Seth is a motivational speaker and keynote speaker. He uses storytelling and communication exercises to help build strong business communities and ignite positive organizational change.

Article first published in Executive Update, April 2002

Visionary leadership is transformative. It involves greatness, penetrating the ordinary, and reaching through time to bring out the best the world has to offer. A visionary leader anticipates events, influences the future and enables people to flourish in fundamental ways. In associations this means perceiving challenges and growth opportunities before they happen while positioning the organization to produce extraordinary results that make a real contribution to the world.

Visionary leadership requires total involvement, tremendous work, a willingness to put everything on the line and continuous engagement. Visionary leaders often suffer opposition from all sides. Yet, the payoff is greater than anything imaginable: the personal reward that comes from making a genuine and substantive contribution to humanity.

I remember hearing in the fall of 1997 about the “Comprehensive Development Framework” from President James Wolfensohn of the World Bank. His inspirational idea pulled together concepts from many disciplines and laid out a framework for the effective alleviation of global poverty – no small task. He was calling for a holistic approach that put social concerns on equal footing with economic issues and, most importantly, put each country in charge of its own success. While many heralded these new ideas, they initially received criticism from all corners: denounced as a turn away from the necessary, hard line economic approach. Yet, today this framework has been embraced on a global scale and is often the reference for the creation of new policies addressing global poverty.

Visionary leaders not only have a clear idea of what is possible, they are involved in bringing it about. Mahatma Ghandi did more than recognize the value of religious tolerance and sovereignty for the people of India, he used his life to make it possible. Ghandi drew on everything to instigate the changes he was seeking: his diet, his clothing, his community, his speech. When a reporter asked him to state his message for the world, Ghandi replied, “My life is my message.”

Martin Luther King, Jr, did more than have a dream of racial equality in the United States, he advanced civil rights through a critical juncture in American history. Likewise, executives who foresee the great potential in associations can exert their influence, bringing about profound changes in the ways people associate for the benefit of humanity.

Among the qualities visionary leaders cultivate are imagination, engagement, tangible results, and penetrating self-reflection. A strong imagination is needed to envision the future with clarity. This makes it possible for all who share the dreaming to know the courses of action to be taken. Leaders do not shirk from the overwhelming complexity of the world; instead they engage society with its competing, divergent viewpoints. In order to marshal the best possible chance of success they seek to communicate effectively: sharing and listening, building their knowledge through collaboration. Through their personal yearning to make a lasting, social contribution, they put in the time, energy and attention necessary to generate tangible results. They give everything to bring out their best, often plunging their personal depths to build from within.

Let’s look at two real life examples that give meaning to these qualities. These stories come from the private sector and provide examples that we can draw from for successful approaches for associations today. We will look at Akio Morita, co-founder of Sony, and Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop.

The Power of Imagination

No one “needed” a Walkman before Akio Morita at Sony imagined it, made it and marketed it successfully. Today the Walkman is part of our culture and has evolved into a new industry: portable entertainment. However, this was not the most powerful example of Morita’s ability to imagine what was possible and turn it into reality.

In 1946, just following Japan’s defeat in World War II, Morita began the effort that would secure the reputation of his country as a marketplace leader. Imagine how tough those times were and the foresight required to envision Japan as a key player in the world economy.

When Morita first opened shop in the 1950s the phrase “Made in Japan” was synonymous with cheap imitations and inferior quality. As a result, most Japanese products were sold under another company’s brand name. It was almost unheard of for a Japanese business to achieve brand status for its products. Yet, that is exactly what Morita set out to do. He was able to envision a day when his company, Sony, would be a brand that consumers would identify with the highest of quality. He devoted all of his efforts to realizing that vision.

What are the short-comings in your association today? Can you envision turning them around, setting an example to the entire industry? What achievements would you like your association to become known for? Can you imagine your organization as a leader in the field?

Morita had special alliances that gave him access to new territory. Most important was Morita’s longtime partner, Masaru Ibuka. Ibuka brought engineering expertise and a product orientation that allowed the two to bring to market one success after another: the first AM transistor radio, the first pocket-sized transistor radio, the first all transistor television, the first home use VCR and on and on. Together the two of them were an unstoppable force, helping to open up unprecedented growth in the Japanese electronics market.

Rather than standing on his vision alone, Morita found a partner who helped him to turn dreams into reality. This combination was unbeatable and over the decades Sony became one of the top consumer rated businesses in the world. What alliances would enable your organization to excel? Are there companies in the private sector that understand your goals and membership? Perhaps there are overnment agencies that are particularly poised well for partnership. Ask, “What are the strategic partnerships and alliances that would turn our organization’s dreams into reality? Who has the most to gain from partnering with my organization’s success?”

Morita was able to imagine a future in which he had established his brand and his country as purveyors of excellence. Before he died in 1999 Sony was an acknowledged world leader in the consumer electronics and entertainment industries. He had personally played a leading role in transforming Japan’s economy from post-WWII shambles to a superior player in the global marketplace.

Make Social Responsibility your Modus Operandi

Anita Roddick changed the multi-billion dollar global cosmetics business through her company, The Body Shop. In 1976 Roddick opened a shop in East Sussex with a handful of homemade products. Today there are “over 1,700 stores serving over 84 million customers in 49 different markets in 24 different languages and across 12 time zones.” Her approach is studied in universities and management schools around the globe. By dedicating her business to the pursuit of social and environmental change, she garnered the support of a massive consumer base and raised the bar of employee engagement to new heights.

Organizations that demonstrate a commitment to improving our world stand to gain a great deal, especially when times feel uncertain. In our interconnected environment every member can contribute to — or detract from – your association’s presence in the marketplace. Make it easy for people to understand how their contribution to the work program makes a positive difference in the world and productivity will increase dramatically.

Roddick is not using social action as a marketing ploy. She says, “This is not about one penny being spent in so-called cause-related marketing which is disingenuous. This is about having a passion to shout out and be persuasive about what you do.” Just this last February Roddick stepped down from her corporate position at The Body Shop to more effectively pursue her global concerns.

Let’s step back in time and take a look at what happened that propelled The Body Shop into a global presence. Roddick opened the first store with just 15 skincare products that she had concocted herself. She selected her ingredients carefully, choosing those that were especially meaningful to her. The store did well and in less than a year there was a second store. Soon, a new business model was created whereby the stores were franchised and the Roddick’s earned their income from the sales of products to the stores rather than charging for the franchise.

Instead of relying on traditional advertising, Roddick pursued marketing through in-store brochures and interviews with the press. The stories focused on the unique nature of her products and the social activism that was at the heart of her business philosophy. When the company went public in 1984 its stocks doubled after one day and continued to rise all through the decade. The store built a reputation not just by adopting global causes, such as saving the rainforest and banning animal testing, but by encouraging their staff to become active locally. The result has been a tremendously loyal customer base that extends beyond traditional consumer interests.

Aligning personal goals with organizational business objectives results in highly leveraged efforts. Word travels quickly through the informal networks that spring up around concerns people care most deeply about. Time and effort to support the cause turn into time and effort that fuels the organization’s success and vice-versa. How might your association become involved in both global and local issues, making a contribution to your communities and the world? What issues are relevant to your members and your mission? The answers to these questions point the way toward visionary success.

Increasing Performance

Ultimately, visionary leadership is about increasing performance. Anticipating and influencing the future enables you to position your organization in the best possible way to achieve the results you are looking for. The payoff comes in satisfying organizational objectives while delivering tangible results to your membership, as well as the deep personal satisfaction you derive from making a contribution to the world.

Associations today are positioned well to usher in a new era of productivity. This means being ready to harvest opportunities before they happen while preparing the organization to produce the exceptional results that make a real contribution to the world. This is the transformation that comes through visionary leadership .


Radicals & Visionaries, Thaddeus Wawro, Entrepreneur Press, 2000

The World Bank’s Comprehensive Development Framework

Akio Morita

Anita Roddick

Seth Kahan is an Organizational Community Specialist, conference speaker and executive consultant. He was recognized as a “Business Visionary” by the Center for Association Leadership and serves as a Distinguished Fellow with the Center for Narrative Studies.