What Is Effective Strategic Leadership?

Posted: January 1, 2009 in Leadership

As 2008 drew to a close, most commentators agreed that it had been a bad year. There was certainly a lot of bad news and many challenges. With everything that happened though, I think that it was a good opportunity to see the importance of sound strategic leadership, because that is what will allow us to pull ourselves out of the situation.

Here are some key characteristics of effective strategic leaders:

  1. They are mission focused. Organizations generally have a mission to serve the public and the greater good in some respect. Strategic leaders must keep their organizations focused on this truth. Whether in business, government or the not-for-profit sector, an organization that is focused only on its own needs will inevitably fail. When difficulties arrive – and there were plenty of these in 2008 – senior leaders must be prepared to rally their people and prevent them from losing morale. The best way to do this is to stay focused on the organization’s mission.
  2. They have an ability to see both the forest AND the trees. We all know the old saying: Take care of the details and the big things take care of themselves. This may be true at more tactical levels of an organization, but it is fatal if that is how strategic leaders run things. Unfortunately, most executives spend the major part of their careers specializing in narrow areas. When they are thrust into a position of strategic leadership, they must be prepared to look outside their old functional areas and at the big picture.
  3. They are at least as outward looking as inward looking. An organization is an abstraction. It consists of a group of people that agree, for whatever reason, to work together part of the time to achieve common outcomes or goals. To talk about “inside” or “outside” an organization is therefore a necessary fiction. With that said, it is critical that senior leaders be on the lookout for changes in the external environment, whether they be of a political, economic, business, social or scientific nature. This is also linked to the need to be focused on the organization’s mission and to understand the needs of its primary constituency or market segment.
  4. Their thinking is complex and they look for non-obvious causes and solutions. Most of us start our careers by learning simple solutions to obvious problems and challenges. As we gain experience and knowledge, we are expected to resolve increasingly complex problems in our respective fields of expertise. However, at the topmost levels of any organization, there are really no simple problems and challenges, and solutions are always complex. Just trying to figure out the real causes of a situation often takes enormous skill and an ability to assess various contributing factors. Conversely, imagination is required to come up with effective solutions. Moreover, strategic leaders know that there is no perfect solution or outcome, but rather a range of options of varying optimality and that all decisions have ramifications inside and outside the structures of the organization. These may require considerable technical and logistical preparation to implement them. They may also require psychological preparation of individuals and groups, both inside and outside the organization.
  5. They think probabilistically. This follows naturally from the previous point. From their experience, and even more from long reflection, effective strategic leaders realize that there is little or no certainty in how the world works. If there is, we haven’t figured out yet. Events and situations therefore have a range of probable causes, each of which may or may not be assigned definite probabilities. The same holds true for the consequences and ramifications of any decision or change. Furthermore, it is sometimes almost impossible to assign probabilities to an event or outcome prior to actually experiencing it. The ability to rebound from losses, errors and strategic miscalculations is absolutely critical. This is why highly effective strategic leaders always keep forces in reserve and part of their powder dry. If they have miscalculated or overlooked something, they have the ability to steer their organization to recovery through their own robustness and resiliency, and through the preparations they have initiated.
  6. They spend most of their time thinking about the future. The past is only relevant for what we can learn from it. Past glories can serve to mobilize people and can heighten their motivation to perform, but no one lives in the past. Effective strategic leaders realize that the future is uncertain, as highlighted in the preceding point, but we can have an effect on the future by envisioning a goal and the possible roads to get there. This preparation must occur on an ongoing basis, and it must be constantly upgraded by a careful consideration of the progress being made. Effective strategic leaders therefore also know that progress must be measured against objective criteria. These need not be only qualitative, but they must be observable by all relevant stakeholders.
  7. They realize there is only one aspect of an organization, and it is human. This is perhaps the most important criterion of all in characterizing the effective strategic leader. The ancient Greeks believed that the city-state – the polis – consisted only of its citizenry. The physical city itself, the buildings, the fortresses, the navy, all of the property, these were only manifestations of the city’s power and effectiveness. Without its citizens, the polis ceased to exist. This also applies to today’s organizations. A company’s or association’s or government agency’s finances, its productive capital and physical plant, inventories, and intellectual property, all of these are merely objective manifestations of a deeper underlying reality: that a group of people have unified their efforts to accomplish a role or mission, or to achieve certain goals and outcomes. The highly effective strategic leader realizes this fundamental truth, that there are only human causes and human effects, that solutions are decided and enacted by people, not by “systems” and “processes.” Rather, the latter are what people do, and these can also be decided and enacted in a conscious way. In the human realm, nothing is inevitable and all is open to interpretation and enactment in a particular way. What is required above all by leaders, and particularly strategic leaders, is that these must be conscious decisions. Strategic leaders make these decisions as consciously as possible and move forward with aplomb, thereby taking the organization with them.

This list is probably not exhaustive, but it is a good start. Feel free to add your own characteristics or criteria to define what effective strategic leadership means to you. Take the opportunity at the start of this New Year to analyze your own behaviour and actions as a strategic leader in the light of these items. This is also an excellent opportunity to adjust your approaches to become more effective in the strategic realm.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.

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