Visionary Leadership Are Most Needed in Times of Uncertainty - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #886

Visionary Leadership Are Most Needed in Times of Uncertainty

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Visionary leadership is vital during times of uncertainty. Followers struggle to find meaning in their work when their futures are uncertain; working towards a leader’s vision provides that meaning. Visionary leadership also indirectly limits employee turnover since job meaningfulness reduces the likelihood of employees seeking a new job a likelihood much stronger in times of uncertainty.


The greatest of leaders are visionaries. They have a vision for the future of their organizations and effectively communicate that vision to their followers which inspires the followers’ commitment to make the vision a reality. Prior studies have shown that visionary leadership fosters high levels of employee performance and engagement, and reduces the likelihood that employees want to leave their jobs.

The positive results of visionary leadership are well-documented. Less known, however, is why visionary leadership is so impactful.

A study from Potsdam University offers a partial answer by testing the impact of uncertainty on the positive effects of visionary leadership in two areas: perceived meaningfulness (whether employees find meaning in their work) and turnover intentions (whether employees intend to look for another job).

Previous studies have shown that visionary leadership helps employees to see the meaningfulness of their work. Specifically, they realize their efforts are contributing to achieving an ideal or desired future encapsulated in the leader’s vision. Previous studies have also shown that because perceived meaningfulness reduces turnover intention that is, when followers find meaning in their work, they are less likely to want to leave their position. Thus, visionary leadership indirectly (through increased perceived meaningfulness) reduces turnover intentions.

The Potsdam study was based on questionnaires sent to 258 leader-follower pairs from diverse industries, including health, IT, and the financial sector. Most of the leader-follower pairs, known as “dyads”, were from Germany. The remaining seven were dispersed among Russia, Denmark, China, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and France.

The study occurred in two phases. In the first phase, followers were asked to rate their leaders’ visionary leadership. At the same time, leaders were asked to rate the level of uncertainty at work. The ratings were calculated from a series of questions for each item.

Two months later, followers were asked to rate how meaningful they perceived their work to be, and how likely they intended to leave their current jobs (turnover intentions).

Analysis of the results confirmed that the positive effect of visionary leadership on meaningfulness was particularly strong when uncertainty was high, and non-significant when uncertainty was low. Likewise, the researchers found that indirectly through meaningfulness visionary leadership greatly reduced turnover intentions in times of high uncertainty.

The study demonstrates that in times of uncertainty when limited information or understanding makes it difficult to predict what will happen in the future, the positive impact of visionary leadership on perceived meaningfulness and turnover intentions is much stronger than in times of less uncertainty.

The reason is that visionary leaders replace the darkness of an uncertain future with the light of a concrete image that followers can look forward to and aim for. The vision of the leader gives the organization a destination, a goal for the future a destination and a goal on which followers can build the meaning and purpose of their day-to-day jobs. Having found their meaning and purpose, followers are no longer inclined to look elsewhere.

In times of low uncertainty, in contrast, there is less need for a visionary leader because employees are not struggling with the anxiety and loss of direction elicited by uncertainty. There is less need for a leader’s vision to dispel the darkness of uncertainty which, as this study demonstrates, is one of the key attributes that makes visionary leadership so powerful.


Our future seems to be more and more uncertain, in great part because of developments in technology, such as digitalization, automation, and most notoriously, artificial intelligence. Political turmoil, polarization, and geo-political conflict add to the uncertainty. In the workplace, uncertainty leads to attrition, as employees seek to reduce their uncertainty by finding new jobs. High employee turnover is costly for organizations, especially if skilled labor is scarce.

Visionary leadership has always been admired. This study shows that today, developing and communicating a vision may be one of the most important responsibilities of leaders seeking to ensure the success of their organizations and the people who work for them.



Martin Buss’ profile at University of Potsdam

Eric Kearney’s profile at University of Potsdam


Navigating the unknown: Uncertainty moderates the link between visionary leadership, perceived meaningfulness, and turnover intentions. Martin Buss, Eric Kearney. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology (March 2024).

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Idea conceived

June 7, 2024

Idea posted

Jun 2024
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