What is visionary leadership?
In 1921, an explorer and naturalist named William Beebe was trekking through the jungle in Guyana. He came across a large colony of ants marching along a path that they had made.
Curious, he followed the little ant highway to see where they were going.
After a quarter mile of climbing over logs, skirting around trees and breaking through the underbush, he found that he was right back where he started.
The ants were marching in an enormous circle, each ant following the ants up ahead. It was social proof. After all, why would all those ants follow a trail if it wasn’t going somewhere?
Bebee traced the route again to be sure. No question. Astounded, he decided to watch what happened.
As Robert Moore relates in his excellent book On Trails: An Exploration, the ants kept up their determined but futile marching, following each other in this aimless loop for at least a full day.
“Tired, hopeless, bewildered, idiotic, and thoughtless to the last,” most finally collapsed and died in their tracks. Only a few ultimately wandered off their well-worn trail and survived.
Silly Ants; Silly People
Silly ants. So industrious, yet blind to the fact that they weren’t really going anywhere. They were simply following all the other ants in front.
And no doubt they were trying the be the best ant they could be.
We may chuckle at these simple creatures, but are we that different?
Our modern version of that ant trail is the highway. Wide, clear, and fast, these big roads are the most efficient way for most of us to get around.
Yet where does the highway really go? Nowhere.
Currently, the U.S. Interstate highway system is over 46,000 miles long. If your gas tank was big enough, you could drive coast to coast and border to border several times without stopping. There are always plenty of people ahead of you to follow; the route is clear and efficient.
But the highway only goes near things, never to things. You can drive to exhaustion. Like most of those ants, you could circle forever.
The only ants that survived were the ones that finally took an exit.
It’s Easy to Follow
The lure of paths like ant trails and highways is that they simplify life. They are straighter, smoother, faster. Point the car, hit the gas, maybe check the mirrors once in a while. Simple. Easy.
And everyone’s on the highway. They all seem to be going somewhere. So, social proof, right?
But if you were to exit the highway, everything changes. It gets a lot harder.
Suddenly you have to make more decisions about starting, stopping, turning. You have to interpret more signs, there are more dangers to avoid, and more opportunities to get lost.
Life gets more complicated, risk rises, certainty falls. You have to think about things. It takes more effort.
It’s easy to follow a trail, a lot harder to blaze one.
Sometimes, like a highway, the trail you are on takes you in the direction you want to go. Great. Follow it.
But at some point, to really arrive, to achieve, you have to leave the path and strike out in a new direction.
You have to not do what everyone else is doing. That can be a lot harder. It defies the idea of social proof.
That’s where visionary leadership comes in.
What’s that Henry Ford quote?
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Leaders are path-finders. They follow existing paths when they match the vision. They blaze new paths when they don’t.
The clarity of their vision is what helps them decide when it’s time to exit the highway.
What Path Are You On?
These highways are all around us: the educational paths we are on, the career paths everyone follows, the well-worn thought paths on political issues, the norms of acceptable behavior (everyone’s doing it, it must be OK!)
It’s easy to get on a path, follow the ant in front, and convince ourselves that we are going somewhere. Social proof.
It’s hard to see the point where the path is no longer helpful, and it’s time to exit. Even if that means things will get more complicated.
But that’s what leaders do. At its best, visionary leadership is not simply convincing others to follow a path that already exists.
It’s being courageous enough to recognize when it’s time to leave the path, follow the vision, and ignore social “proof” that suggests you should do otherwise.
It’s leading your fellow ants in a better direction.
What’s the vision? Does the path you are on take you there?