Five Thoughts on Being (or Becoming) a Visionary

How to rethink what it means to be a visionary

Photo by Tobias Stonjeck on Unsplash

A special shoutout to the coach I'm working with, who has helped me rethink this term.

What do you think about what when you hear the word visionary? I have long associated the term with the people you read about in Howard Bloom's tome Genius; those who changed the world (for good or bad) by predicting the future, making a world-changing discovery, or having the wherewithal to lead society towards a goal.

And while they are the very best of our visionaries, the most powerful of our people, I've started understanding that maybe there is a spectrum of visionaries. I've started to appreciate how I (and many other people) are visionaries in their own rights. Do any of the below speak to you? Then you, my friend, may be a visionary too!


Some interesting news: While I’m still running Total Emphasis as my stand-alone consultancy, I’ve joined Gather as a content strategy consultant. As always, you should reach out if you want to work together.

1) See what no one else sees.

Again, for Bloom's geniuses, these led to world-changing ideas. But the world revolves around millions of changes, not just the ones that get highlighted in a book. For me, nothing is more thrilling than getting a swirl of information, context, and perspectives, and being able to analyze that in real time to come up with an idea that no one else is contemplating.

2) Get comfortable with the uncomfortable

I was on a call recently with five other people who were discussing a course of action for a client. There was a bit of a consensus around an approach that struck me as directionally correct, but off by a half-measure. The details of why aren't important, other than I felt in my bones that it would lead to a suboptimal result. Of course, I didn't know - and don't know and potentially will never know - whether that approach would lead to a suboptimal result. But I had the conviction to say that, when there was a gap in the conversation, I felt a slightly adjacent path was the right approach. The idea was sound, but out of the blue, so everyone took a second to assess. But they agreed it was the smarter play, so it was adopted as unanimously as the first idea was first proposed.

3) Find that crack in the dark.

Tell me if this sounds familiar. You're brainstorming or working on a project when you ultimately go back to the original idea, either out of frustration, exhaustion, or lack of consensus. The reason why the original idea was abandoned hadn't changed; it's still probably not the ideal approach. But it was the first, and was as good as any other idea when you're not sure what will work. But the visionaries have the strength to say that the original idea is not where you should land. And they have the ability to take the summation of the dialogue and understand what's missing. Or they find a thread and keep unraveling it until it leads to the end.

4) Listen... Intuit...

I am convinced everyone has a superpower. Mine, due to my introversion, is listening, which augers well for anyone who wants to be a visionary. Many have tested me as to whether I'm listening when multitasking, and they've all come back amazed that I kept track of what they're saying while doing something else. But, of course, that only gets you so far. Much better to actually devote your focus to a speaker to understand what they're saying.

5) Believe.

I struggle with this daily. And I know I'm not alone. It's easy to confuse belief and confidence with egotism. And some of the biggest visionaries out there use egotism as a way to blunt-force their way to what they want. But it's not the only way. Visionaries, simply put, believe in their vision. They believe in the logic behind the decisions they make, even if they don't think of themselves as overly confident.

Hopefully, this was as helpful for you as it was for me. Do you now think differently about what makes someone a visionary? Do you think of yourself as a visionary now for the first time? Let me know in the comments.

Keith O'Brien is the founder and head strategist for Total Emphasis, a content and digital strategy consulting firm. Learn more here.