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Visionary leadership is widely seen as key to strategic change. That’s because visionary leadership does not just set the strategic direction — it tells a story about why the change is worth pursuing and inspires people to embrace the change. Not surprisingly, then, science and practice have a very positive view of visionary leadership as a critical leadership competency.
But our research finds that the positive impact of visionary leadership breaks down when middle managers aren’t aligned with top management’s strategic vision. This can cause strategic change efforts to slow down or even fail.
When we think of visionary leaders, our first blush response is to think of CEOs. Widely celebrated people like Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, and Oprah Winfrey come to mind. But visionary leadership is not just important for senior managers; it also matters for middle and lower level managers, who play a key role in carrying out strategic change. Their ability to inspire their own teams and create strategic alignment — a shared understanding of and commitment to the company’s strategy — within them is a core element in successful strategy execution.
This is why company leadership frameworks typically list visionary leadership as a key leadership competency for managers. For example, Google’s data-driven Project Oxygen identified visionary leadership as one of the eight traits of stellar middle managers.
However, this emphasis on visionary leadership relies on an untenable assumption: that managers outside the C-suite are always aligned with company strategy. What if they are not?
We studied visionary leadership and strategic alignment in two service organizations in Western Europe (one in the energy industry and another in the transportation industry). Both companies were going through similar processes of strategic change, and creating strategic alignment throughout the organization was a high priority goal in both companies. We surveyed 136 managers and their teams to assess visionary leadership (rated by team members), strategic alignment in the team (determined by computing the agreement between team member rankings of strategic priorities), and the strategic alignment of the managers with top management (determined by computing the agreement between the manager’s ranking of strategic priorities and the CEO’s ranking of strategic priorities). We also interviewed several of the managers and their employees to get a deeper understanding of the relationships found in the survey research.
Our findings unambiguously support the conclusion that visionary leadership is a double-edged sword. When middle managers were aligned with top management’s strategic vision, things played out as the widespread view of visionary leadership would suggest: the more these managers engaged in visionary leadership (by communicating their vision for the future and articulating where they wanted their team to be in five years,) the greater the shared understanding of strategy in their team, and the more the team was committed to strategy execution.
For managers that were misaligned with the company strategy, however, the dark side of visionary leadership became evident. The more these misaligned managers displayed visionary leadership, the less strategic alignment and commitment were observed among their teams.
Out interview findings extended these results. Employees of misaligned visionary managers indicated that their managers created confusion and uncertainty about what the company strategy entailed. This disengaged their teams from the company strategy. As one employee from a team with a misaligned visionary manager explained: “Well, we talk a lot about strategy with our manager. But I don’t see a clear company strategy. I rather choose to focus on my daily tasks and leave it [strategy] for what it is.”
Whereas visionary leadership thus was a positive force when managers were aligned with the company strategy, it became a negative force standing in the way of strategic alignment when the manager’s vision diverged from the company’s.
The importance of these findings lies in the fact that they caution against what is common practice in many companies. Many companies invest heavily in leadership development. Almost invariably, visionary leadership is seen as a crucial leadership competency in such efforts.
At the same time, companies tend to invest markedly less in creating strategic alignment among their managers. Rather, managers are charged with aligning the organization around the strategy as if their own alignment with the strategy is a given by virtue of their position. Research on strategy execution has documented, however, that there are a range of reasons for why managers may not be aligned with company strategy (e.g., they’re too focused on the interests of their own business unit and can’t see the bigger picture). Managers’ strategic alignment cannot be assumed as a given.
How do you ensure that managers are aligned on your company’s strategy? Our experience working with companies around strategic alignment suggests it starts with creating strategic alignment among middle managers before strategy execution efforts begin. This should not be one-time communication but a dialogue; people will only take ownership of strategic change if they are consistently persuaded by its value. Our research suggests that such efforts are well-advised to ensure that companies benefit from developing their managers’ visionary leadership rather than suffer its dark side.