Visionary CEOs are constantly thinking of the next big thing. That’s great for innovation, but bad for employees who can’t figure out what to work on next.

More than 50 percent of the CEOs who responded to this year’s Inc. 500 CEO Survey identified their leadership style as “Creative Builders,”—a leadership style defined by visionaries who are happiest at the start of new projects. That’s great—it puts you in the same category as Steve Jobs, one of the most heralded fast-growth leaders. But there is a specific challenge with this type of leadership that can cause big problems. I’m referring to the tendency some visionary CEOs have of thinking out loud in front of employees; a sort of personal brainstorming session that may be helpful to the CEO, but confuses everyone else in the room.

I call it “finger painting” because the thoughts and ideas are fluid and not completely formed, like a child’s finger-painting picture. The confusion arises when these CEOs are working through scenarios that may sound like policy to employees but, in actuality, they are not even a plan yet.

Here are a few common communication blunders visionary CEOs often make:

  • Speaking of the future in present tense—They can “see” the future and speak about it as if it were already here, or at least imminent, even though the actual end date has not been set.
  • Brainstorming structure changes—As a visionary CEO “works through” how this future will function, he or she often strategizes about the organizational changes that will need to happen. Needless to say, this can cause anxiety to any employee within earshot.

The unintended outcomes of these impromptu brainstorming sessions include false-steps as employees try to respond to what they believe is direction. Even worse, some employees will simply become inert as they decide that doing nothing and waiting for more clarification is the best policy. Meanwhile, CEOs feel like their people lack the vision, initiative, understanding and courage to tackle their great endeavor. In truth, while the visionary may see it clearly, everyone else is just trying to catch up to the most recent version.

What should CEOs do?


  • Declare—Brainstorming can be a great creative exercise and keeping it unfettered often leads to the best ideas. If that is what you are doing, then declare, “This is brainstorming. Nothing is a plan or a policy yet, I am just thinking out loud.” CEOs often think this does not need to be said. They are wrong. Your team needs to know what is thinking out loud and what is a mission to be executed.
  • Decide—Often a CEO continues churning out ideas because his thoughts are still evolving based on the input he receives from the team. However, to turn ideas into action, a decision has to be made when the idea is ready for action. Give your idea its initial specifications and a release date and move forward. You can always decide to add ideas later.
  • Delegate—Assign an implementation person or team to execute your vision, then get out of the way. If you stay in the kitchen tinkering while your team is cooking, you will ruin the soup.


If your leadership style is that of a creative innovator, be careful not to finger paint in public without warning your employees—you won’t like the final picture.

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