Rise of the Visionary Leader

by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

There could not be a more exciting time to be a Nashvillian. As Music City continues its unprecedented rise and exponential growth, the overwhelming sense of opportunity and possibility abound. Lending itself to Nashville’s allure and frenetic-magnetism is the city’s search for both a new Mayor and Director of Schools. Normally these two particular searches would garner appropriate levels of attention, yet due to Nashville standing on the threshold of Top 10 US cities, the stakes – as well as everyone’s attention – have fallen under an intense microscope.

While Nashville’s well-documented rise has positioned the city in a most promising light (Forbes magazine refers to Nashville as Nowville: http://www.forbes.com/sites/pauljankowski/2013/01/23/nashville-is-nowville-and-has-been-for-a-while/ ), the real debate is no longer about the city’s promise or potential – merely about the leader’s vision who will realize them.

Nashville serves as a great springboard into a leadership blog post, specifically due to its current stage on the organizational lifecycle spectrum. For starters, Nashville no longer needs a manager at the helm. The city has rhino-raged its way to the proverbial fork in the road and only genuine, visionary leadership is capable of steering this surging city towards its anticipated, sky’s-the-limit pinnacle. Thus, our next leader must possess profound vision, with the tenacity and fortitude to see it crystalize. As a leadership case-study, Music City represents a microcosm for organizational leadership, where too often vision – or lack thereof – stands between greatness and irrelevancy.

Closing the Management Era

For the internet cynics and jaded journeymen, I am well aware of the cliché-level approach to the leadership vs management argument. The intangible trait worth analyzing, however, is vision. This leadership X-Factor bemuses most and too often falls the way of rhetoric instead of real, with countless politicians solidifying this perception. Yet, vision ultimately takes center-stage, especially when organizations confront undeniable change.

In the simplest of explanations, leaders create systems and managers run them. Never a fan of generalizations, I hesitate limiting the prowess and influence of effective managers while over-glorifying a leader’s impact. Still the fact remains, leadership connotes fresh ideas, inspired goals and calculated trajectories – or, succinctly, vision. Therefore, as all organizations – especially school systems – prepare for the inevitable global shift in learning, knowing, doing, the immediate responsibility rests firmly on the shoulders of visionary leaders, architects of our advancing 21st century systems.

Circling back to our Nashville leadership case-study, at this stage in the organization’s lifecycle, vision has become the most coveted intangible. The idea now is to lead into the future, paved by a clear, inspiring vision, not manage the present, stagnated by bureaucracy and dying paradigms.

Cast a vision then realize it!

Cast a vision then realize it!

Millennial Uprising

At 35 years old, I find myself at a unique advantage in regards to leadership analysis. Raised by both the Greatest Generation and the Boomers, I have an unyielding sense of work ethic and sweat equity, forged by decades of watching my mother and step-father hammer-out their sliver of the American Dream. Conversely, as my awareness radar ascends – from social media savviness to pop-culture pulse – I find myself enamored with this new millennial ideology, a forward-thinking, growth mindset approach to a tech-based universe where challenges represent opportunities and failure lends itself to learning and growing. Ironically, my inspiration grows as the future becomes less and less clear. Old paradigms are now questioned, as plummeting efficiency and output give way to system overhauls.

So it’s here, standing on the frontier of leadership where I begin to feel a perceived sense of grounded optimism. My Boomer roots encourage me to stay-the-course while my millennial mindset embraces growth-laden opportunities brought about by system usurps. However, it’s out here on the leadership frontier where grounded optimism expands to visionary opulence. The notion that once seemingly indelible systems, from how Hollywood calculates gross to how kids learn in classrooms, are collapsing only to be leveled, restructured and built anew based on future-ready visions from forward-thinking leaders.

Thus, as we segue out of the management era into a digital dreamscape (depending upon your perception, of course), leadership and the vision that should accompany it become non-negotiables. A leader’s vision must now encompass a millennial workforce that looks to replace an astounding number of retiring baby boomers (approximately 10,000 a day! http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/wp/2014/07/24/do-10000-baby-boomers-retire-every-day/ ). Furthermore, a leader’s vision can no longer rely heavily on outdated models to build from, as these models are proving unworthy of mere scrap parts in an organizational landscape where EVERYTHING is changing.

Future School

As an educator in charge of preparing this generation and beyond, my sense of duty and societal obligation are now fueled by graphene-threaded solar power: Visions of experiential learning models begin to sharpen, where problem-based learning orbits students around real world applications; Visions of a tech-based economy supported by a creator-curriculum eviscerates the old student-as-consumer paradigm while positioning millennial upstarts as young entrepreneurs with in-demand skill sets; Visions of globally connected educators, whose professional learning networks eclipse the professional-development-in-a-vacuum era, as international trends, pedagogies and tech-based resources are shared beyond borders – without restraint.

To alleviate any “pie-in-the-sky” concerns, my optimism is, in fact, grounded and I am still a firm believer in the Stockdale Paradox – optimism rooted in reality. And, yes, I am aware that a leader’s vision must be a shared-one in order to inspire a sense of belonging, thus satisfying those Maslow needs and moving everyone along the hierarchy towards being “our best.” In fact, I whole-heartedly support the Art of Influence approach to great leadership because an idea is only worth what you can get someone to pay for it – and great leaders must be able to sell their vision. I have personally been blessed in my career to serve under unique visionaries, learning first-hand how influence impacts change while vision shapes success. Whether it’s supporting a vision that resurrected a failing high school, casting a vision that saw inner-city students solving the colonization of Mars, or embodying an Academies-Model vision which President Obama called “Powerful,” (http://www.bizjournals.com/nashville/blog/2014/01/obama-praises-metro-schools-in.html ), clearly the Visionary Era has begun.