Why visionary leaders don't scale

Visionary leaders can be powerful drivers during early days, but they'll become bottlenecks unless they switch from giving answers to providing questions.

Why visionary leaders don't scale

Some people are just brilliant. They have extensive knowledge, sharp minds, fantastic intuition. They figure out in 20 minutes a problem that would take you 4 hours to solve. These people can take a brand new team and lead them to produce amazing results in a short time.

But the problem is that these same people can also become the ones that prevent the team from growing. Visionary leaders can be powerful drivers in the early days, but they'll become bottlenecks unless they learn how to switch from giving answers to providing questions.

The problem with answers

It's convenient for a team to have experts that can dispatch solutions rapidly. Someone with great experience can look at a situation, dig into their memory to find similar patterns, and provide a recommendation.

What we don't see though, is that they broke down the original problem into smaller questions that they could answer rapidly without having to voice them. Call it intuition or experience — but folks on the outside only see the problem -> solution path as opposed to the more interesting problem -> question -> question -> question -> solution process that really happened.

The second issue is that managing by answers won't scale. Once your team gets big enough, there are just too many open questions. It doesn't matter if you used to take care of the roadmap, the go-to-market strategy, implementation details, or all of it together. Now folks are starting to wait on you to know what they should be doing. You are now the bottleneck.

That's when visionary leaders have to change. You can't keep on trying to figure out everything by yourself.

But there's another point I'd like to cover first.

It's harder for successful leaders to change

Having a great track record makes it harder to embrace change.  A CEO that led her organization to millions while being the one setting the roadmap can understandably have some apprehension about letting her team decide where they should be going.

But there's a path forward that can mitigate that problem. Rather than doing a disappearing act, it's still possible to keep having a strong contribution to the decisions being made.

Your job is still to unblock the team, but you're just changing the way you're going about it.

Learning to provide questions

If you have great expertise on a topic, it's very tempting to jump straight to the solution. But it creates the wrong feedback loop. The more you provide answers, the more you refine your mental model, the easier the next questions will be, and the harder it becomes to let people catch up to your knowledge.

So what you need to do instead is slow down and explain your process. You need to extract your core assumptions and describe them to the team. Then you need to help them break down the original issue into smaller questions that they can answer themselves.

Your job as a leader is to:

  1. Help build and refine your organization frameworks.
  2. Make sure that your team has the space to answer their questions (trust, time, and data).
  3. Give them the environment to grow and build their expertise.

There are many roads to Rome

It's going to be uncomfortable and frustrating at times. You'll see your team take paths you will question, but that's ok. Your customers and the market you operate in are complex, and there isn't a one-size-fits-all option for success.

What's important is to allow people to learn and iterate quickly so they can make better decisions over time. Get your team to own the ship as much as you do — it will stop feeling like you're pulling the cart by yourself.

Stop being visionary, start being inspirational.

You probably heard "what got you here won't get you there". And that's the same in this case. Being a compass might have been fantastic til this point, but becoming a teacher could be the best thing moving forward.

This article is part of our newsletter Scaling Small. Subscribe below to get more posts like that in your inbox. You can also find me on Twitter @stenpittet.