisely for the reason that they’re difficult. Thanks for the comment!

  • Kevin

    I think the visionary leaders are people who have the long term insight for the objectives of organization

    • TorConstantino

      Indeed Kevin, a long-term vision is critical!

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  • TorConstantino

    Excellent point Roy, the power of courage and conviction cannot be underestimated. I think transformational leaders must have the courage of their conviction to change the status quo and see the new vision through to the end. A half-implemented vision is not a vision….

  • Bonnie Clark

    In The Ten Faces of Innovation Thomas Kelly discusses the principle of the “beginner’s mind” and to set aside what we “know” and observe with an open mind.  Try to seek out epiphanies through a sense of “Vuja Dé” which is a sense of seeing something for the first time, even if you have actually witnessed it many times before (rather than Déja Vu which is a sense that you have seen something before even though you are seeing it for the first time).  This is like trying to give yourself a “fresh pair of eyes”.
    With respect to innovation, Kelly says that if you take a close look at your world, you’ll notice clever people playing the modern-day role of fix it man.  We’ve all seen the post it note with a helpful little instruction on top of the photocopier or the handwritten sign taped to the front of the reception desk.  Perhaps you’ve been served by a resourceful salesperson who doesn’t do things by the book when the rules don’t make sense.  People can be ingenious and flexible when things don’t work as they should, and adapt technology and systems to fit their needs.  These are signs that a product or service is incomplete and they are opportunities for future innovations.  Look for signs of what’s broken and you’ll learn to recognize when a product or even a whole category is crying out for improvement.  And you’ll have a better understanding of why some products or services truly sing.

    • Aaron Johnson

      Bonnie,  that’s exactly how we came upon our idea for our hiking trail site. We  kept wanting to take hikes around the Denver area, but all of the sites we went to for info were full of long trail descriptions. They weren’t giving us what we needed – the basic info (at a glance), and good driving directions. By simply doing that, we ended up moving to the top of the first page of Google for many of our posts. The site isn’t very beautiful, just simple to use.

      Having a fresh pair of eyes or getting out of the fishbowl becomes really difficult the longer you have been working on a project, brand, even with people. Does Kelly have any tips for looking at things with a fresh pair of eyes?

      • Bonnie Clark

        Hi  Aaron –
        Kelly calls these kind of innovators “Anthropologists”.  They embrace human behaviour with all its surprises.  They don’t judge, they observe.  They empathize.  They search for clues where they are least expected – before customers arrive, after they leave, even in the garbage, if that’s where learning is to be found.  They look beyond the obvious.  They have a knack for not falling into routines.  Whatever you do, in whatever industry you find yourself, he recommendes that you make sure to watch and talk to teens and kids.  He says “We all know children make us younger in spirit.  They can also help you see what’s next.”

        Hope this helps.   Thomas Kelly is from IDEO – a company known for innovation. I recommend the book. 

        • Aaron Johnson

          Bonnie, that’s fantastic. Thanks for giving such a descriptive example. I’m putting it on my book list.

      • TorConstantino

        Aaron, I think that’s one of the reasons that consultancies do such a brisk business – the objective outsider can sometimes deliver true value. However, I’ve also seen consultants try and peddle the same “solution” pablum across different customers.

        • Aaron Johnson

          I know what you mean. It’s almost like you have to give yourself some time after getting consultant feedback, so that you can sort out what’s truly innovative and insightful and what is that is their ‘magic bullet’ that may not be so magic.

          • TorConstantino

            Well said!

    • TorConstantino

      Great insight Bonnie! It’s been a long time since I heard the “Vuja Dé” – guess it’s time for a refresh of Kelly’s book!

  • Anne

    Part of being a visionary leader involves communicating your vision well to your organization. I was in a seminar earlier this week that spoke of the “half life” of a vision: about 7 days. As I understand it, after 7 days, 25% of people who hear the vision will forget it. If it is not articulated well and often, after a month, nearly everyone in the organization forgets the vision.

    So a good communications staff or staffperson is necessary to get the word out. The leader must be able to communicate in more than one mode: people retain only a limited percentage of what they hear. They must also see the vision: videos are great; so are bulleted summaries of the vision.

    Another characteristic of visionary leaders is that they are able to inspire as well as influence others. And this trait may apply to people who are not on the leadership team of an organization…so a visionary leader is willing to listen to others and sift through their comments, looking for those hidden jewels.

    Thanks for this post. It was excellent.

    • TorConstantino

      Anne, I appreciate the kind words and completely agree with the need for effective articulation of the vision and your drop off rate of vision retention. The key to ensure the vision message is top of mind is via repetition. The rule of thumb that I’ve tried to stress among the leaders I’ve worked with is that they keep repeating that message until they’re sick-and-tired of saying it – which can be several months – that’s just about the time that it will begin to sink in to the listeners

  • Jason Coorts

    Passion is what’s required to be a visionary leader. If it’s not something I’m passionate about, pounding my fist on the table over, forget it. I suppose making money is what drives many leaders, but I think today’s mosiacs are less and less driven by money alone. You need to capture people’s hearts.

    • TorConstantino

      You’re spot on about the power of passion Jason. The most effective leaders I’ve had the pleasure of working with all had an infectious enthusiasm for their vision that easily cascaded down the entire organization.

  • Sjohnson

    I think the commentary regarding vision and the need to share that clearly with team members is an accurate representation of what needs to happen in order for leaders to move an organization forward. But…I wonder, how exactly do  you get that done, in particular with a work group that has lost it’s confidence and or respect for it’s leadership? How does an organization restore that lost confidence and/or respect for the leadership?

    • TorConstantino

      Great question SJ and while I’m not a turn around expert myself, I have worked and communicated for those individuals – leaders who’ve done it right and wrong. Unfortunately, once a leader has lost credibility it’s nearly impossible for them to retain it. That’s when transition to a new transformational leader is usually needed. I firmly believe that the ancient saying that, “Once salt loses its flavor it’s good for nothing” holds true for leaders as well. 

      • Sjohnson

         Thanks! This to does go with the train of thought that I have. This is good re-enforcement for some of what I have learned regarding leadership.

        • TorConstantino

          Some leaders have been able to re-invent themselves despite previous, epic failures. A few that come to mind are President Jimmy Carter and Lee Iaccoca.

  • Rob T

    thanks Tor, insightful as always.

    • TorConstantino

      That means a lot Rob, thanks so much!

  • Pilar Arsenec

    Wow Tor, you write excellent. I love this post. Thank you for your generous heart.

    • TorConstantino

      Aw shucks Pilar – that means a lot! I’m grateful to Michael for sharing his platform!

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  • Change Volunteer

    I am new in the field of leadership.  This is something new for me to learn and absorb. Thank you Michael. This is going to help me grow.

    • TorConstantino

      I echo your thanks to Michael as well – he is a generous host and prolific sharer of ideas!

      • Change Volunteer

        Omg! I am such a blind person! I did not notice it is a guest post by you Tor! I am sorry to give the credit to Michael for writing such a good post. Although the credit for letting you post on his website does go to him, but I am sorry again! I need to put on a lens to focus! :)

        • TorConstantino

          Hah, Michael writes gold every day – I can only manage it once in a great while :-)

  • Shannon Milholland

    Tor, I’m thrilled you’re here today. So excited for you! This is such a creative post and really made me think. I definitely need to sharpen all three lenses. Thanks for your insight!

    • TorConstantino

      Shannon, thanks so much for the kind words – and taking the time to comment!!!

  • Angela L. Fletcher

    Great post, Tor!  

    I think visionary leaders are purposeful.  Leading with purpose births passion, which is contagious and aids with enrolling others in the leader’s vision.  Purpose also produces the tenacity to ensure there is realization of the vision, regardless of the many obstacles that may present themselves. 

    • TorConstantino

      I love your statement “…leading with purpose births passion…” I think the inverse is also true as well – “…leading with passion births purpose…” Awesome!

  • Emily

    Just for the record, people did NOT think the world was flat when  Columbus sailed. That’s a Victorian myth. When Columbus submitted his proposal to John II of Portugal, (the country that had already rounded the horn of Africa) his navigational experts advised him that Columbus’ estimate of 2,000 miles between Europe and China was far too low, based on the mathematical proofs of the Greeks.
    Every sailor from antiquity has known of the curvature of the earth — that’s why sails are spotted first, then hulls.

    • TorConstantino

      Thanks Emily – you can read the conversation thread between Joey Espinosa where we discussed this above….

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  • Dan Erickson

    I often look at the world as though I’m operating a film camera.  I study angles, change perspectives, alter perceptions, zoom, pan, tilt, dolly.  The eye is an important aspect to my creativity which is my key to honest leadership through writing, speaking, and teaching.

    • TorConstantino

      Great insight Dan – thanks for adding it to the conversation!

  • Angela L. Fletcher

    I think visionary leaders are purposeful.  Leading with purpose births passion, which is contagious and aids the leader with enrolling others in his/her vision.  Purpose also produces the tenacity to ensure there is realization of the vision, despite any obstacles.

    • TorConstantino

      Great observation Angela – I especially like your point that “…leading with purpose births passion…”  I also believe at the inverse is true that “…leading with passion births purpose…” Thanks for the comment!

  • Sdmadd2

    I”ve got a question.  How can I effectively follow a leader who will not share the vision?  We have a mission statement, but that is merely words and platitudes.  It does not get us to the goals of the organization or the “how” of the mission statement.  I get tired of being told that I’m a valuable leader in the organization, but keept out of the loop on something as simple as “here’s our vision for the month/year and here’s how we’re going to do it.

    • TorConstantino

      That’s a challenge SDMadd2 – because setting the strategic vision for the organization is usually the job of the chief executive of any organization. Without the establishment of that desired destination, the efforts of the organization tend to be spastic and uncoordinated. You might want to suggest  engaging a trusted third party consultant or an evaluation by the organization’s board of directors of the senior management. You’ve got a tough one with on easy solution….

  • Suzanne Broadhurst

    A solid eye on the past while looking to the future.  Crazy thought, coming from someone who didn’t like history in school!  #lovehomeschooling

    • TorConstantino

      Absolutely Suzanne, knowing the pitfalls of the past helps prevent their duplication in the future!

  • Matthew Reed

    Well done Tor! 
    I know that my ‘unseen’ lens needs some polishing…or at least what I am looking at needs to also be viewed by someone with a great one. 
    I think a desire to ‘keep looking’ is vital as a leader also. The persistance to keep looking, keep leading must be in place in order to generate real change. 
    Most people that I coach see breakthroughs when they go at a project, goal or life-change for more than just a short season. There is that ‘Malcom Gladwell-esque tipping point’ where persistent leadership brings genuine change. 

    • TorConstantino

      Great point about leaders who “keep looking” – it’s similar to a Jim Collins Good-to-Great approach. It also reminds me of the need to be a lifelong learner – those are the best type of leaders.

  • TorConstantino

    I’m honored Les – I’ll check out your site as well!

    • Les Dossey

      It’s my honor Tor. I’m already digging the great stuff I’m finding at your place.

  • Kent Julian

    As leaders, vision is something that inspires us regardless of where we are now and regardless of the distance between our “now” and our vision. If we stick with it, we are pretty much guaranteed to be on the road to success. Great stuff!

    • TorConstantino

      Thanks for the positive feedback Kent – it’s appreciated!

  • Genocrash

    I thought this was a very good blog post analyzing the 3 aspects of a visionary leader and relating it to lenses on a lens or scope. The diagnostic scope  analyzes a company down to how it works and a leader needs to understand how the system works within the company to work with it and how to improve it. This leads to the second lens, innovation lens I find was a creative viewpoint of a company. Being able to see what is “hidden in plain sight” and innovating products as simple as just changing the color of tape can be hard to find, but when it is found it seems like it should have been done sooner. It takes a visionary to see this innovation to really push the company to move in the direction of creating new products. This leads us to the last lens the Unseen lens which I agree is an important viewpoint of a company too. Being able to make hard decisions to push for an innovative idea is tough, but must be done.
    Overall I thought this was a great blog on visionary leaders!

    • TorConstantino

      Thanks Gen – actually I used to work for Bausch & Lomb an eye care company where I learned about the different types of vision problems more than half Americans (me included) have. During a training run a few weeks back, one of my contact lenses fell out when I rubbed sweat out of my eye. My inhibited vision during the middle of a run, spurred the idea for this post!

  • TorConstantino

    Thanks Jerry – I appreciate the comment!!!

  • Bill Blankschaen

     Well said.

     It reminds me that all lenses need to be cleaned regularly in order to function well. To carry your analogy a little farther, I think that truth connects with Michael’s recent posts on taking time to be still and “clean” our leadership perspectives. I know a lot of leaders who never do. Maybe that explains the 18-24 month tenure of most corporates leaders.

    Thanks, Tor! And Michael!!

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  • Jennie

    Courage and persistence. Championing new ideas wakes lots of sleeping giants 

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