Visionary Leadership Transfers Leaders’ Sense of Meaning in Their Work to Their Followers - Ideas for Leaders

Visionary Leadership Transfers Leaders’ Sense of Meaning in Their Work to Their Followers

Idea #882

Visionary Leadership Transfers Leaders’ Sense of Meaning in Their Work to Their Followers

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Leaders who find their work meaningful can instil the same sense of meaning and purpose in their followers if these leaders communicate a vision for the organization and their followers’ roles in the organization especially in the early years of the leader-follower working relationship.


People are more engaged in their work and more committed to their organizations if they find their work meaningful that is, if their work gives them a sense that they are contributing to something bigger than themselves.

Meaningfulness is subjective: It is up to the individuals to determine if they believe their work has meaning. Nevertheless, as one team of researchers reveals in their research involving more than 1600 CEOs, mid-level leaders, and employees in 127 German firms, leaders can play an important role in helping followers recognize the meaningfulness of their day-to-day work.

It begins with the leaders themselves finding their work meaningful. If leaders from CEOs to mid-level managers believe they are contributing to something significant and positive, they are more likely, the study finds, to display visionary leadership, for example by:

  • Showing followers from direct reports to the CEOs to employees reporting to mid-level managers how their work connects to the collective goal of the organization.
  • Focusing the attention of followers not on the routine of daily tasks but on how they are changing of the lives of customers.
  • Enhancing in their followers a sense of belonging, emphasizing that membership in the organization is special and enriching.

Followers, who will pick up on cues that their day-to-day activities are meaningful, will find such cues offered in the communications of a visionary leader.

The impact of leaders instilling in their followers a sense of meaning and purpose can be significant. The research shows that followers who find meaning in their work are more likely to achieve their work goals and less likely to consider leaving the organization.

There is, however, an expiration date to the impact of visionary leadership based on how long a follower an employee reporting to a manager, or a senior manager reporting to the CEO, for example has been working for the leader. After 6 years of reporting to the same leader, the research shows, followers are less likely to visionary leaders to inspire meaningfulness in their work. They have developed their how they fit in the organization and how their work is meaningful.

The research consisted of two studies based on survey questionnaires sent to two different sets of leaders and their followers. In the first study, surveys were sent to 79 department heads (mid-level managers) of 52 German companies, as well as two groups of 446 employees and 425 employees respectively who reported to these department heads.

The department heads answered questions about the meaningfulness they attached to their jobs. The first group of employees answered questions about the visionary leadership of their department heads. The second group of employees answered questions about their own meaningfulness. Both department heads and employees reported how long they had been their positions a comparison of their answers to this question allowed the researchers to calculate how long employee respondents had been reporting to the department heads. This study was followed by a second study that explored the relationships between leaders and followers as in the first study, only at the upper levels of organizations. Specifically,68 CEOs and 596 direct reports (in companies not in the first survey) responded to the questionnaires from the researchers. The results were the same as in the first study in terms of the indirect impact of leader meaningfulness on follower meaningfulness through visionary leadership, and the subsequent positive impact on goal achievement and turnover intentions.


People want to find meaning and purpose in their work. This research offers guidance for leaders and organizations seeking to help their people acquire this sense of meaning and purposes. One of the first lessons of this research is that while it’s true that ultimately a sense of meaningfulness will come from within it cannot be imposed on individuals from the outside they will still look for meaningful purpose cues and inspiration from others in the organization, and especially from their leaders.

Another lesson of this research is that role modeling is not enough. Employees will not simply observe and copy the meaningfulness of their leaders.

Instead, this research demonstrates that leaders and organizations must launch initiatives that communicate a vision for the organization and clearly demonstrate how the day-to-day work of their followers contributes to that vision.

One final lesson from this research is its demonstration of the powerful two-way relationship between meaningfulness and visionary leadership: Meaningfulness inspires leaders to become visionary leaders, and visionary leadership inspires meaningfulness in followers. Instilling a sense of meaning and purpose at all levels of the hierarchy is vital to an organization’s success and the success of its people.



Petra Kipfelsberger’s profile at University of St Gallen

Anneloes Raes’s profile at IESE Business School

Dennis Herhausen’s profile at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam,Marketing%20at%20Vrije%20Universiteit%20Amsterdam.

Ronit Kark’s profile at Bar-Ilan University

Heike Bruch’s profile at University of St Gallen

Prof. Dr. Heike Bruch


Further Reading (in CMS: References)

Start with Why: The transfer of work meaningfulness from leaders to followers and the role of dyadic tenure. Petra Kipfelsberger, Anneloes Raes, Dennis Herhausen, Ronit Kark, Heike Bruch. Journal of Organizational Behavior (October 2022).

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Idea conceived

May 18, 2024

Idea posted

May 2024
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