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The 7 Pillars of Visionary Leadership: Aligning Your Organization for Enduring Success

By Michael E. Rock, Ed.D. |

"Leadership is the art of having people do what you want them to do and go in a direction that you set, willingly or unwillingly. Willingly is leadership. Unwillingly is coercion." -- Major-General Michael Williams, a U.S. Marine Corp. commander from Quantico, Va1.

"Flocking is the ability of the organization to recognize good opportunities and to flock resources around those opportunities -- much as birds in an unselfconscious and reflexive way will rotate the leadership of their flying wing as one bird gets tired and another represents the 'next hope.' Having the ability to flock is having the ability to take advantage of opportunity. This is much easier said than done." Michael Lissack, DBA2

"The lack of inspired political leadership is a common topic of conversation these days, but it should be remembered that, in a democracy, leaders are a reflection of the people who elect them. If the voters have grown so cynical that they tolerate shady and slippery behaviour in those they have placed above them, then they get the leadership they deserve." Royal Bank Newsletter3

The study and examination of what leadership is raises up different sets of images for people. For some, leadership embodies more of what researchers used to call "the great man theory," that is, that leaders are only those special types of people with great gifts, intellect and charismatic qualities. Moses, Jesus, Churchill, Kennedy and Trudeau might readily come to mind for these people. An effective "great man" leader is able to mobilize people on the strength of his/her personal power to influence people to go in a certain direction. For other people, leadership is "situational" flexibility, that is, the type of intervention they make depends on the task that needs to be accomplished and the competency of the people required to complete the task. An effective situational leader is able to adjust to the demands of the task and the people in a given situation.

In this introduction to a series of 7 visionary leadership articles, I want to take a different approach. I want to speak about leadership from an archetypal learning and inner passion point of view. The theory behind this approach was outlined in my book The 7 Pillars of Visionary of Visionary Leadership, co-authored with Dr. Michael Cox4.

Archetypal images and archetypal learning release passionate energy5. Archetypal learning is the experience of passion and illumination in our transformation. An archetypal image grips us and holds our attention. Archetypal images fundamentally explain why we do what we do.

Visionary leadership instinctively creates a presence, a field, and a rhythm of circumstances for the archetypal, or primal, or inborn patterns of excitement to flow and grow. Being profound, these archetypal images move us and propel us to latch on to something powerful, be it a cause, a person, a project. Visionary leadership creates the sense of context for this experience.

Personal case example

As a professor of social and organizational transformation, I have always been amazed at how well students do when the constraints they experience are dissolved. By constraints, I mean not only the institutional and bureaucratic ones, but especially their personal constraints. In other words, even though many of them are in their early to mid-20s, they come to me all "boxed in." Many of them do not "think out of the box" at all. They want to know two things: (a) What's going to be on the exam? and (b) How do I get an "A"? The school system and their previous professors and teachers have, indeed, trained them well. But this kind of training is certainly not leadership. It may be imitation; it may be regurgitation; and it may be memorization. But it is not leadership.

Visionary leadership in teaching, on the other hand, is mesmerization and fascination, not regurgitation. Visionary leadership creates conditions for learners to get excited about passionate impulses inside themselves that need exploration. Not only does visionary leadership arouse passions, but also manages the context for those passionsto come to fruition in relation to the task(s) at hand. The Royal Bank Newsletter (quoted above) is correct in stating that when we complain about the lack of political leadership, we are, by implication, reflecting our own lack of leadership insight by the mere fact we elected the politicians. Politicians reflect our leadership psyches! A scary thought, inmany cases. That is why people have said over the years that "we get the leaders we deserve."

But, what would happen if professors saw their main challenge as one of "firing up the passions" of their students, instead of just simply passing on information? Visionary leaders and teachers fire up passions because they are fired up! They are in love with what they know and with what they do. They create "migratory conditions" for this excitement so that it is transferred to others. Visionary leaders are, therefore, not into control and power, but into living and expressing their own passions. Their workplaces and classrooms are places where people "catch the spirit"!

To return to my example of the students: what would happen if, instead of imaging the teaching-learning experience as one of "pass-fall," of "information in/information out," and of seeing whether a student can "jump the hoops" to earn a grade, you were to give an "A" to every student at the very beginning of the course?

 Case example

Ben Zander, 59, is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. He says, "Never doubt the capacity of the people you lead to accomplish whatever you dream for them. It's a principle that leaders like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela have all embodied6." Even though Zander is a very successful conductor, he still admits that he was 45 years old when he first realized that his power depended solely on his ability to make the orchestra members powerful. For a successful concert, he didn't make a sound; they did!

Like myself, Zander is also a professor. He teaches music at the New England Conservatory of Music. He tries to get his students to silence the critical voice in their heads and let the music flow out from that wonderful place inside each of them to the audience [italics deliberate]. When I ask my students a simple question, like, "Why are you here in this course?" they only have an academic or institutional answer: "It's required." My job, like Zander's, becomes one of visionary leadership and the constellation of archetypal learning in my students. Unless students find the passion, orrather, the passion is ignited by them and for them for the wonder in the course, they really never learn much. Hence, for Zander, to meet that objective, he gives them all an "A" on the first day of class.

Every fall, on the first day of class, I make an announcement: "Everybody gets an A." There's only one condition: Students have to submit a letter - written on that first day but dated the following May - that begins: "Dear Mr. Zander, I got my A because . . ." In other words, they have to tell me, at the beginning of my course, who they will have become by the end of the course that will justify this extraordinary grade.

That simple A changes everything. It transforms my relationship with everybody in the room. As leaders, we're giving out grades in every encounter we have with people. We can choose to give out grades as an expectation to live up to, and then we can reassess them according to performance. Or we can offer grades as a possibility to live into. The second approach is much more powerful.

When Zander is asked whether giving an "A" to every student just overlooks differencesin talent and effort among the people he is leading, he replies:

The A is easy to misunderstand. People say, "Oh, you mean it's just pretending that everybody is the same." It's not that at all. Nor is it about pretending that people can do things they can't do. The A helps you get at what is unique in people - and at the unique challenges that they face. Grades tell me only how one person stacks up against other people. The letters that students write to me about what they will do to deserve their A give me much richer information about how the students stack up against their dreams. They write, "Suddenly I'm not shy anymore, and I enjoy playing," or "I'm no longer depressed by criticism." That's the kind of information that I need to help them perform at their best.

In a similar way, when I can get my students away from imaging their main purpose in the course as one of getting an "A," "playing the game" and making that happen, to one of "falling in love" with a potentially new learning experience, then real learning begins to take place.

Business Value Proposition:

How does this all apply to your business situation? In today's globalized marketplace with today's "new workers," a new paradigm, a new covenant and a new context for doing business is imperative. I like to think of The 7 Pillars as the mental architecture and structure that we need to do business in the 21st century. These pillars are ancient, but yet, very modern, images. We know also that relationships are the new currency. Research shows that the "people factor" often accounts for at least 90% of this new currency7. The pillars, consequently, are as strong as the people factor. EQ and emotional intelligence are, therefore, the fuel, the strength of these pillars.

You can get a start on being, or enhancing, a visionary leadership organization, by answering the following questions for yourself.

VISIONING What archetypal or passionate vivid mental
images inspire people in your organization to
willingly want to create and sustain something
of value?
MAPPING What new clear thinking do people in your
organization do to put passionate visions into
JOURNEYING What are the joys of discovery that people in
your organization experience as they
implement their shared map?
LEARNING What changes and transformation occur
through great ideas that are fostered by
people in your organization?
MENTORING What great expectations are fostered by
trusted and experienced people in your
LEADING What acts of servant leadership inspire
people in your organization?
VALUING What ways do people in your organization
express gratitude for ROIR: Return-on-


In the leadership series to follow, I will be addressing each of the 7 pillars of visionary leadership. I will explain each, give case examples, and provide financial and productivity results to illustrate their relevance and implication to today's economy. The titles of the series of articles is listed below.For a summary of The 7 Pillars, go to Harcourt Brace & Company Canada's Website: or call 1-800 387-7278.

The 7 Pillars of Visionary Leadership: Introduction

PILLAR I: Visioning

PILLAR II: Mapping

PILLAR III: Journeying

PILLAR IV: Learning

PILLAR V: Mentoring

PILLAR VI: Leading



  1. Donna Korchinski, "Marines Whip Managers Into Shape," The Globe and Mail, Friday, July 17, 1998, B21.

  2. Michael Lissack, DBA, "Complexity Metaphors and the Management of a Knowledge Based Enterprise: An Exploration of Discovery." Website:

  3. "The Philosophical Approach," Royal Bank Newsletter, Vol. 79 No. 1 Winter 1998, 4 pages..

  4. Michael Cox and Michael E. Rock. The 7 Pillars of Visionary Leadership: Aligning Your Organization for Enduring Success (w/CD). Toronto: Dryden (Harcourt Brace & Company, Canada), 1997. ISBN 0-03-923117-8

  5. Cox and Rock, ibid., 74.

  6. Polly LaBarre, "Leadership: Ben Zander," Fast Company, December 1998, 114.

  7. Michael E. Rock, "The 90% Factor: EQ (Emotional Intelligence) and the New Workplace," CanadaOne Website:

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