Visionaries and technocrats


I’ve  been thinking about leadership lately.  For all the volumes of history, sociology, and management written on the topic, I’ve always thought that the definition of a leader is fairly straightforward: a leader is someone whom others want to follow.  I suspect that many people in leadership positions are not really leaders in this sense of the word; they have institutional authority but not moral authority It also follows that there are some people in institutions who emerge as leaders in spite of not having the official role or title given to them.

Although everyone knows that the two subjects one should avoid in polite company are religion and politics, I am going to take the risk of using a political illustration.  Let me make it clear at the start that this is merely an example and I do not endorse any political party in either provincial or federal politics (as a matter of fact, I have rarely voted for the same party in subsequent elections).  But political though it may be, I have found this recent event to be a striking lesson in leadership.

In 2010, Carole James was leader of the British Columbia New Democratic Party.Carol_James_BC_NDP_2009_lg

Whether or not James was a good leader isn’t relevant to this post, and frankly, I don’t have an opinion on that either way.  What is relevant is the fact that by late 2010, many in her own party were questioning James’ effectiveness; one of those delightful things politicians call a “caucus mutiny” was brewing.  It was given great momentum by an open letter from NDP MLA Jenny Kwan, who declared, essentially, that she could no longer support James as party leader.  Kwan, a highly-respected veteran MLA, had great influence in her party; Kwan’s public opposition to James was the beginning of the end of James’ leadership.


Of course, Jenny Kwan alone did not bring down Carole James; like all such stories this one is complicated and involved.  If you would like to read about it in more depth, you can do so here.  My point is simply that the two women provided a real-life striking example of two contrasting leadership roles.  One had official leadership status but very little actual leadership power; the other did not have a formal leadership role but her opinion had great power with her colleagues, giving her a genuine leadership voice despite lacking the title of “Leader”.

When I used to teach Social Studies 9, I always began the course by discussing the dichotomy between de jure (in law or in theory) and de facto (in actual practice).  These two concepts permeate an enormous amount of social interaction and it is important to teach students how to think about them.  Any business executive can tell you about the de facto leaders in his organization, who may have little rank but garner great respect.  Sometimes these individuals are promoted, and sometimes they are deliberately ignored by managers who may feel threatened by their influence.  Any politician can tell you about de jure leaders who, while carrying the title “Leader of the Party” inspired very little loyalty or admiration.  They don’t last very long.

With that distinction in mind, let’s talk about the title of this post, and the two kinds of leaders embodied there.  I am not suggesting that these are the only two kinds of leaders; far from it.  If such topics interest you, you can find dozens of well-researched articles detailing the X types of leaders, where X equals the number of types of leaders the researcher believes exists.  (I’ve seen everything from “The 3 Types of Leaders” to “The 25 Types of Leaders”; apparently this isn’t exactly a precise science).  The two types of leaders I want to discuss are intriguing to me because one of them, the technocrat, is extremely common, while the other, the visionary, is relatively rare.  In both cases they defy the stereotypical assumptions one might make of them.

A technocrat is someone who is both highly skilled in developing and maintaining structured systems and passionately committed to improving them.  A “structured system” could be anything from a timetable to a computer network; from an organizational hierarchy to a filing system.  Technocrats pay obsessive attention to detail.  They tend to be strongly committed to rules and procedure.  They pay close attention to policy.  There is little about them that inspires people, with one exception: their sheer competence and organization is reassuring.  The Achilles heel of the technocrat is their tendency to “major on the minors”, to spend so much time on schedules and rules and procedures and computer systems that they neglect (or miss altogether) the underlying questions of meaning, purpose, transcendence.  For a technocrat, technology itself is the purpose; it is not the means to an end so much as a end in and of itself.  The stereotypical “company man” tends to be highly motivated and strongly technocratic individual.

I have always thought of Bill Gates as the quintessential technocrat. SOFTWARE- GATES

By contrast, a visionary is someone who is passionate not about systems, but about ideas  with the power to give meaning, even transcendence, to the labor of other people.  Technology by itself is not such an idea; it has the power to inspire but not the power to give meaning or transcendence.  Visionaries focus on the grand narratives that give purpose to human existence: truth, goodness, justice, freedom, identity; they are deeply concerned with inspiration and whether or not their work is meaningful.

Since Bill Gates was my example of a technocrat, you might be expecting me to cite Steve Jobs as a visionary.  I have actually given this a lot of thought; I read (and deeply enjoyed) Walter Isaacson’s excellent biography of Jobs, and my own opinion is that Jobs was a technocrat who thought of himself as a visionary and co-founded a company that has made billions on marketing the image of him as a visionary.  But ultimately, what was the grand vision? The creation of new kinds of computers (including telephones and music players that are, essentially, computers).  In a very limited sense, of course, this is a kind of vision, but a fairly sallow one.  It’s striking to think that if Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak had never founded Apple Computer, the world would, well, pretty be the same as it is today, except that Blackberry probably wouldn’t be in danger of being sold off for spare parts, and we wouldn’t have that incredibly cool Macintosh ad comparing Microsoft to Orwell’s Big Brother.

There are many examples of genuinely visionary leaders, but the one that comes to my mind right now is assassinated Pakistani political leader Benazir Bhutto.  Her obituary in the U.K.’s The Telegraph makes for fascinating reading.  

There are, of course, more notable visionary leaders I could cite, such as Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, or Nelson Mandela.  But each of them was, in general terms, successful in their stated aims.  I find Bhutto’s story so compelling because a case can certainly be made that she failed in many of her objectives (you can, of course, decide that for yourself–The Telegraph‘s obituary is no hagiography).  This is, I suspect, the greatest danger visionary leaders face: the danger of failure at achieving their grand vision, or the failure of compromising and diluting that vision until it is barely recognizable.  Most visionaries don’t care; they are willing to risk failure because they believe that transcendent ideals are worth failing for.  Technocrats have a much easier time of things; they seldom take risks, and when they do there is always a carefully researched and planned-out backup plan.

Sometimes technocrats in subordinate roles will try to act like visionaries to impress their superiors.  It doesn’t work. innovation-cartoon

Sometimes technocrats in positions of authority will rid themselves of visionaries.  This happens a fair bit of the time.  outside the box

Yet the two are not destined to come into conflict.  Although a visionary in a subordinate position can be in for a lonely time as his gifts and insights are ignored, he can emerge as a powerful de facto leader, one his superiors would be well-advised to listen to.  And though a technocrat in a subordinate position can be even more easily overlooked than a visionary (since technocrats do an excellent job of, well, fitting in to the system), her attention to detail, organization, and precision thinking can very well be the object of respect from her colleagues, if not outright admiration.  Thus a technocrat in a subordinate role may also become a de facto leader, one who may very well possess the knowledge and intellect to speak truth to power (whether one is advised to speak to truth to power in the first place is a different question).

What about when visionaries and technocrats assume positions of actual–de jure–power? There is a bit of a myth here, I suspect.  The myth, even the stereotype, is that visionaries are inspiring, while technocrats are cold and unfeeling.  This is not necessarily the case.  Visionaries have a passion for greater meaning and purpose, but too often their love for their ideas clouds their judgement and compassion for those who disagree with them.  And while technocrats can indeed be too focused on small details and overly cerebral, they are often appreciated by their subordinates precisely because they spend so much time and energy on so-called “practical” concerns and issues.  After all, the trains need to run on time; not everyone goes to work to be inspired.

In the end, I suspect that for teachers it is essential to be part visionary and part technocrat.  We absolutely must strive to inspire our students, who are hungry for an underlying narrative to give meaning to their labors.  Yet we must also mark papers and design syllabi and prepare report cards, and to do anything less than an excellent job at these technocratic tasks is to fail at the business of schooling (even if succeeding at the business of education).  At the risk of being accused of crass self-promotion, I would suggest that anyone who studies my English 11 and English 12 course overviews (at the risk of being even crasser I will add that they are available for download in PDF form here– will see that I long to be a visionary.  Yet I trust that this website alone proves my technocratic aptitude.