If you are like me, you probably pass a number of signs on the way to work each day that offer “words of wisdom” for all travelers to see and reflect upon. I passed one such sign this morning in front of a bank that read: “It takes someone who can see the invisible to do the impossible.” Pondering the statement, it seemed to me that what the quote was referencing was “vision”—the ability to “see” an idea or plan for the future. It also suggests the possibility of being able to predict the future.

In any case, vision is often listed as a desirable characteristic for a leader, and I do not disagree. I happen to think that the best leaders have a vision of where they want to take themselves and their organization. However, being a visionary does not necessarily make you a great leader. History is filled with many visionary characters that were often viewed as crackpots and only hindsight has proven them correct.

A great leader is not only a visionary, but also has the ability to make the vision “real” for others. They also know whether the timing is right for their vision and whether the environment they are in is capable of embracing it. There is nothing worse than trying to spread your vision to a constituency that doesn’t get it; gets it but doesn’t want it; or wants it, but there are other more powerful forces at work that do not allow for success. I am reasonably certain that Peter Quinn, the former chief information officer for Massachusetts, had a vision for his open document format, but didn’t fully appreciate the political wrath of Microsoft when he set out to make his vision a reality.

So if great leaders have vision and visionaries are not necessarily great leaders, can you be a good leader without vision? The answer is yes. I will use the military as an example, but this is applicable to all occupations. I am sure over the thousands of years that the human race has engaged in organized armed conflict there have been many soldiers who led men in combat but did not share the same “vision” as their government or higher commanders, yet were determined to keep their men alive and were skillful in doing so. These officers and non-commissioned officers would be described as good leaders by their men, yet the extent of their vision may have been mere survival.

I’m sure you see this everyday—a unit or departmental manager does not particularly buy into the corporate “vision,” yet he manages to run an excellent business unit. In these cases, he may not have a vision and is just skilled at planning, organizing, commanding, controlling, and coordinating (i.e., management)—or they might have a vision and are just sitting on it till the time is right.

It is usually apparent when you are working for someone who is a leader with vision as opposed to someone who is just a competent manager. It is apparent in the way they approach problems and opportunities and how they interact with others around them. I’m not talking about charisma here either. Visionary leaders are people who need little direction from others, know where they are going, and are determined to take others with them. It’s often hard to characterize in words, which is why people often refer to it as a “vision thing.”

I once attended a meeting of an executive committee in which the performance of a particular director was being discussed. Part of the committee focused on how well this director’s unit was performing, while others said that it wasn’t enough, and the unit had so much more potential. The discussion boiled down to whether the group wanted a “caretaker” as their director or someone with “vision” to take the unit to the next level.

At executive levels of management or key positions in organizations, vision—or a lack of it—is often a determining factor in whether someone’s career dead ends at a particular level or whether they can continue to rise. This is why I tried to distinguish between great leaders and good leaders in the paragraphs above.

So, if vision is important in leadership, how do you go about acquiring it, developing it, using it? I encourage you to do some research of your own on this topic. I believe vision is a personal thing, and even if you feel that you have it, it’s not something that is easy to communicate to others as a trait to be developed. I am interested in hearing what you think on the topic: Can vision be acquired or developed like other skills, and if so, how can you? Do you think it’s just something you either have or you don’t? And do you think that it’s essential to leaders at the highest rank of organizations? There’s some food for thought–let me know what you think!