We've all admired such visionary leaders as Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Oprah Winfrey. But what, exactly, makes a visionary a visionary? Are these leaders just born that way, or have they developed insights that allow them to see industries in a different way from everyone else?

Being a visionary leader comes from developing specific skills and ways of looking the world, explains B. Keith Simerson, executive coach and co-author of Leading With Strategic Thinking: Four Ways Effective Leaders Gain Insight, Drive Change, and Get Results. And, he says, it's something all of us can learn to do better.

If you want to hone your own visionary skills and disrupt your own industry the way Jobs and Musk did, here's his advice:

1. Learn to identify trends.

"Creating a vision starts with observation," Simerson explains. That's why visionary leaders are constantly studying, not only their own companies and industries, but other industries as well.

"Visionary leaders are particularly good at picking up trends and opportunities to disrupt the status quo," he says. "For example, one leader I know does this through rigorous note-taking. He routinely documents his encounters and observations every day, then takes an hour every two weeks to review those notes and look for themes or patterns."

Another approach Simerson recommends is to constantly seek out new experiences. For instance, you might try attending at least one event or conference every year on a topic outside of your areas of expertise. "These kinds of intentional actions are practical ways to identify patterns and discover new opportunities," he explains.

2. Pay close attention to everyday aggravations.

Monitoring trends is only one part of becoming a visionary leader, Simerson says. Another part is close observation of day-to-day business and the ability to use those insights to find new ways of doing things.

"IKEA's innovative 'flat-pack' method of selling partially assembled furniture was not conceived as a bold innovation," Simerson says. "Instead, it was a simple observation that several co-workers made after removing the legs from a table to fit it into a car. 'Why should we put the legs on the table in the first place?' they asked."

It was a really good question, and the obvious answer -- that they shouldn't -- was the critical insight that paved the way for IKEA to become the dominant worldwide retailer that it is today.

3. Look beyond immediate opportunities.

"Visionary leaders achieve impact by seizing opportunities to capitalize on a changing environment," Simerson says. Take one of the original industry disruptors, Walt Disney. His company's success began with its founder's insight not only into the film industry, but also how film's influence would spread to other areas.

"While others were focused on the novelty of creating animated films, Disney famously sketched out a merchandising strategy for his future company on a drawing pad soon after his first feature release," Simerson says. In those early days, Disney could already see how Mickey Mouse and his other characters would expand into an ecosystem that would include theme parks and toys.

In the same way, Jeff Bezos always foresaw that, while books were the perfect product to start with, Amazon would one day become a shopping resource for just about everything. So while you're busy taking advantage of the opportunity right in front of you, consider how that opportunity could lead to others that everyone else hasn't thought of yet.

4. Don't wait till it's perfect.

Like the first iPhone and iPad, you should plan to improve on your new approach over time. "Visionary leaders don't stop with their first attempt," Simerson says. "They move rapidly through stages of evolution, adapting to accommodate new information and opportunities. Product developers always have dozens of discarded prototypes by the time they establish a viable product. Likewise, visionary leaders aren't shy about sharing ideas even when they aren't fully formed, and they don't hold on to an idea when feedback or testing proves that change is necessary."

5. Get other people to share your vision.

"Leaders fail when they assume that a good idea will be obvious to others," Simerson warns. You should put as much thought into how to influence other stakeholders as you do into the vision itself.

This was one secret of Steve Jobs' success: He put an enormous amount of work into getting people excited about each new Apple product. His product demos were legendary and meticulously prepared. His desire to make sure Apple products were presented to customers in the best possible way even led him to design his own retail stores.

"Why will others care?" Simerson asks. "Whose support do you need to make the vision successful? How does your idea benefit them?"

Don't make the mistake of relying on a brilliant idea alone. "The active support and participation of others can greatly accelerate a vision, while the lack of support can make even the best insights, design, and continuous adaptation irrelevant," he says.

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Published on: Jul 16, 2015
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