What is a visionary leader and why do we see Abraham as the visionary leader par excellence?
Burt Nanus, author of Visionary Leadership, one of the first books on the subject, said this:
“[Vision] is a mental model of a future … [of] a world that exists only in the imagination … A vision portrays a fictitious world that cannot be observed or verified in advance and that, in fact, may never become reality. It is a world whose very existence requires an act of faith.”[i]
What makes Abraham a visionary leader? God calls him to leave behind all that is familiar, to journey to an unknown land, to imagine that his name will become great and that “all the families of the earth shall bless themselves through” him. To the seventy-five year-old, childless Abraham, responding to this call required faith and enormous vision. Like all visionary leaders, Abraham challenges accepted wisdom. According to an ancient Jewish legend, he once smashed some of the idols his father had made. When his father found the broken statues and demanded to know who did it, Abram said the largest idol broke the smaller ones. “Impossible,” his father said. “Then why,” asked Abram, “do you worship them?”
Throughout Abraham’s life, God blesses him with great material prosperity. But Abraham never puts concerns about material wealth above his values. He is willing to argue with God regardless of the consequences. And when neighboring kings capture his nephew, Abraham sets out to save him with no second thoughts about the costs involved.
Indeed, Abraham is a practical man of action who succeeds at almost everything he tries. He is not afraid to set off on a journey into unknown territory or to negotiate with God and his neighbors. He has a bold vision but he never overlooks the details. He has a system of values that guides him through ups and down of his long and successful journey. Abraham inspires people to follow him through thick and thin.
In Abraham’s call to God: “Go you forth!” can be applied to contemporary leadership challenges. Something about the present situation is unbearable for your organization, for your employees, and, most of all, for you! Break the idols that are surrounding you! Challenge the accepted wisdom that has prevented you and your team from adapting to changing circumstances. Stop living someone else’s life; find out who you are, be yourself, and start realizing your potential.
[i] Burt Nanus, Visionary Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992), 4.