Monday, September 15, 2008

The Paradox of Visionary AND Rational Leadership

Based on my interviews, it was clear that this company needed leadership and project management training. I submitted a proposal and a few weeks later, received a call from the vice president. He said that they had decided to use the entire training budget to have a white-water rafting experience on the Snake River. I thanked him for his consideration, hung up, and shook my head at my stupidity. Here I was selling to a group of creative visionaries at an advertising firm, but had used my rational thinking style to generate the proposal. How often do you fail to balance your visionary and rational thinking styles?

Researchers from the business schools at Harvard and the University of Washington studied 60 pioneers involved in the origin of the Internet and modern computing. They found that bridging the gap between the creative and the rational side was critical to business success. (1) Although these investigators explored the importance of managing the conflict between the “creators and stewards” in organizations, it is also imperative that leaders manage this tension within themselves. Otherwise, they end up making poor decisions just as I did.

Visionary thinkers create compelling futures by developing long-term goals and flexible strategies to achieve those goals. Visionaries are the dreamers and creators of an organization. They inspire innovation and change. They often have broad perspectives and wide area of interests. Every organization needs innovative leaders who are not afraid to soar like eagles. And every leader needs to tap into his or her visionary style to create value and stay true to their higher purpose.

Rational thinkers focus on the facts by clarifying objectives and expectations. Rational thinkers manage operations and develop detailed plans. They understand themselves and the people around them. They also find ways to carefully monitor their environment. Every organization needs organizers who have their feet firmly planted on the ground. And every leader needs to tap into his or her rational thinking style to capture value and allocate resources efficiently and responsibly.

Organizations and individuals need both styles. When I worked for Siemens Medical Systems, I saw many talented, visionary engineers leave the organization because our culture emphasized, celebrated and perpetuated rational thinking. We were always behind the innovation curve and our sales suffered because of it. You would've thought that I learned this lesson when I started my own company. However, as the opening story illustrates, I've had to learn this lesson over and over again. The most successful leaders and organizations find a dynamic balance between visionary and rational thinking. Here's how:

1. Keep creators around. Innovative thinkers drive people nuts, especially the bottom-line oriented rational thinkers. But they’re also the ones who create long-term value for the organization. Research tells us that when you fire an out-of-control innovator, two or three other highly talented employees often depart also. So, be slow to let them go.

2. Balance the influence between the rational and visionary thinkers. Many leaders let the next quarter and bottom-line numbers rule the day. This results in the innovator's ideas frequently losing. Their projects are shot down early and they get depressed. Don't let that happen. How can you let them occasionally win?

3. Cultivate bridging personalities. Because I was a technical salesperson at Siemens with a strong creative impulse, I was able to talk freely and rationally to our innovative engineers. This allowed me to help them bridge the gap between their highflying ideas and the bottom-line reality of the market. Who can talk to both sides in your organization?

4. Use peer review to provide accurate evaluations. Peer review was the essence of our existence when I coordinated research at UC-San Diego Medical Center. Before we published any scientific papers, we had to present our data to our colleagues for honest feedback. You should do the same. Too often in business, ideas get shot down because one or two leaders can't see the value in them. A single point of view is no way to review an idea or see the world.

5. Innovate using rapid iterative prototyping. This is the approach that Cisco uses to arrive at how systems function. It is an experimental mind-set: describe it as best you can, build it as fast as you can, let the market test the prototype, and use feedback for the next iteration.

6. Realize that there will always be tension. You will never be able to eliminate conflict among these opposing styles, nor should you try. Harvard Business School professor Dorothy Leonard believes that when this conflict is of the cognitive type (i.e., non-emotional), it creates a “creative abrasion.” This keeps teams pushing for better solutions and prevents unconstructive uniformity.

I encourage you to use these ideas to celebrate visionary and rational thinking in yourself, your leaders, and your organization. How surprised will you be when you see growth flowing from managing the tension between these two interdependent imperatives?

See you on the mountain,


1. Robert Austin and Richard Nolan; Bridging the Gap between Stewards and Creators, ‘MIT Sloan Management Review,’ Winter 2007, 29 - 36.

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