Patterns in the SkyWho’s the Visionary on your team? Hint: chances are it’s not the leader.  Contrary to popular myth, “being a visionary” is neither a prerequisite for leading, nor is it bestowed upon the chosen few as they ascend to their lofty perches above us.

Many Visionaries labor in relative obscurity, often ignored or worse yet, mocked, because of their unique way of looking at the world and the issues in front of them.

If you are leading and are interested in building or creating something more than efficient machine with your team, you are well-served to seek out and cultivate those individuals who are capable of seeing patterns and pictures in the environment that the rest of us miss.

You know these people.  They are the ones that sit quietly in meetings while the inane debates rage over how to solve grossly tactical issues and they will occasionally look up and say, “Why don’t we?” or, “What if we did it this way?”  After a few moments of silence, someone will usually chime up and say, “Yeah, Mary has a point, what if we..?”  With a simple comment or observation, the entire direction of the conversation shifts…often for the better.

Consider this most famous of exchanges:

Lucy Van Pelt: Aren’t the clouds beautiful? They look like big balls of cotton. I could just lie here all day and watch them drift by. If you use your imagination, you can see lots of things in the cloud’s formations. What do you think you see, Linus?
Linus Van Pelt: Well, those clouds up there look to me look like the map of the British Honduras on the Caribbean.

[points up] Linus Van Pelt: That cloud up there looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor. And that group of clouds over there…[points] Linus Van Pelt: …gives me the impression of the Stoning of Stephen. I can see the Apostle Paul standing there to one side.
Lucy Van Pelt: Uh huh. That’s very good. What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?
Charlie Brown: Well… I was going to say I saw a duckie and a horsie, but I changed my mind.

(from the site: The Internet Movie Database-memorable quotes from the movie, A Boy Named Charlie Brown.)

The Visionary in this situation is of course the blanket-toting Linus…the odd little kid that is operating on a different level than the rest of the gang.  When it comes to cloud gazing, I suspect that I am more like Charlie Brown in that exchange!

One of my favorite Visionaries reads this blog regularly. (I suspect he knows who he is, although I doubt anyone every offered him the label.)  This technologist propelled an entire organization on his ideas.  While his “visions” were not universally admired  by peers or instantly accepted, the fact was and is that his ideas solve technology conundrums for customers in remarkable ways.  (Note: visionaries often have detractors.)

Sometimes you need to look hard to find the Visionary on your team. In my own experience, they are not the classic “A” players that work circles around the rest of the team.  They aren’t the loudest…in fact quite the opposite.  They don’t tend to gravitate to the limelight.

Hints for Cultivating the Visionaries on Your Team:

  • Once you uncover someone that has more to offer than the transactional demands of the job, spend time to cultivate a relationship with the individual.  Take the time to carve out one on one time and to discuss vexing issues.  Ask for input  and listen carefully.
  • Don’t thrust them into the spotlight if they are uncomfortable with the visibility.
  • Place them on project teams where the challenges require new ways of doing things.  Choose a Project Manager that is good at drawing out alternative perspectives and managing the talent on the team.
  • Align Visionaries with doers.  My best teams have blended both in the right proportion to ensure both innovation and great execution.
  • And as a fair warning, be careful to not bestow a special label on the individual or you risk alienating him or her further and damaging your own credibility.  This isn’t an issue of playing favorites, it’s one of extracting the often quiet and potentially valuable voice on your team.

The Bottom-Line:

I’ll end where I started.  Want a dream team?  Give a visionary a voice and then listen hard and learn.