What Do Visionary Leaders and Project Managers Have in Common?

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My answer is pretty much one thing: They need each other to create a transformation and make it stick! The problem shows up when either one of them acts like they can be the mastermind of the whole transformation process without the other.

Let me clarify how I view the distinction between visionary leaders (VL’s) and project managers (PM’s). For the purpose of this post, let’s consider VL’s to be those who have a transformative vision and are inspired and inspiring when it comes to making it happen. They have some idea of the key milestones along the way but have no interest in dotting every I and crossing every T before getting started. This is because they know that if the journey is truly one of transformation, the actual route will end up looking much different than the one they originally plotted out anyway. They are more concerned with effectiveness, not so much efficiency. They have the energy and enthusiasm to get started. They are comfortable with ambiguity, and rely on their ability to move and energize others into action to make great things happen. Put another way, some might say that they have their heads in the clouds and they act more like revolutionaries than bureaucrats. By contrast, let’s think of PM’s as those who value certainty and are great at structuring the steps involved in any process in an organized fashion. They are skilled at documenting the process, assigning success criteria to each step and projecting what progress will look like. They are concerned with efficiently executing the agreed upon plan. They are skilled at seeking the cooperation of all parties involved on the front end on success criteria, glidepaths, resource allocation, and milestone plans. Project managers have their feet firmly on the ground, and it is their desire to make sure that everyone involved in the project does as well.

I hope you aren’t offended if you consider yourself one or the other, either by your title or your skills. I certainly don’t mean to stereotype all PM’s as super-organized people with no imagination. Nor do I want to imply that all VL’s lack the structure and discipline to carry them forward. People will actually find themselves at various points along this spectrum, but these are the two extremes that we could point to at either ends of the spectrum. I personally know people, albeit very few, who possess both sets of skills and navigate between them masterfully to bring to bear the approaches and tools appropriate for each phase of the transformative journey, as needed. If you are a member of this rare breed, congratulations! You have the envy and admiration of all of us, VL’s and PM’s alike, and we wish the world had more people like you.

Different parts of any transformative journey call for different skillsets and approaches at different times. The truth is that both VL's and PM's play crucial roles in any organization. They key is to recognize who can best contribute at certain stages of the transformation process and give them room to do just that. An example that I use is one I am very familiar with from my work with consumer goods companies for the past 30+ years. Any great company needs R&D people to innovate and come up with new ideas, as well as manufacturing people who can figure out a way to make the product most efficiently at the right cost within the given specifications. The best companies create collaborative partnerships between these two functions such that they know enough about each other’s roles to support one another, and they each trust the other to deliver on the unique value they bring to the process of product creation. When this is not the case, one or both functions tend to become a barrier to each other. Someone who is great at managing the details of the manufacturing process is probably not the best at handling the creative process. By the same token, the creative person may not have the desire or the inclination to manage the intricate details of what it takes to manufacture the product day-in and day-out. A friend reminded me not too long ago that trying new things and failing is very much part of the R&D process. That’s why it’s called Research and Development! However, if R&D had to get permission from manufacturing guys who are focused on having a documented and repeatable process in place that minimizes waste, and so on, there would be little to no innovation. By the same token, it wouldn’t work out to have R&D in charge of manufacturing. There is good reason that the head of R&D and the head of manufacturing are peers, rather than one reporting to the other; they both bring something unique and necessary to the party but neither would be effective at setting direction for the other function.

If we think of the process of transformation as a ship, we can get a sense of how complementary each competency is to one another. To be very simplistic, we can imagine an old fashioned ship that includes both a crew on the deck, and a lead navigator in the crow’s nest. We all know that the ship only works as well as the coordination and cooperation between these two groups; the navigator sets the course and the destination, and the crew do what needs to be done in terms of steering and adjusting for the wind and the ocean currents to make sure that they get to the destination. If there is a breakdown in communication or, even worse, either one of these two teams ceases to exist, the ship ceases to function. For the ship to sail, the two teams have to rely on each other. The navigator doesn’t know how or isn’t able to actually get the ship from point A to point B, and the crew on deck doesn’t necessarily have the perspective or vantage point to know where the ship is always going. Without a crew to steer and set the sail and navigate choppy waters, the ship isn’t going anywhere. Without a navigator to set a destination and chart a course, the ship is going nowhere.

Culture transformation is no different. There is a time and place to approach culture transformation as a revolution by brainstorming and—as I heard on Lean consultant put it—“trystorming” a whole bunch of things to see what works. There is also a time when strategic plans must be developed and milestones must be put in place. Leaders of organizations need to ensure that there is a generous portion of both characteristics—those of VL’s and those of PM’s—ready to be applied to the transformative journey at the proper times. If the leader does not possess both sets of skills or he/she chooses to delegate the work to different leaders in the organization who bring different competencies, it is absolutely necessary that the leader understands which phase of work makes the best use of whose skills. This is so that they can ensure that the right people are setting the pace for the respective phase of the work that they are best suited to lead. The key is to ensure that the VL’s are not silenced or diminished by the PM’s, or that PM’s are not ignored by the VL’s, by making sure that they both appreciate how each other’s competencies contribute to one another and the project as a whole. Otherwise, if every player pretends they are good at everything and insists on playing every position, we end up with the lowest common denominator on the field. In a situation like that, both of these essential needs will fail to be realized and the organization will only be as good as the weakest player every step along the way.

The biggest concern for any organization should be when their most passionate people become quiet.
— Tim McClure

In organizations with lofty aspirations for major transformation, it is particularly important for the VL's not be bogged down by the PM's. No transformative movement ever started with a clean and clear project plan. Imagine if Nelson Mandela needed the approval of someone who had a need to know exactly how things were going to progress before they got started with the anti-apartheid movement. If that had been the case, you would probably be saying, “What movement and who is Nelson Mandela?” That’s because there wouldn’t have been any movement under those circumstances, because a transformation of that magnitude requires you to get moving first and then figure things out along the way. By the same token, organizations that have successfully implemented changes and are in the phase of the journey where they need to systematize and reapply the process, the PM's play a key role and must be given the necessary authority and support to lead the process. Net, you need VL’s to run the show on the front end and project managers to keep the show going on the back end. Otherwise, you compromise your chances of creating a transformation and making it stick.

The following questions will guide you through evaluating how your organization is doing relative to the ideas presented in this post, so you can be intentional about making the necessary interventions and modifications to your approach:

  • What transformation are you committed to causing in your culture?

  • What set of skills and characteristics are required to make it happen and when?

  • Who are the people you are entrusting to lead your culture transformation efforts?

  • Do they possess the characteristics of VL’s? Do they possess project management skills?

  • If both sets of skills and characteristics do not reside in the same person, how are you ensuring that each of them is empowered to bring their best to the part of the process that calls for their gifts and abilities? What efforts are being made to convince each of them of the value that the other brings?

  • Are you satisfied with the number of VL’s and PM’s you have in your organization? Which one are you lacking and wish you had more of? What are you doing to cultivate and develop the skills and characteristics you are lacking?


Every transformation requires visionary Leaders (VL's) to initiate it and a project managers (PM's) to systematize it and sustain the gains. Both sets of skills and characteristics are equally important in the long run but it is important to ensure that both VL's and PM's feel empowered to do what they do best at each phase of the transformation without being constrained by the other who may not be qualified or interested in handling the specific nuances of that particular phase. It is when we acknowledge the value of and interdependency between these two distinct skillsets and we honor both and give them free reign to do what they do best when they are needed that we truly get the most out of each. Otherwise, we set the VL's up to be bogged down, silenced or diminished by the PM’s, or the PM’s to be ignored by the VL’s, and we compromise either the chance of starting a transformation or maintaining its gains.

Have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! As always, I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at amir@theghannadgroup.com.

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