Four Steps to Being a Successful Business Visionary

by Erik Calonius. Erik is a former reporter, editor, and London correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and served as an editor and writer for Fortune, where he was nominated for the National Magazine Award. He collaborated with Dan Ariely on Predictably Irrational and is the author of The Wanderer & “Ten Steps Ahead: What Separates Successful Business Visionaries from the Rest of Us.”

About 15 years ago I had the opportunity to peek into the garage in California where Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started Apple Computer. Steve Jobs was with me at the time, giving me a personal tour of the place. He showed me where his desk sat in the cramped space; where Woz’s workbench was; where they stacked the boxes of finished personal computers in the corner.

At the time Jobs was still in exile from Apple. But in the years ahead Jobs would not only return to Apple and re-invent the place, but ride the success of Pixar’s Toy Story to heights that even he never imagined.

We’d all like to be visionaries. But how do we achieve that singular kind of vision? How do we develop that level of passion? How do we generate enough personal magnetism to light up not only an auditorium full of fans but hundreds of retail stores around the world?

What are the elements that distinguish visionaries? Here are a few:

  1. Visionaries are awake to the ideas around us. Visionaries don’t invent things that have never existed before; they see what exists right before our noses—the things that the rest of us are missing. The iPod didn’t come down on a lightning bolt, for instance. It was the clever synthesis of technologies that already existed. The same could be said of the iPad. The parts were all there. In fact, the idea of the hand-held computer had been tried before—by Apple. Richard Branson created his award-winning airline not by reinventing the airplane. He simply took the standard-issue airplane business model and added the pizzazz of the music business. Many of the greatest products come to life from similar counterintuitive combinations. Suitcases. Wheels. Why did it take 2000 years for humanity to realize you could put the two together into the “rollaboard” and save yourself a lot of work? Stay awake to the great ideas that are right in front of us.
  1. Intuition: By definition, visionaries have to be able to look into the future. But how do they do that? How did Jobs decide to produce an iPad (rather, say, than a new line of laptops). Or Branson, an airline, rather than a new string of recording studios.  The answer is that they collect as much information as they can, and absorb as much as they are able to. Then they set their rational minds aside, and when it comes to the moment of the big decision, let their gut tell them what to do.
  1. Courage: While most of us say we want to want to be successful visionaries, very few of us, I would bet, would be willing to risk our lives and whatever fortunes we have to get there. But that’s what makes visionaries different. Regardless of the field—science, business, exploration, political leadership—the story of the visionary will always include points of crisis where they’ve had to wager their welfare, and that of their families, colleagues and friends—to make their dreams come true. Despite the glamour and glitz, being a visionary can be a harrowing existence.
  1. Luck: You can’t get around the fact that in addition to their formidable skills, visionaries are just plain lucky. Steve Jobs wouldn’t be what he is today if he hadn’t bumped into Steve Wozniak, who designed and built the first Apple computers. Branson wouldn’t have been able to sell Virgin Music for a billion dollars if, years earlier, he hadn’t bumped into Simon Draper, who supplied the ear for music that Branson lacked. The list goes on and on. Luck is not random. Scientists they have found that “lucky” people bring an attitude to life that increases their odds.

What comes naturally to visionaries may take some work from the rest of us. And we can do that. We can learn more about intuition—how to use it properly. We can remember to open our eyes to life—to find new ways to look at the familiar. We can study emotional intelligence, and learn lessons that will make us visionary leaders. In the end, “visionary thinking” is not limited to the name-brand visionaries. We all have it. We just need to summon it up, and use it every day.