The Realist VS The Visionary: What Type of Leader Are You?

Two women working at a flower shop and one is looking over the other's shoulder

Not every leader is the same.

I know you know that… but have you considered how your leadership style might be different than that of your peers?

When you find a leader that you like to work for, you will find that their style fits a certain behaviour pattern. It might be a style that you are used to or one that you use to express yourself. Maybe one leader faces individual challenges in a way that resonates with your approach when others don’t.

When you observe leaders of large organizations you tend to see two overarching types of leadership styles. The visionary and the realist.

Often these two individuals go together hand-in-hand. Some work as the CEO and COO or maybe the founder and the president of a company. When you put these two together you get a powerhouse duo that successfully leads corporate affairs and contributes to years of growth.

To figure out what your leadership style is you have to start learning about the different types. A great way to begin is understanding the difference between a realist and a visionary. And while they are drastically different, most people fall on a scale somewhere between the two. It’s important to know about your personal blend of visionary and realist because you can be a great leader and fall somewhere between. But one leadership style does not make you more of a “real leader” than another.

So let’s jump into the differences between visionary and realist leaders.

Visionary leaders cast the focus for the organization 

They are very much forward focused and think about the possibilities rather than the current realities. It makes sense right? 

After all, the definition of “to vision” is:

“the ability to think about or plan the future with imagination or wisdom” — Oxford Dictionary

To vision or to imagine… It’s key to the title of this type of personality style and therefore key to their leadership actions. 

A visionary leader is someone who will challenge the status quo in an organization or (an even broader context) of a culture/reality. They’re not likely to think that something is impossible. In fact, they are likely to say that it is possible and then hustle to bring the people around them who believe the vision as well. They create a sense of purpose that individuals can follow.

Visionary leaders are charismatic and are able to create persuasive arguments explaining why their vision should be reality. And that causes the organization to focus on a clear goal for everyone. If you think of the “I have a dream speech” of Martin Luther King Jr. he painted a picture of his “ideal” vision of America. A vision that required the participation of others. And he succeeded in inspiring the whole nation to rally around the cause. He was a visionary. He had a clear purpose in mind and was able to communicate it so that people were unified in working together towards that vision.

Steve Jobs was the quintessential strong visionary leader. He said he wanted a phone with no buttons. A phone that catered to the user, rather than the user catering to the phone. And they achieved it with the iPhone. It was a significant departure from the QWERTY keypads that we were used to on our phones at the time. And even though it did have a few buttons, it revolutionized the way we interacted with our devices.

There are so many visionary leaders that make their way into the history books

They challenge the status quo to look at the big picture. They push aside the current realities in visionary ways — making waves and gaining recognition for doing so. They drive towards a big goal, but are tireless in driving towards a larger dream. They are key individuals in organizations and are often found in the founder or CEO seat in large corporations. They are often also founders of small businesses — they have a vision of how they want to change a product or service and they will absorb the risk of building a company to put that vision into motion.

Visionaries are powerhouses of creation. You require them to cast the vision for a company that can be met by the operational team members.

On the flip side, realist leaders focus on “what is” right now 

Makes sense, right? Realists historically are focused on the current and present moment. Not judging it but just being aware of what is current, what is real, and what is true. They will recognize the real existence of challenges, the threats in their environment, and the successes. They are the kinds of leaders who see a phase of volatility and use it to define the organization’s next steps.

When realists communicate, they communicate reality. They’re not likely to say “I have a dream” but they’re likely to say “this is the current reality.” They will provide organizations with clear information and an honest reflection of what is happening in the company. This can be especially important for organizations that are going through numerous challenges or times of uncertainty. The realist leader will focus on the process and short-term achievements. They are often COOs and will guide processes in the organization’s roadmap to help them meet the vision of the “visionary”. The realist can also have a vision, but they tend to focus their attention on the current or short-term realities.

Such leaders also focus on setting achievable goals with organizational growth in mind. They help organizations and individuals to meet those goals by setting clear metrics. Where a visionary might forget about the individuals who are working on their team (in favour of ploughing through the work towards their vision), a realist will set realistic expectations and will help individuals meet those without burning people out. They tend to have more realistic expectations of the team they are building.

During times of economic uncertainty realists will provide financial roadmaps or sales targets for teams to help a company stay profitable even when it is challenging.

A hardcore realist can sometimes come across as a little bit pessimistic (especially if you are an optimist). If you are an optimist, it can feel like a realist is highlighting too many negatives and not enough positives. But typically they are communicating a balance of the two. Realists use their balanced perspective and realistic goals to help create the inspiring vision.

Realists and visionaries bring complementary perspectives to the view of the big picture

Although starry visionaries and grounded realists don’t always see eye-to-eye, they can be an excellent pair despite their different leadership approaches. In fact, it is because they have different approaches that they are successful. A visionary can use the strengths of the realist. And the realist can use the strength of a visionary. Together they form a company that is inspiring and that history shows will make a big impact. It is not realist vs visionary, but the realist with the visionary that creates powerful business growth.

We see this pair up in companies like Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and many other large organizations that have made a big impact to the industries that they are a part of.

Sometimes a visionary leader can be too focused on what could be that they forget to deal with the reality that is currently in front of them. That’s why a realist leader is often paired with a visionary leader. The realist is there to help guide the organization through the current scenario towards what the visionary sees as the future. Together they are stronger than when they are apart.

Understanding your tendencies is very important because it allows you to be both authentic and a leader at the same time

If you know anything about me you know that I love a good personality test. Not because I want to fit into any specific box but because I enjoy the opportunity to understand myself better. If you haven’t looked at personality assessments such as the Enneagram, the Myers-Briggs, the DiSC assessment, or True Colours personality theory I would definitely recommend taking some online tests reading a few books about the subject. When you start to learn about your personality type you will create a firm foundation for your leadership style.

Leadership styles will often match your personality type. Especially if you have developed an authentic leadership perspective. Not every leader is authentic. In fact, many leaders will think that they need to be something or someone that they’re not to properly lead or “appear” like the leader of an organization. But the best of the best companies (with the most competent leadership) is comprised of individuals who are fully themselves while also fully embracing their leadership tendencies.

If you’re thinking about what kind of a leader you are, reflect on where you focus your attention

  • Do you focus on the vision of the life that you’re creating or the product or service that you are wanting to create as part of a business model? 
  • Do you find yourself constantly reinventing, re-creating, or coming up with new ideas that will help the organization move forward? 
  • Or are you a little bit more realistic, in focusing on the current challenges, the current successes, and helping the organization move forward by maximizing the current moment?
  • Do you analyze financial statements and enjoy understanding processes?
  • Are you a compelling story teller with the ability to share your big dreams and influence others?

Use your answers to determine where you fall on the realist vs. visionary scale. Either side of the scale represents an incredible leadership characteristic. Neither one is better or more important than the other. In fact when they work together is when organizations thrive, so if you are a visionary see if you can find yourself a realist to help balance out your progress. And if you’re a hard-core realist, look around for a visionary who can help create a great leadership dynamic in your particular situation.

Even if you’re not working, your realist or visionary tendencies is an important thing for you to keep in mind. 

If you are a realist it can be easy to get bogged down by the current reality of your challenges, whether you are searching for a job, starting a new job, or steadily progressing in your career. But if you’re a visionary you can get lost thinking about your career 10, 15, or 20 years down the line that you forget to focus on the small things that you can do right now to make that happen. As potential leaders, it is beneficial to know which way you lean!

It can help to have an accountability partner or mentor that is the opposite to you (if you’re a realist find yourself a visionary mentor and if you are a visionary find yourself a realist mentor) to help you get through hard times. Great leaders rely on the influence of others to succeed. It will help you create an accurate view of the current times and will help you climb to great heights.

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