How Small-Business Owners Can Become Visionary Leaders

by Vanessa Richardson on September 12, 2011

What could a small-business owner possibly have in common with Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.? If you understand the power and importance of having a vision, then you too can become a great leader.

Lisa Petrilli, founder of C-Level Strategies and @LisaPetrilli on Twitter, says great leaders understand that goals and objectives aren’t enough to lead people; vision must chart the course. She runs workshops designed to transform top business executives into excellent leaders, and for everyone else she co-hosts the Leadership Chat on Twitter every Tuesday evening at 8 p.m. Eastern.

We recently asked Petrilli to share some of her leadership advice for corporate head honchos that would work equally well for small-business owners.

ISBB: What qualities does a small-business owner need to lead? Do they differ from those of a Fortune 500 CEO?

Petrilli: No, they’re similar, just on a different scale. When I do leadership training, I see that executives from all sizes and types of businesses have one common problem: They struggle with the concept of vision. Many executives find it difficult to understand the importance of it and how to create it. Business owners first need to have a vision, and then they need to understand the difference between mission and vision.

Here’s an example of the difference: A movie producer has two directors sitting at his desk. He says, “I want to create a movie about the sinking of the Titanic.” Each director has a different vision for the producer’s mission. One creates a documentary for the Discovery Channel, the other is, say, James Cameron, who makes a mega-blockbuster. When you translate your mission into a vision — and have a passion for that vision — you can bring your employees along with you.

So, communicating your vision is also key?

Yes, you must explain your vision clearly, so people understand it. You also want to get people on your team who understand your vision and know what their role is in bringing that vision to life. That’s why measurement is also important. You need to know how to show your employees how you’re all making progress.

What if you don’t have all of the qualities mentioned above? What if you’re an introverted entrepreneur?

If you’re a CEO, you should have a strong team around you who can take what’s in your brain and help execute it. But self-awareness is everything. As a leader, make sure you’re in the role that’s right for you. I recently had Les McKeown, author of Predictable Success, on my Twitter leadership chat, and he said that depending on where a company is [in its development], its CEO might not be best for that stage. If you know you’re not great at everything, have the self-awareness to develop yourself or surround yourself with a team that has what you lack.

Is visionary leadership any different during a recession than in boom times?

It’s more important than ever during tough times, because it’s about deciding which direction to go in and knowing how to handle the roadblocks you’ll hit. If your best employee leaves, or the bank rejects your loan application, you still should know your direction. Your vision should be a beacon that keeps you strong when you’re facing headwinds. Without one, you can be thrown off course.

Who is your idea of a visionary business leader?

Richard Branson is not a “small business” person per se, but he certainly started that way. He was always broadening his vision, which now includes humanitarian and nonprofit initiatives in addition to his business ventures. He’s a great example of someone who started with ideas he was passionate about, built a small business, and then developed an ever-expanding vision that has enabled him to create something spectacular that benefits millions of people.