Guest Blog: Three leaders, Three Functions - Thom Rainer | The Brethren Church

Guest Blog: Three leaders, Three Functions - Thom Rainer

Guest Blog: Three leaders, Three Functions - Thom Rainer

Submitted by Brethren Church on Fri, 10/01/2010 - 5:33am

Healthy organizations inevitably have healthy leaders. That statement is so self-evident that it is hardly worth articulating. Where we often do not give adequate attention to leadership, however, is making certain that leaders are in positions that best fit them functionally.

My functional classification is likely an oversimplification. Still, it has helped me understand different types of leaders and how they might best serve and lead in an organization.

Visionary leaders

The visionary leader has the high-level view. Some leadership experts define this type of leader as the person who can see a preferred future. I don’t disagree with this understanding as a rule, but it may not always work. A visionary may not see the future with clarity, but he or she has looked at various longer-term possibilities and decided on a destination for the organization.

This category of leader is thus a person who has a vision and the courage to lead an organization toward the future. Because the visionary leader thinks in big-picture views, he tends not to do well-handling details.

Strategic leaders

Visionary leaders may see different possibilities for the organization’s future, but they may or may not know the most effective path to get there. Strategic leaders are able to take the vision of the organization and map out the way to get there. The visionary leader understands the present location and the destination. The strategic leader is the navigation system that takes those two points and shows the most effective path to travel.

Some of the best organizations I have seen have a strong visionary leader and a strong strategic leader working side by side. The former declares the destination and the latter provides the path.

Managerial leaders

Typically a managerial leader is not able to see or cast a vision. Nor is the leader best at providing the strategic plan to arrive at the vision. But this type of leader is still vital to the organization. The managerial leader finds and organizes the resources necessary for the organization to move toward the vision on the strategic path.

To use a rough analogy, the visionary leader provides the destination for a trip. The strategic leader provides the map or navigation system to get there. And the managerial leader gets the right type of vehicle with the best choice of fuel to make the trip possible.


A few observations might help at this point. First, all three types of leaders are vital in any organization. You cannot make a trip without a destination, a way to get there, and the means to make the travel. This functional description of leaders is not meant to imply the superiority of one type of leader over another.

Second, though all leaders are needed in an organization, there are usually very few visionary leaders, a few more strategic leaders, but even more managerial leaders. It makes sense. You certainly don’t need numbers of visionary leaders with competing visions in an organization, but you do need many managerial leaders to carry out the vision.

Third, organizational dysfunction often occurs when a particular leader is in the wrong seat. A managerial leader, for example, will become frustrated and even despondent if he is expected to develop a strategic path. He is at his best when he is bringing together the resources to execute a strategy already provided him. Similarly, a visionary leader may do poorly if his or her primary role is executing someone else’s vision and strategy. That person is often frustrated dealing with details and allocating resources.

Healthy organizations have many different components that comprise their healthy state. But those robust organizations inevitably have all three types of functional leaders present. And they have them in a place that best fits each of their leadership styles.

Thom Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources and for 15 years prior to that led a church and denominational consulting firm. He is the author of 22 books, including his latest, Who Moved My Pulpit?  – just released in June 2016 by B&H Publishing Group.

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