6 ways to spot a true visionary

Are visionaries born or made?Mark_carrow

By Mark S. Carrow

Few people are born with optimal 20/20 vision, or even the near-perfect 20/15 or 20/10 vision. Fortunately, scientists continue to research cures for vision impairments, while glasses, contacts and surgery help correct them. In the business world, we also talk about people having “vision” or being “visionaries.” When we do, it’s often with an undertone of reverence, as though the person in question possesses a natural gift — akin to being born with that perfect 20/20 vision. But truth be told, the vast majority of visionary business leaders are cultivated, like the lyrics to a song that took months or even years to write.

There are those rare instances when a song is born, like Robin Thicke’s one-hour-in-the-making Marvin Gaye parody, “Blurred Lines,” which became the No. 1 song of summer 2013. And even though some people are born with perfect vision, successful visionaries embrace a handful of common traits we can all imitate.


Visionaries constantly seek out new ideas. They avoid the inflexibility that often afflicts people who refuse to seek out other opinions or to learn from the people around them. Leaders with a clear vision are not concerned that changing course in response to new information or additional perspectives will make them appear tentative. They’re always willing to adjust or even discard a conclusion they’ve previously reached. To cultivate this trait, don’t shy away from trying something unorthodox or experimental. It could dramatically improve your business. If it doesn’t, adapt, modify and try again.


A visionary leader must passionately believe that her vision is correct. Without that conviction, leaders will lack the power to lead by example and will be unable to motivate their teams to work together toward that vision. Thinking that your vision is a good idea isn’t enough. To compel others to follow you, they also must believe in your vision — or, at the very least, believe that you believe.

Tolerance for risk

Visionaries are, by definition, people who see possibilities that others don’t. Exploring those possibilities often requires taking unorthodox steps or making unusual changes. Each one of these carries risk, not the least of which is the risk of creating resistance among employees and colleagues who do not share the visionary’s conviction. Just think about the risk Thicke took with his colleagues when they recorded a song purported to be a Marvin Gaye parody. Within days, the Gaye family was threatening a lawsuit.


Not every new idea will work perfectly as it leaps from concept to execution. In fact, many ideas will fail. The committed visionary accepts this failure rate as the cost of experimentation. Whether the next attempt is a new iteration of the previous idea or an entirely new approach, the visionary knows there will be times his or her idea will be a hit, while there will be many instances that require a return to the drawing board before successfully shepherding an idea into reality.

Forward thinking

Preparing a roadmap and defining options is an important trait of a visionary. It is important to be aware of potential roadblocks and to plan how to maneuver around them. The creative thinker devises several strategies to combat a problem. Multiple strategic plans may not be practical, but adaptability has to be an acceptable option for the resourceful leader. In the case of Thicke, he went so far as to file a preemptive lawsuit against the Gaye family, to pressure them to drop a planned copyright infringement lawsuit against him and the other songwriters.


A leader also must communicate that vision effectively to those she leads. The leader’s forward thinking, tolerance of risk, persistence, conviction and open-mindedness, when sincere, provide a platform from which the leader can deliver her message effectively. It is then — and only then — that the person with the vision becomes the visionary.
The elements of visionary leadership are constant, whether you are born with them or, like most CEOs, cultivate them. As Jack Welch said, “Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision and relentlessly drive it to completion.” CEO

Mark S. Carrow, CPA, MS, is the managing partner in Citrin Cooperman’s Philadelphia office, which provides tax services, business consulting advice, valuation services and merger and acquisition guidance. www.citrincooperman.com. Contact him at mcarrow@citrincooperman.com.

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