Is there a difference between a visionary and a leader in an organization? If you posed the question to a C-suite professional who’s led by a so-called “visionary leader,” they might say that a visionary and a leader are one in the same; any individual can exhibit both qualities. While this is certainly true, those gifted with both vision and discipline are rare, and they’re often more well known for being controversial figures.

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at modern-day examples of both visionaries and leaders, along with some dynamic duos. We’ll also discuss some of the key differences between the two types of executives and their personalities. Recognizing both the differences and similarities can help you better understand the leadership dynamics at play in your own organization.

Visionary Leaders

Visionaries are exceptional creative forces who bring forward ideas to change the world. They see the potential of what could be, rather than what is. They are creators, inventors, and often entrepreneurs. While they’re undoubtedly talented, they are often perceived as idiosyncratic or capricious.

Take, for instance, Steve Jobs. It’s been well documented that he could be dictatorial, difficult, and even mean-spirited. However, Jobs had a clear vision, a passion for Apple, and the competence and magnetism that was needed to  inspire trust in a brand that frequently bucked convention. Ultimately it was Jobs’s creative vision that allowed him to return to his role as Apple CEO in 1997 after departing the company in 1985.

Visionaries can be prone to making unilateral decisions, sometimes lacking empathy for how those decisions may impact others in the organization. For instance, in 2018, Elon Musk tweeted that he was considering taking Tesla private. His hasty action resulted in a public relations and legal nightmare for the company. Musk followed that up with an appearance on a podcast, in which he smoked a cigar consisting of tobacco laced with cannabis and spoke about recreational drug use. The incident fueled rumors about his unstable behavior and resulted in a drop of Tesla’s stock price. Given the enormous success and innovation of Tesla and SpaceX, it may be going too far to call Elon Musk’s leadership style “failed leadership,” but it’s impossible to deny that his unilateral approach occasionally hurts Tesla’s position.

Then there’s Mark Zuckerberg, who remains chairman, CEO, and controlling shareholder of Facebook, the company he launched in his Harvard dorm room in 2004. While he’s a passionate creative, Zuckerberg is also able to recognize his weaknesses alongside his strengths. A great example of his approach is the hiring of COO Sheryl Sanderg, who brings balance to the organization with her disciplined ability to execute on Zuckerberg’s vision. Facebook has seen its share of ups and downs and controversies in recent years, but Sandberg remains Zuckerberg’s loyal teammate who drives stability in the turbulent social media landscape.

As evident in these examples, visionaries are often colorful personalities who are put in leadership positions because they are the inventors; however, their leadership and execution skills are not always aligned with what an organization needs to sustain stable growth. This is an important takeaway for your own organization. Not every company is inventing new social media platforms or commercial space rockets, but every market-leading company needs innovation alongside the ability to execute creative ideas. By definition, companies that lean on formula and tradition can only ever achieve moderate standings in their industry–they will never lead it. But the companies who are subject to the whims of the difficult genius also suffer for it due to a lack of execution. For execution expertise, look to leaders who can share a creative vision.

Leaders vs. Visionaries

It’s one thing to create something knowing that it has the potential to change the world, but it’s another thing entirely to ensure the quality and sustainability needed to deliver it. Leaders don’t have to be crazy risk takers when they are put in charge of generational, time-tested brands. Rather, they need to stay aligned with the company’s overall vision, motivate key teams, and bring quality to the innovative products that are created. Leaders get things done by inspiring and exciting others, and they understand the organizational skills that are needed to implement great ideas.

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, has not reinvented the wheel or the car. She rose through the ranks of this well-established company and exhibited incredible work ethic in every role. As CEO, she stays up to date on all new developments, and her oversight of innovative teams has allowed GM to take on new challenges successfully. A colleague noted her “consensus approach”, and she’s been known to conduct town hall meetings to seek input on projects. Overall, Barra exhibits a leader’s empathetic qualities and creates an inclusive environment where employees can voice their opinions.

Another example of iconic brand leadership is Roy Disney. His younger brother Walt was the creative visionary and a great business man in his own right, but Roy is credited for being the financial genius behind The Walt Disney Co. He had excellent people skills, and was reportedly able to read a personality with a mastery that paralleled Walt’s ability to assign personalities to cartoons. In 1945, he succeeded Walt as President to relieve him of administrative responsibilities, and later postponed his own retirement to oversee the building of Disney World after Walt’s death.

Bridging the Ground Between Vision and Execution

Visionary leadership is widely considered the key to strategic change, reports Harvard Business Review (HBR). It’s not just about strategic direction, but inspiring others to embrace change and work hard to achieve it. HBR’s research has found that the positive impact of visionary leadership can break down when middle managers aren’t aligned with top management’s strategic vision. This can result in the impediment or failure of strategic change initiatives.

In its earliest days, the Disney vision was a lot to take in, from colorful characters in cutting-edge animated films to a theme park of magical proportions. Walt Disney was a once-in-a-generation visionary, but he relied on his brother Roy to share in his vision. Together, they built the team to execute a brand that defined a generation of children.

Similarly, Steve Jobs had the vision to create a compact device with “1000 songs in your pocket,” but he couldn’t execute it alone. He needed to surround himself with engineers and consumer marketing teams that believed in the product. Jobs also needed to be able to communicate and break down his ideas for other teams to understand. That quality applies to all visionaries. If you can’t communicate ideas to at least one other leader who can help translate them, innovation will stall and the company will not move forward.

Visionaries and leaders also need to share a healthy dose of optimism. They need to believe in the opportunity to create and remain optimistic that consumers will embrace new ideas and products. Companies that have an ample supply and adequate balance of shared vision with communication, optimism, and execution are well positioned for success.

It’s the happiest time of year – except for employers facing the potential of a religious discrimination lawsuit from employees due to holiday decorations, gift exchanges, and other festivities.

While it may seem Grinch-like, such lawsuits are not uncommon. Just a few months ago, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed suit on behalf of Shekinah Baez against her former employer, Pediatrics 2000. According to the New York federal court complaint, Pediatrics 2000 violated Title VII by denying Baez a reasonable accommodation for her religious beliefs and terminating her because of her religion.

A Jehovah’s Witness, Baez was instructed to plan the company’s 2018 holiday party. The EEOC alleged that Baez’s employer knew that her religious beliefs prevented her from attending a party for another religion (such as a Christmas party) or attend a party that involved drinking or dancing.

During the planning of the party, Baez learned that it would have holiday-themed decorations and entertainment that would make it inappropriate for her to attend, the EEOC said, such as dancers wearing sexy outfits and encouraging the employees to dance. Although other employees were excused from attendance for reasons unrelated to religion, the complaint accused Pediatrics 2000 of refusing Baez’s religious-based request to skip the bash and instead fired her.

That case is ongoing, but there are some ways for employers to avoid becoming a defendant in a similar action.

Title VII prohibits employers from discrimination based on religion and requires them to “reasonably accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious practices” unless it will cause the employer an “undue hardship.”

During the holidays, concerns about religious discrimination can arise in a host of situations, including the context of requests for time off. A Muslim employee may ask to have a break scheduled after sunset during Ramadan when fasting ends, or a Christian worker on the night shift may seek a night off for Christmas Eve mass. Applying the mandates of Title VII, that means employers should generally accommodate reasonable requests for religious observance unless it would cause an undue hardship.

To help reduce complications with time off, floating holidays might be a good option for some employers. This type of excused absence provides employees with the option to take time off for religious observances that they believe in without being required to take time for holidays they do not observe.

Office décor can also be an issue. The U.S. Supreme Court has actually spoken on the legality of holiday decorations. In 1989, the justices ruled in County of Allegheny v. ACLU Greater Pittsburgh Chapter that trees and wreaths are secular symbols, while decorations like a menorah or a creche send a religious message. The EEOC has adopted this position in its Compliance Manual.

Although that ruling applied to a public employer, leaving private employers with the leeway to endorse a religion and display religious symbols in their workplaces, employers may prefer to avoid any potential issues with holiday-neutral decorations – think snowflakes or candy canes – instead of setting up nativity scenes in the conference room and break area.

Employees interested in decorating their own space raise similar concerns. Prohibiting employees from displaying religious-themed holiday decorations in their own workspace could form the basis of a religious discrimination claim, but other employees working nearby could also be offended by an overt religious display. Employers should be careful not to suppress religious expression if the employee decorates their own personal workspace that is not visible to the public and doesn’t imply the employer’s endorsement of the religion.  

Many companies have done away with the annual holiday party for a variety of reasons, from cost to inappropriate behavior by employees to concerns over inclusion. But for those that decide to celebrate the end of the year with their workers, proceed with caution.

To avoid problems, make sure that the party is a voluntary event. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t celebrate holidays, for example, so requiring an appearance could constitute discrimination. Do not tie the party to a specific holiday and don’t schedule the celebration when it might conflict with a religious observance (such as the night Hanukkah begins).

Food can be tricky, so offer a variety of choices that include vegetarian options as well as items that can meet halal and kosher dietary needs. If alcohol is offered, be sure that nonalcoholic beverages are stocked as well. Similarly, any employer-sponsored gift exchanges should be entirely optional and not holiday-specific – avoid the “Secret Santa” moniker.

A case out of Arizona provides a cautionary tale about many of the dangers of the holiday season for employers. Marcy Rich sued her employer for creating a hostile work environment due to religious discrimination.

Rich, who is Jewish, alleged that her supervisor placed crosses on invitations to a mandatory company holiday party and hired carolers who sang songs with Christian lyrics (like “Christ our Lord”). The supervisor – a born-again Christian – told Rich it was inappropriate to decorate her cubicle with cutouts of a dreidel and a menorah and “Happy Hanukkah” cards.

The employer filed a motion to dismiss the suit, arguing that Rich’s claims were related to Christmas activities, not religion. But the court disagreed.

“This argument lacks merit,” the Arizona federal court wrote in Rich v. Arizona Regional Multiple Listing Service, Inc. “Title VII defines the term ‘religion’ to include ‘all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief.’”

Keeping this principle in mind, employers can strive for a happy holiday season.

Temporary employees. For some companies, they are a great option. Temps can provide needed help during a busy season, fill a short-term gap for an employee on an extended leave or provide expertise for a specific project.

But there are several considerations to keep in mind when hiring temporary workers.

Temps are generally hired for a specified period of time, typically not more than a one-year period and are entitled to many of the same legal protections as other employees, such as workers’ compensation laws, requirements under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act and the rights provided by Title VII and other anti-discrimination statutes.

Employers are obligated to pay income, Social Security and Medicare taxes for temporary employees; such workers may also be eligible for health care or retirement benefits, depending on the circumstances.

Companies can hire temporary workers on their own or through an agency. Working with an agency can alleviate an employer’s burden, as the agency will typically withhold the required taxes and pay the worker’s wages. However, employers could be held liable as a “joint employer” if the agency fails to comply with legal requirements. To protect themselves, employers should engage in due diligence before working with an agency, carefully review staffing agency contracts and require proof of insurance.

Misclassification of workers presents a host of legal problems for employers. Regulators – from state Attorneys General to the federal Department of Labor – have targeted misclassification in major lawsuits across the country, some resulting in multi-million settlements. The Internal Revenue Service is also interested in the issue and entitled to retroactive tax payments if the agency determines the employer failed to pay the requisite taxes.

Workers themselves can also bring suit, alleging that they were actually treated like an employee despite being labeled a temp.

In 2000, Microsoft paid $97 million to settle a class action brought by 10,000 temporary workers who sued after working for the company for several years, in some cases sitting right next to employees. The self-described “permatemps” argued the company hired them through temp agencies to avoid paying them health benefits, pensions and stock options. They told the court that they were actually permanent employees and therefore deserved the same benefits.

Most problems occur when a temporary position begins to look permanent. Maybe the worker turned out to be an invaluable resource, the employee who was supposed to return to work never did or the project drags on unexpectedly.

In a lawsuit, regulators or the court will consider the scope of the employment relationship in order to determine if the individual is a temporary worker or employee, with factors such as the level of control the employer exercises over the worker, whether the company is the worker’s sole source of income, if the work is flexible (in location and hours) and if the worker uses the company’s equipment.

To avoid facing liability, employers should strive to treat temporary workers like temps. Keep the employment period defined (and typically less than one year), do not conduct performance reviews or pay bonuses and consider not inviting temps to company functions, such as the summer picnic or holiday party.