Charismatic Leaders vs Visionary Leaders: 7 Indicators


The excitement and energy was palpable. The company was poised on the brink of a transformation that would make it an industry leader.   Ready to take the leap, Richard, the president, asked me to facilitate a strategy meeting with the senior leaders.

In preparation for the meeting, I interviewed each of the five senior leaders. All quite bright and accomplished in their area of expertise, they were articulate about the issues they faced as a team and as a company, what they had done to address them and their thoughts on what needed to happen next – a high powered group.

Interestingly, however, when I asked them about the vision for the company, they each told me I should discuss that with Richard.

I interviewed Richard last. An intelligent man and passionate about the future of his company, he was quite clear about where he wanted to take the company. And he was confident that he had put together the right leadership team to take them there.

When I asked Richard to tell me more about the vision, he was surprised that his team hadn’t already clearly explained it to me.

This is the first clue that Richard was a charismatic leader, not a visionary leader.

How a Charismatic Leader and Visionary Leader Are Similar

Both a visionary leader and a charismatic leader provide a clear picture of a desirable future that inspires excitement and engenders commitment.

Both create transformational change within their organization.

Both create exciting, energized work environments.

Because they are so similar, it is possible to think they are the same.

The difference often doesn’t become apparent until the leader leaves.

With visionary leaders, the “glue” is the shared vision. Because the vision is understood and owned by the people throughout the organization, it continues to provide guidance after the leader has gone. Consider the seamless transition at Southwest Airlines when Herb Kelleher stepped down as president because the vision had been internalized through out the company.

Personality is not the issue.  A visionary leader might have a charismatic personality …or not.

The question is: what is the “glue” that holds the organization together?

With charismatic leaders, the “glue” is the force of their personality and their own personal vision. There is a dependency on their presence to ensure things move forward. And when they leave, the magic disappears. For example, when the charismatic chairman of Sony, Akio Morita, stepped down, Sony lost its market leadership in electronics. And Walt Disney’s death in 1966 ushered in nearly two decades of unsettled leadership.

Dependence on a charismatic leader is often the case in mid-size and family-owned businesses, where the “sparkle” is dependent on the charismatic personality of the founder. A critical juncture in the life of these organizations is whether they can make the transition from leader dependency to a shared vision…unless, of course, they are lucky enough to find another charismatic leader as a replacement.

Seven Questions to Help you Tell the Difference

  1. Clarity – Do people really understand what the company is about, where it is going, and what is needed to get there?  Can they clearly explain it to others?
  2. Ownership — Are people motivated by a sense of ownership for the vision or are they motivated by loyalty?
  3. Attention —Are people focused on strategy and how to further the vision or are they focused solely on implementation?
  4. Independence — Do people make strategic decisions on their own or do they wait for direction and permission?
  5. Creativity — Do people envision ways to enrich the vision? What happens when they do?
  6. Accountability —Do people tolerate “bad behavior” on the part of the leader because the leader is brilliant?
  7. Decision-making — At critical junctures, can people anticipate what’s needed and make good decisions?

This applies to leaders at all levels. Whether you are the leader of a team, department or the company, if you think you might have been holding your team together through the force of your personality, consider creating a shared vision now, in order to ensure the continuity of what you have begun.


25 comments to Charismatic Leaders vs Visionary Leaders: 7 Indicators

  • Excellent post! It’s the difference between the steak and the sizzle as it relates to strategy. I really like the analogy of the vision as being the “glue” of the organization. The vision must be clearly defined, focused and understandable. Often the company vision is simply described using a broad brush of providing a great product or great service. The skilled strategist will provide a concentrated version that resonates with the organization and becomes the flag that is carried each day by the entire company. Great checklist to test the validity of the vision. Thanks for the post Jesse!

  • Thanks for this perspective. There are other leadership styles and behaviors, but these two are two of the important ones to identify and understand. One of the issues is the life-stage of the organization, e.g., some start-ups may require more of one that the other. But, the big issue is sustainability; especially as CEO tenure is not as lengthy as it once was. Hence, being conscious of the leadership approach is critical.

    • I zeroed in these two styles because they are so often confused as the same. Hopefully this post provides an opportunity for self-reflection because as you point out, being conscious of your leadership approach is critical for sustainability. Thanks for sharing your insights, Alan.

  • As I read this post, I couldn’t help but think of some of the successful leaders I know or have read about. Clearly, a charismatic visionary is the person with the greatest ability to impact the future. I suspect Apple will continue to thrive because of Steve Jobs’ vision. In his own unique way, he was also charsimatic because he persuaded people to do things they disagreed with. Seems to me, the best example of the difference can be found within the political world where parties seek charisma in a leader ahead of vision. We’ve all seen the result once these candidates are elected. Thanks Jesse.

    • Thanks for your insightful comments, John. I agree that the political arenas is where these two styles are most confused, and it is unfortunate that we have gravitated toward charisma instead of vision. It’s interesting that you bring up Steve Jobs. He was a brilliant man who I have the deepest respect for, and it is such a huge loss that he died so young. For me, the jury is out on what type of leader he was. He was such an unusual man. Most high performing organizations are led by ordinary people who help their people achieve extraordinary results.

  • In the final analysis, Jesse, a CEO is supposed to build a business. Against this definition, Steve Jobs is unrivaled. Yes, he could be a cruel and nasty guy, but he was also the greatest CEO of our time. But let’s be clear; people should not think those two things are related.

    • I agree with you John. Jobs made an amazing “ding in the universe.” Not only did he build a business, he fundamentally changed our relationship with technology. His genius was so unique that I am concerned about turning him into a leadership role model. We need to consider the entirety of who he was and what he did. I don’t believe it would be possible to emulate him – and if a leader used that as an excuse for their bad behavior, it would be a poor excuse indeed.

  • Jesse, we mortals have a different standard for geniuses. We’ve always cut slack for artists, musicians, scientists. Now we’ve got a business genius and we’re doing the same. I’m alright with that.

  • Scott Smith

    Jesse- you know the article hit the mark when I continually measure my leadership against the points. Well done!

    One of the 4 leadership traits I identify is Communicating Vision -not that the leader needs to create/develop the vision, but rather to clearly (Clarity) share the vision. In my business I strive to achieve this…to an extent, successfully.

    This past week I was on vacation with my family..checking email, but not actively involved. Such good happened-one of the biggest sales weeks in a long time, sourced & hired a lab tech, and secured university testing for a project. All without me!


    Perhaps I have the potential to be the Visionary Leader.

    Wonderful post … I see myself sharing this with many folks.

    • Hi Scott, Sounds like you are on target. The real test of leadership is what happens when you’re NOT there. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and hopes. And best wishes as you move Full Steam Ahead!

  • This is an interesting experience Jesse, and thank you for sharing your observations. The flag for me is how easy it is to not be aware of our styles and the effect we are having on those around us (as leaders that is). From the sound of things, Richard thought he was a Visionary leader, with the vision being the glue and not him with his charisma.

    “I interviewed Richard last. An intelligent man and passionate about the future of his company, he was quite clear about where he wanted to take the company. And he was confident that he had put together the right leadership team to take them there.

    When I asked Richard to tell me more about the vision, he was surprised that his team hadn’t already clearly explained it to me.”

    He clearly did not realise he had the gap and this is where someone from the outside looking in can be insightful with fact finding. Outsiders ask the obvious questions which leadership internally takes for granted and therefore does not ask as “it seems obvious when you are on the inside”.

    • Thanks for illuminating this point, Thabo. It is so important. We often see ourselves the way we want rather than the way others do. I was able to serve as a mirror for Richard. To his credit, he understood immediately what the problem was and shifted his behavior. By the end of our strategy session, not only did the senior leaders feel ownership for the vision, they had put together a plan to give the rest of the company an opportunity to contribute to shaping it (the best way I know to ensure understanding, commitment and ownership).

  • Jesse-
    Interesting perspective. If someone where to ask me, “what is the glue that holds your organization together”, I would respond with culture and not vision. Culture, defined as “the way we do things around here”, has always seemed to be that glue that holds things together when I’m not around.

    Vision, being that picture of where we are going, is obviously of incredible importance. You’ve got to know where you are going. Of course any group rallied around a shared vision of the future will of course be more apt to work well in the absence of the leader. How do they go about achieving that shared vision though? I suppose I don’t disagree with your article as much as I feel it is just missing a key component (in my very humble opinion). I wonder if vision and culture are “1a and 1b” in this situation. When a leader leaves it is a shared vision and robust culture that works together to keep things moving in the right direction.

    Micah Yost

    • You raise a good point, Micah. And I would agree with you if we were using the same definition of vision. To provide clear ongoing guidance and to engage the hearts and minds of the people, a vision needs to be more than a picture of where you’re going. One could have a goal with a picture and once achieved the goal is ended. [A great way to help maintain a diet is hold a mental image of wearing those great jeans]. A vision answers “what’s next” after a goal has been achieved because it illuminates the purpose and underlying values. [Why were you on a diet? if it’s connected to something larger like being healthy, the next step might be to commit to daily exercise as a way of life]. In our book, Full Steam Ahead, we define vision as “knowing who you are, where you’re going, and what will guide your journey.” Who you are is your purpose, where you’re going is the picture of the future, and what will guide your journey are your values. For a more clear explanation of this definition of vision and why it makes a difference, check my blog post Vision Statements That Work.

      Culture, defined as “the way we do things around here,” is determined by the operating values. I personally wouldn’t separate culture from vision since I believe it is a natural fall-out as a result of embracing the vision (as I’ve defined it).

      I think the difference in our viewpoint is a matter of semantics and not substance. Using your definition of vision as the picture of where we’re going, then I agree that culture (or values) needs to be included. And I would also want to include purpose, the reason for existence, as the three go hand-in-hand.

      Thanks for raising this question, Micah. So often people read something they disagree with and don’t take the time to share their thinking. I appreciate your raising this point that I’m sure is on others’ minds as well.

  • Chance Munthali

    Wow! I am blown away to know the difference between a Visionary Leader and a Charismatic Leader. Mind you I have always thought I knew it since I went to bible college and thought I have a good understanding of these two definitions. But to my surprise I didn’t. Thanks Jayne for revealing the true line of these two Leaders. I will have to make the most of it to transition from a Charismatic Leader to a Shared vision person. To be honest and truthful I was a charismatic leader no doubt. This is a good insight for ALL Leaders at all levels. Thanks to Jarrod cooper for sharing the blog. Once again Thanx to you Jayne for your insightful thoughts. Please do more of this. I will share them with everyone I know and the world of course

  • Charlee Hanna

    I am so glad you wrote this. I have been following a lot of leadership research. Zanger/Folkman use a recent survey of theirs that says more people follow a “charismatic” leader. Many of the leadership gurus (RBL Dave Ulrich being one) are now putting charisma as one of the more important competencies.
    It is very discouraging that personality and likability is becoming so relevant to the big thinkers. (I know it has always been relevant to the masses.)
    I have been working on a leadership model that is called the Genesis of Leadership. It is where true-lasting-leadership begins-Mission(goal, vision, strategy, purpose etc), Commitment (to that vision, goal, strategy, purpose), and Sacrifice (for that vision, goal or purpose). There is much more depth to this model but thank your for writing this piece. I shall keep on working.

    • Hi Charlee, I really appreciate your concerns. There is a big push to teach “executive presence” these days. My own opinion is that real “presence” naturally arises when one is clear about who they are and the charge they have been entrusted with. Otherwise, we are teaching people how to “act as if” instead of helping them build their foundation. I suspect Franklin Roosevelt would never have been elected today. And most likely, neither would Abraham Lincoln. Keep working on your model, I think you’re on the right track. And thanks for adding to the conversation here.

  • Christo van Zyl

    Hi Jesse.

    Great article. I guess most leaders would wish they were both visionary and charismatic. The truth is that they simply aren’t. I really enjoyed the points to make you see the difference and it has helped me to identify where I can do more work on myself as well as identify the types of people we will hire. I like your story-like approach, yet short, specific and powerful. And, I love how you take the time to respond to all your comments. I will look forward to more of your posts and definitely subscribe so I can learn as you write. Many thanks again.

    Best regards,

    • Hi Christo, I agree that it is unusual to be both visionary and charismatic. Most leaders will not become another Martin Luther King, Jr or Nelson Mandela, but the truth people can make quite a difference when they are principled and know how to unite people around a shared vision. Abraham Lincoln would be a good example of that kind of leader. It seems to me these days, we are more drawn toward charismatic leaders and give them too much latitude for character failures. I am glad to hear that my post helped you identify where you can do more work on yourself. It is definitely the place to for every leader to start. And of course, the types of people you hire will impact the culture of your organization. Thank you for your kind words about my blog. When I use stories, they are always about real situations I have encountered. Glad to hear that approach is helpful.

  • Charismatic Leaders vs Visionary Leaders is listed in the HR Carnival

  • Quentin

    Hello, great read on that one about Charismatic leadership. Nice blog. Keep up posting! Cheers, Quentin.

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