December 28th, 2012

The Four Stages of Visionary Leadership

I have reflected over a decade on the question of how visionaries develop. These are some initial thoughts that I want to share with blog readers as I think out loud a bit. I would really appreciate your comments and input toward the development of these ideas.


Every visionary leaders starts by following someone else’s vision. Here, the fundamental practice of following well precedes and develops the ability to lead well. During this time, a future visionary learns to submit to godly authority. In this stage the future visionary’s style is shaped by the strengths and limitation of the lead visionary. Strengths provide a foundational modeling opportunity. Limitations and weakness forge convictions that will eventually shape the values of the future leader.


Eventually the visionary leader starts casting vision themselves. There are three nuances of how this vision relates to the the prior vision-catching content. In other words, most of early vision casting is found “underneath” the vision of a leader and/or organization of the developing visionary. The visionary casts vision: a) in support of, b) in relation to, and finally c) in contrast with.

  • In Support Of: The first practice is recasting the vision that already exists. The visionary is articulating and communicating what was given to them. The art of communication is matured as commitment, passion and ownership of the vision progresses. For example, a student pastor shares the greater vision of the church he has been serving for the last two years with his seminary buddies.
  • In Relation To: Eventually the emerging visionary will create and develop their own initiatives or ministry models within the larger vision. This mini-step takes the art of visionary leadership to a new level. As a visionary leader “builds” within their “domain” of the larger ministry they are responsible to relate what they are doing to the bigger picture. That is, they are advancing and enhancing the vision that they “caught” by casting new vision for their team, event, group, area or department. Our student pastor, for example, is recruiting two dozen new volunteer leaders for a high-school, gospel saturation strategy he developed. This strategy and mini-vision is developed in concert with the broader church vision.
  • In Contrast With: This is the positive step of beginning to sense a shift in calling or being attracted to a new ministry vehicle. While this is not an eventual reality for all visionary leaders it will happen for many of them. And by the way, it’s difficult for many senior leaders to watch this happen without sensing betrayal or hurt. This is normal. Yet from God’s perspective, isn’t it natural that a strong emerging visionary will develop completely a new “holy discontent?” Won’t he see new problems and want to find new solutions? The term “in contrast with” is helpful because oftentimes in the mind of the developing visionary, the language of the new is contrasted with and compared to the existing vision. (Hence we talk about missional vs. attractional approaches  or going to unreached people groups vs. growing an existing flock.) For example the student pastor starts dreaming of planting a different kind of church in contrast with the vision he has been serving in.


At this pivotal place, the vision casting stage has matured to a point of full ownership, most often embodied by the senior position or lead role. Hence, not every visionary leaders reaches this point. And it is wrong, in my opinion, to expect that all visionary leaders should aspire to. (Or we would have not visionary second-chair leaders or visionary teams.)

The greatest experiential difference for the vision carrier is the increasing awareness that the vision came from God not himself. Over time, a greater convergence of spiritual maturity, life circumstances, and divine relationships unveil how little the vision truly emerged from within. Eventually he sees how God was orchestrating the events of life to the point that he knows that God himself gave him a vision to carry. Of course his practice of vision-casting hits full-bloom as the vision grows and expands from an ever-strengthening identity and awareness of God calling.


The final stage is one that fewer leaders reach because it is found only with unusual favor AND demonstrated success as a vision carrier over a long time. The success builds a platform of extraordinary influence beyond what was ever imagined. Hence, I believe this stage is experience by leaders in or after their fifties. The feeling of “carrying” a vision for a time, which is in itself a stewardship, moves to an even greater awareness of unplanned, yet God-ordained impact. For the best leaders, this enables them to guard a humble spirit and embrace a broader influence. For example the student pastor plants a church that becomes a church planting movement, or or transforms a city or adopts an unreached people group. At this stage, decades of vision carrying are seen from a different and more enlightened perspective.

At this stage it’s easy for current names to come to mind like Rick Warren or Bill Hybels or T.D. Jakes or Mark Driscoll or Andy Stanley. But I believe there are thousands and thousands of leaders who reach this point, that we will never read about. Despite tremendous impact, they steward a more silent destiny.

So how do you react to this initial framing of these stages? Specifically how does this match up to your personal experience? What would you add or tweak or take away?  Thanks for considering a response.

4 Comments on to “The Four Stages of Visionary Leadership”

  • I think the flow of the four movements captures the basic dynamic of the development of a leader. I’ve got some thoughts and would like to push you on a point or two.

    In the first movement, I would use the word “inspire.” An emerging leader blessed to be in relationship with a healthy visionary leader has the opportunity to experience the dynamics of true vision and to understand the place of vision in the life of a believer. In the American consumeristic context, the impulses of the self are validated and rewarded perhaps as in no other time in history. The experience of a vision that calls one to surrender self completely to the higher call of God is not only not celebrated, but rarely seen. Just being close to a person with Godly vision breaks open the possibility of being in the world in a new, strange and wonderful way.

    I’ve just discovered Auxano. I’m intrigued by the institutional starting point it takes. In this second stage, I’m thinking you’re not taking into account the recognized life cycles of organizations, from initial movement to community serving institution to self-serving institution to death. Too often institutional leaders will lock down on a “vision” they have come to own and fail to “live into the vision” as the Lord expands the horizons of the movement. Think of Moses’ initial call and vision (Freedom from Slavery) and how it would develop (Torah Shaped Nation). Unfortunately, we will see those leaders undercutting the emerging leaders in their organizations. “My way is Yahweh.” The three steps within the “Vision Casting” stage seems to neat. It may work that way during the early stages of a new institution, but unless the original visionary leader is willing to die to core aspect of the his initial vision and grow toward “Destiny Stewarding” and see greater realities, the emerging leader within the organization will likely experience great suffering as the Lord births new vision in him.

    I find it interesting how you describe stage three. It’s only after time and “a greater convergence of spiritual maturity” that folks realize that the vision did not begin with them. That may be true in the American context, and if it is, it’s a picture of the profound spiritual poverty in American culture. We have embrace an entrepreneurial spirit that anchors us in the flesh, limited by our own genius and resources. The Bible portrays vision (almost?) always as an initiated call of God then an unfolding discovery of greater wonder as the leader takes faithful steps forward. If what you describe is an accurate portrayal of our organizations, what I say in the prior paragraph takes greater weight.

    I really like your first sentence in stage four. Yep. Very few leaders ever get to that place of “Destiny Stewarding,” what we describe at the International Leadership Institute as the Mentor. Moving in this direction, R. Scott Rodin has written a book called The Steward Leader that shares good insight around the pitfalls and promise of institutional leaders rooted in a deep sense of God’s call that leads toward this quality of leadership.

  • Will Mancini says:


    Thank you for your thoughtful response. It is very meaningful to interact on the amazing journey God allows us to take; both for ourselves and in coaching others.

    I would like to learn a little bit more about your ministry.

    Auxano is almost entirely focused on local churches. We do about 20% work with Christ-centered non-profits. I couldn’t agree more about the stages of organizational vision. Yet in this case I was thinking about it primarily from the experience of the emerging visionary.

    I look forward to further dialogue Kyle! – Will

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