Leadership: The price of visionary leadership

Visionary leaders must sometimes just suck it up when things go awry. Besides, they are more often than not sufficiently rewarded to dull the pain of dented ego. However, in the case of Solid Energy’s now thoroughly debunked Don Elder, it’s difficult not feel little sympathy.
Notwithstanding everything said, both true and false, and the leadership mistakes made, Elder was and no doubt still is, visionary leader. Perhaps his first big mistake was to land in politically owned and governed enterprise. Visionary leaders seldom survive where politicians thrive.
Organisations need visionary leaders. As someone once said, “trying to run business without vision is as difficult as assembling 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle without the illustration – both are nearly impossible”. Visionary leaders picture the future and help everyone in the organisation to paint it. They assemble the vision, piece by piece.
Visionary leaders, by virtue of the compelling case they make for change, innovation, growth or whatever, motivate people to perform. They give meaning to the work individuals do every day, even when sometimes the job seems repetitive, difficult or under-appreciated. Effective leaders provide sense of purpose and meaning by developing the vision and communicating it accurately, widely and convincingly.
An organisational vision, as prompted and promoted by visionary leader, provides an essential context for decision-making. Decisions must be aligned with the vision and each decision should take the enterprise closer to the goals outlined in the vision. great vision shapes the structure and culture of an enterprise.
Leaders with vision of where they want to take an enterprise capture the picture in statement.
A vision statement does not, however, address the detail of how to deliver the dream. It simply provides in clear, unequivocal, unambiguous, challenging, inspiring and people-oriented terms the organisation’s general direction. It does, however, affect everyone in the enterprise – from boardroom to basement. In the case of state owned enterprise like Solid Energy, that commitment should include the shareholder.
Visionary leaders promote and, if successful, deliver progress. But they tend to be, by dint of their innate enthusiasm and oftentimes idealistic view of opportunity, tricky to constrain. That’s where boards and directors earn their keep, if up to the job that is. Visionary leadership and competent governance should, like the rest of the jigsaw, fit nicely together.
The board is strategic. It must understand the nature of the business, why the organisation exists, what it does well, why it is unique, what the performance expectations are and, most of all, it manages the organisational risks. Visionary leaders, on the other hand, are risk takers. They take risks to grow the business.
In Solid Energy’s case, the Government is responsible for the directors’ riding instructions. It set the governance expectations. Successive administrations were happy with Elder’s vision of the company’s future and effectively bought into it. The shareholder paid scant attention to the risks attached to commodity-driven business, despite our deep historical understanding of the vagaries of New Zealand’s commodity-driven economy.
Each administration focused more on the generous dividends paid by the once pig-eared state coal miner that Elder successfully turned into silk purse. It also refused to pump risk capital into the enterprise. Enter stage left: the global financial crisis and consequent dramatic drop in demand for the company’s coal.
Finally, take government unable or unwilling to mitigate the company’s suddenly unsustainable debt realities and an equal unwillingness to take any responsibility for the goings-on that occurred under its watch and, the recipe for display of outrageous political behaviour, buck-passing, character assassination, call it what you will, is cooked.
None of this diminishes the case or need for visionary leadership in almost every conceivable organisation. Organisations need leaders with vision to survive and grow and help them adapt to and manage change which is often swift and frequently unexpected.
But visionary leaders know where to find new opportunities. In Elder’s case, he’d be advised to avoid organisations overseen by fair-weather politicians. Their natural partners are much less visionary and rather more Machiavellian. M

Reg Birchfield Life FNZIM is writer on leadership, governance and management. [email protected]

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