VISIONARY LEADERSHIP AND BEYOND Hold the charisma: Boldly setting a course toward excellence may be bad for your organization's health.
By WALTER KIECHEL III RESEARCH ASSOCIATE Margaret A. Elliott

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Most managerial types appear to have skipped the movie Dune, a sci-fi epic that bombed in 1984. No fools they. In its clunky way, however, the film did present one notion that may tantalize goal-oriented problem solvers. The challenge: to get from one spot in the universe to another, light years away. The solution: fold space. Faced with the necessity to travel, say, from planet Caladan to planet Arrakis, top-level technocrats of the Spacing Guild simply ingest liberal amounts of a certain drug, conjure up images of here and there, and then, through an act of mental origami, transport themselves in a wink. This feat seems distinctly akin to visionary leadership as propounded by some of its more original advocates. If you are looking for a quick test of how advanced someone's managerial thinking is these days, try asking after his or her understanding of vision. Charles Dwyer, chairman of Wharton's Center for Applied Research, elaborates on possibilities that range from classical to far-out: ''The idea of vision picks up on the old cry that executives need time for reflection, the notion that if we don't sit back and percolate, we get trapped by the urgent but unimportant. Some people, slightly more up to date, think about it in terms of brain research -- the talk about an underused side of the brain, and the necessity of holistic thinking and leaps of insight. If you read recent literature on the subject, it gets into the idea that you should picture how you would most like to behave.'' A bare-bones summary of the classical position holds that a leader looks to the future; he has a goal toward which he directs his organization. This distinguishes him from a mere manager. ''The guy at the top has to be able to sense either what's coming down the path or what he has in his organization that he can make something of,'' argues Harry Levinson, whose Levinson Institute provides help to companies on matters psychological. What the leader comes up with need not be a grandiose dream or a work of great imagination. He's likely to get the best out of his people, though, if he can set before them what Levinson, with a segue into the avant-garde, calls a transcendent purpose for the organization, something that goes beyond just making money. Building the best computers in the world, for example, or providing everyone with telephone service. If this seems pretty old stuff, you may be ready for Visionary Leadership 202, as taught, for example, by Innovation Associates, a Framingham, Massachusetts, firm and the mother church of thinking on the subject these days. Executives from companies as diverse as Young & Rubicam, General Mills, and Scott & Fetzer give its workshops rave reviews. In its seminars, Innovation Associates' trainers advise participants to start by imagining what they want for themselves, and only later think about what they want for their organizations. The process, in some hapless quarters called visioning, usually entails what are known in the trade as closed-eye exercises. Create a picture in your mind, the drill goes, of what a perfect day would be for you -- what you would do, how you would feel. Don't be constrained by what you think is possible; dream your most vivid, luscious dream. In so doing, says the theory, you will not only skim material from the waking, rational consciousness but, through intuitive means, tap deeper layers as well. Once you get the hang of it, you can use the same technique to envision your organization as you desire it to be.

The next step is to see with a gimlet eye precisely where, or what, you are currently. Here Innovation Associates applies systems theory, a still developing body of thought from MIT that uses principles of engineering to explain how organizations and organisms work. Or frequently don't work. Terms like feedback loop and negative feedback loop are invoked to describe how a system responds to stimuli from outside, and it is brought home to seminar participants how often conventional attempts to intervene in a system and make things better only end up making them worse. Not all exponents of visionary leadership draw on systems theory, but they all sound the same doloroso theme. Failing to grasp how things work and how we might make them better, we shoot ourselves in the foot. OKAY, so how do we get from here to there? At this juncture, the process becomes a bit less clear. Robert Fritz, a self-described teacher of creativity whose thinking informs much of what Innovation Associates propounds, tells his students to meditate on the current reality as well as the result they want to create. This sets up what Fritz calls a structural tension that tends to move reality closer to what has been envisioned. Innovation Associates, somewhat more circumspect, advises seminar participants to return to their organizations and share with the people they lead both their vision for the enterprise and their assessment of its current situation. The term Innovation Associates favors is ''enrolling'' subordinates in the vision, though some recidivist graduates of the seminar talk about ''selling'' it to them. The goal is the same by either name: What the illuminati call an aligned organization, one where everyone will do his distinctive best to achieve the common vision he has aligned himself with. Even alignment's partisans find it difficult to describe -- they will liken it, for example, to an eight-oared shell suddenly ''setting up,'' each blade knifing into the water at just the same moment. But they agree it means profound change for an organization. Subordinates who do not align often end up leaving. As you might suspect, this model of visionary leadership has critics aplenty on both ends of the spectrum. What it takes to make the model work, argue the folks on the classical side, is an old-fashioned charismatic leader who can whip the troops into a frenzy. But those don't come along often. And what if one does? Most of the companies beatified in the best-seller In Search of Excellence crystallized initially around strong leaders. But that doesn't mean that latter-day businessmen should attempt to ape what they did, the critics say. From the avant-garde perspective, David Nicoll, a Los Angeles consultant, sees a regrettable confluence of two trends at work: ''Tying the logic of visionary leadership to the pursuit of corporate excellence will just lead more people astray.'' If you do get people aligned, say veteran consultants who have seen it happen, they may work so single-mindedly that they burn out after two or three years. Ironically, the person who bears the heaviest burden may well be the leader, particularly if he or she isn't the naturally charismatic sort. What's required, argues Roger Harrison, another West Coast consultant and perhaps the most trenchant critic of Innovation Associates' work, is not just alignment, but attunement as well. By this he means -- hold on to your prejudices -- love, ''expressed as empathy, understanding, caring, nurturance, and support.'' Harrison, a former teacher at Yale and a veteran of Procter & Gamble, maintains that the truly effective organization must balance its drive to achieve the common vision with concern on the part of all hands for their co-workers' well-being. In an organization so attuned, an employee could expect a sympathetic hearing for the observation, ''Hey fellows, I think we're working too hard.'' Out of the back-and-forth there seems to be emerging a still more advanced notion of vision. The key idea is that the wise captain does not try to get subordinates to go along with his vision; instead, he encourages each employee to have a vision of his or her own. Charles Kiefer, president of Innovation Associates, describes how the firm's thinking has evolved: ''We now use vision as a vehicle to let everybody create the kind of organization they want, to create what is important to them.'' A company that produces truly first-rate veeblefetzers, perhaps, or one that treats everybody fairly. Peter Senge, an MIT researcher and another principal of the firm, elaborates on the mission of the leader under the new regime: ''He's responsible not for the vision, but, first, that there be an ongoing process of visioning throughout the organization. Second, the leader is ultimately responsible for the organizational learning process.'' Colorless types may note with relief that the leader need not be particularly charismatic to fill this role. He does need to listen carefully, though, as people talk about what they want, and he needs to reinforce what their different visions have in common. IF YOU'RE INTERESTED in speculating on what's beyond the cutting edge in this realm, biz-trend fans, Senge's word ''learning'' should set off bells. Juanita Brown, a San Francisco-based consultant to the likes of Exxon and P&G, sketches the coming confluence of strategic thinking, systems thinking, and thinking about leadership: ''It depends on creating the organization as a learning environment, rather than a knowing environment.'' Such an organization will presumably have a better sense of the ecology -- Brown's word -- it functions in, and of its own particular niche. (Just like certain strategy gurus these days, the vision avant-garde are big on niches; they tend not to talk much about the tonic effects of competition.) In an ecologically alert organization, Brown says, the leader will be renowned for his or her ability to learn, not for what he or she already knows. Yes, this may seem a trifle far out. But then again he or she just might be the boss you've always dreamed of.