The Myth of the Visionary Managing Partner

The Strategic Planning Society recently posted on their Linkedin site the seemingly straight-forward question: “What is a good definition for vision?”

Now please keep in mind that this question is being posed within the fraternity of those who have fostered and perpetrated the belief that every organization should have a vision and that the organization’s leader should be a “visionary” – the originator of such a vision. A flurry of responses came from a community who hold titles like Strategic Planning Manager, Senior Resource Planning Manager, Head of Planning and Control, Senior Manager Strategy Solutions, Strategy Execution Advisor, Managing Partner, CEO, CMO, University Professor and so forth and included:

The position or status a company aspires to achieve within a reasonable time frame.

The vision is a concise measurable statement that defines the mid to long -term (three to ten years) goals of an organization. The vision should be external and market oriented and should express how the organization wants to be perceived by the world.

Vision – a smart ability to look behind horizon

The ability to stay in a balloon above your business, to see beyond the operational issues

“Vision” refers to an imagined state of affairs. All else is elaboration.

Vision consists of thinking ahead and ensuring that colleagues address the right issues.

Picture-painting by the Leader: We’re going [over there]. We need to be there [by this time during a reporting-period].

These responses are coming from very smart, accomplished professionals. This question generated in excess of 65 postings over a one-month period without any real consensus amongst the 6800 members of The Strategic Planning Society of what a vision really is!

I believe one aspect of this notion of “having a vision” was confirmed by the recent (150 managing partner) interviews conducted by my UK colleague Rob Lees (co-author of When Professionals Have To Manage) where he related, in a discussion with me:

The managing partner of one of the firms we talked to explained how he had come back from Harvard Business School’s Leading Professional Service Firms program with renewed energy and a determination to drive the firm forward. So, he outlined his vision of moving the firm from its regional base to becoming a leading national firm to his partners and talked about what they needed to do to get there. But, to his abject disappointment, nothing happened. To the partners, the vision was just too aspirational; achievable only through a merger, which they felt they would be on the wrong side of. Concerned about the lack of action, the managing partner visited all of the offices to talk through the plans and, during these visits, the partners’ concerns surfaced.

Meanwhile, in his new book Great By Choice, Jim Collins tells us that his findings dismiss several closely held business world beliefs . . . such as the notion that successful leaders are “bold, risk-seeking visionaries.” Rather, Collins concludes that the most successful leaders are “disciplined,” “empirical” and “paranoid,” building on verifiable results and constantly anticipating what could go wrong.

It is my (personal) strong belief that this constant talk about “needing to have a vision” is just NONSENSE and something that managing partners have elicited from various books on leadership. Partners definitely NEED to have some sense of shared direction (where are we going?) and that shared direction needs to be facilitated by an effective leader; but I find that this idea that in order to be an effective firm leader, you need to articulate a vision, is just not grounded in any reality.

Remember mission statements? Mission statements first came into vogue in the 1990’s. A single-page document filled with more platitudes than you’d find in the average prayer book, spelling out your firm’s business mission. No one remembered the darn things, it was business as usual, and the document didn’t have the profound impact on the fortunes of firms that their creators had hoped for. The mission statement exercise was quickly forgotten — except at those few firms who chose to have them laminated as cards for every professional to keep in their wallet.

Then we were instructed on how every firm needed “a vision.” It was a new name, but quickly became the same old silly exercise. All your skeptical partners exchange winks and knowing glances. The Executive Committee will have to be indulged one more time. In all cases the result was to be the same — having a vision changed nothing. I am not aware of one single firm (and certainly not among those achieving above-average performance) who have invested partner time in developing a mission or vision statement.

And I have for years challenged lawyers at multiple legal conferences to please give me just one example of a law firm, anywhere, wherein a firm leader proclaimed a vision and had all of his or her partners excited, eager to move forward and behaving in concert with that articulated vision. I have yet to find one real live example.

Looked at slightly differently . . .

Visionaries tend to narrow their attention onto those phenomena that appear relevant and supportive of their visions. They can, therefore, appear impatient, dismissive and intolerant of any information or ideas that may appear to challenge or question their vision (“don’t confuse me with the facts”). While having a vision may be nice – in a complex world, visions require a psychological sophistication that many of us mere mortals lack. A true vision contains a paradox in that it is not an expression of truth, nor is it necessarily right, but your vision must be treated as though “it was right.“ The thing to consider is that a true vision requires that you have a view of the future that isn’t necessarily supported by evidence.

(And with tongue firmly implanted in cheek): I don’t know about you, but my academic education in social psychology taught me that an individual having visions . . . unsupported by evidence . . . was usually a clear sign of someone who had lost touch with reality!


  1. Insightful post Patrick, thank you. As we grapple with firm management issues, we keep coming back to the fundamentals. The nomenclature I use it what I am familiar with in terms of moving our firm forward, so I am likely not using the correct buzzwords. First, we have a game plan, which is similar to what you describe as “a sense of a shared direction.” Anything that all lawyers/partners can agree upon (if that is even achievable) will be too high-level to be (standing alone) helpful. Second, goals that are written, measurable and pushing the firm in the right direction. Third, accountability: incentivize folks to pitch in and reward those that do. Not sure that the planning needs to be more complicated than that. You will get enough hard work in the execution.

  2. Thanks for your comments Chad. Buzzwords be damned. I agree completely with your approach! Cheers.