The Three Levels of Leadership

Posted: February 28, 2011 in Leadership
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One of the challenges many managers and leaders face is in understanding the distinctions between levels of leadership. Though there is a common basis of theory and practice, the requirements of tactical leadership are quite different from those of strategic leadership. In addition, there is a whole level of leadership – operational – that many people don’t even realize exists.

Tactical Leadership

Tactical leadership is concerned with the here and now, with short-term decisions and risk management for immediate gains. At the tactical level, leaders must balance the needs of team members with the needs of the mission or situation. This often involves negotiating and cajoling followers to cooperate so as to achieve the aim. It also means creating an environment where they are willing to make sacrifices or contribute to the team because of a felt loyalty to the leader and other team members.

Tactical leadership is thus highly transactional. This is because the leader does not have many of the tools of transformational leadership at his or her disposal. Research has shown that effective transformational leaders provide inspirational motivation, individualized consideration, intellectual stimulation, and idealized influence. The first three of these factors depend greatly on the overall purpose and objectives of the organization, and also on its culture and mode of operation, which are dependent on strategic and operational leadership. As a result, they are largely beyond the influence of the tactical leader working at the coalface. The only factor really within the tactical leader’s control is his or her level of idealized influence, in other words, charisma.

Strategic Leadership

Strategic leadership is concerned with the long-term purpose and goals of an organization, movement, or institution. A strategic leader is vying to create a viable organization that will be capable of functioning in all circumstances, that is resilient and, even better, robust in the face of threats and obstacles. Strategic leaders may use transactional punishments and rewards to achieve their organizational aims, but these usually only have a short-term effect, and can even be counterproductive in the longer term. This is why it is much more effective and efficient to build strategic leadership on the basis of transformational factors.

By having a compelling vision and mission, a strategic leader will attract the right people to the organization, ones who are committed to its long-term goals and purpose, thus providing intrinsic motivation in the face of hardship and setbacks. This also provides a stimulating and challenging environment for people to grow, thereby liberating their talents and skills in the accomplishment of organizational goals. Members of the organization consequently know that their contributions are valued and that they are an essential part of the team. Because they believe in the values and purpose of the organization, and they believe their leaders have their best interests at heart, they are willing to make sacrifices for the good of the institution. This also safeguards morale.

While a strategic leader must provide an idealized view of the future and the organization, it is not necessary that he or she be highly charismatic. In fact, this can be more of a burden than it is worth, as everyone then grows dependent on the continued presence of the leader. This is often the case with entrepreneurs or those who start a movement. The transition to the “post heroic” phase of strategic leadership can be chaotic.

Operational Leadership

Operational leaders are the unsung heroes of organizations. Why? Because they build the structures and systems that allow the strategic leader(s) vision and objectives to be achieved, while providing a framework for inspired action by the organization’s tactical leaders. In other words, they create systems to support the values of the organization and its leadership and to encourage a culture and behaviour patterns that are congruent with these.

For instance, an organization that values teamwork and group collaboration over individual contributions needs a system of rewards that supports that aim. If a team achieves a significant outcome through effective teamwork, then the entire team must be recognized and rewarded, not its individual members. This doesn’t necessarily require financial rewards either, as we know that increased pay and bonuses have a very short half-life. Intrinsic rewards, such as greater team recognition, competitive positioning, and more interesting and vital projects can be very effective over the longer term in creating highly motivated teams with high morale and cohesiveness. This approach to operational effectiveness has to permeate the whole organization and all its supporting systems, structures, and processes. Moreover, there has to be consistency, congruence, and coherence amongst these factors of organizational dynamics. It is no good if rewards are inconsistent from one project or team to the next, or if they don’t have the proper tools and systems support to achieve their assigned tasks and functions.

This requires a lot from operational leaders. They are the ones who must lead teams in analysing and understanding the strategic and tactical realities of the organization. They must craft the supporting infrastructure and framework to allow everyone to move tactically toward the achievement of the organization’s strategy through the operational framework of processes, systems, structures, and incentives. To do this, they need to understand the business of the organization, as well as its technical and financial characteristics and constraints. Even more, they require an intimate understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of the transactional and transformational approaches to leadership.

What level of leadership are you operating at? Is it appropriate to the needs of your position and organization? By considering the foregoing descriptions of tactical, strategic, and operational leadership, you can develop a greater understanding of your own leadership, but also of those around you. You can also better adapt to the needs of the situation and the organization.

© 2011 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with full and proper attribution.

  1. says:

    really, nice.

  2. […] also be highly skilled in communication, organizational, and problem-solving skills, in addition to excellent tactical leadership skills. As the immediate commander on the ground, they must be able to make quick decisions in times of […]

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