CEOs could be visionaries if only Wall Street would let them risk failure. Right now, the Street rewards failure, but not visionaries. Vision is not just recognizing opportunities, though.


How a vision can turn into a nightmare can be easily explained. CEOs are formally hired to bring vision and leadership to companies. In lieu of recognized visionaries, some companies hire chief innovation officers, but CEOs or CIOs don’t know everything (that’s the job of this writer of My editorials!), so the upper echelons must rely on experts in a variety of fields, including creative, finance, marketing, and technology. These experts rely on their own narrow fields of vision, which must also be in sync with that of their bosses. Experts can be brilliant, but they aren’t visionaries. That’s why they can win Nobel Prizes, while visionaries cannot.

Visionaries have to be surrounded by experts though. Even Michelangelo, who had foreseen the helicopter in 1500, needed experts to cut the marble for his sculptures.

The traditional definition of a visionary is someone who sees the big picture, can envision the future, and is not afraid of failure. Today, we could even call it a broadband vision!

Examples of fearless visionaries include Thomas A. Edison (who patented just 1,000 of his 9,000 experiments), Walt Disney (who twice was on the verge of bankruptcy), and Ted Turner of Superstation and CNN fame, who only narrowly avoided bankruptcy after taking control of MGM.

David Sarnoff (who rebounded many times after some unwise decisions) was a visionary, and Bill Paley recognized opportunities. While Sarnoff created NBC mainly to sell his RCA radio and TV sets, Paley saw an opportunity for CBS to make money with advertising.

A vision can be for an unlikely acquisition, a new venture or product, the sale of some seemingly strategic assets, or even for an idea, like that of British science writer Arthur C. Clarke, who in 1945 envisioned the satellite geostationary orbit that revolutionized the world of communications. Being a visionary, he naturally did not qualify for a Nobel Prize.

However, there are always elements that can derail a vision, including technology, legislation, and the economy. And that’s when a vision turns into a nightmare.

For years, film and TV producer CEOs had visions of replacing the middlemen and going directly to consumers. In fact, that’s the very reason why HBO was established. But then digital technology created no less than 80 middlemen with the development of 80 different fruition rights.

Television broadcast CEOs have for years had visions of powerful, vertically integrated enterprises that could dictate business conditions to advertising agencies, forcing them to merge in order to stand up to the demands of broadcasters. Today, those multinational ad agency behemoths are beginning to crumble under their own weight, and linear TV networks are experiencing their own critical phases.

If the overarching vision years ago was, “Go West Young Man,” (from American publisher John Babsone Lane Soule in an 1851 editorial in the Terre Haute Express), and only later became, “There’s a great future in plastics,” (as gleaned from the famous line in 1967’s The Graduate), today’s vision can be defined as “gOTT”!

But we need to remember that the expansion to the West was called the “Trail of Tears” for a reason, that being the large number of casualties. And these days, plastic waste is now engulfing the world.

Similarly, digital volatility can cause its own nightmares, especially considering that, nowadays, Wall Street demands are such that CEOs of profitable companies cannot afford failures, cannot risk money, have to depend on the tried and true, and go for mergers and acquisitions rather than development. At the same time, though, Wall Street rewards failure, as is the case with a slew of technology companies that keep losing billions and billions of dollars.

True visionaries will have to wait until these huge conglomerates eventually implode and create a large number of smaller companies that will risk little to become big!

(By Dom Serafini)

Audio Version (a DV Works service)

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