Becoming a Strategic Leader

In our work developing and coaching executives, we often hear about emerging leaders counseled to “be more strategic” to further their careers. While surely well-intentioned, that advice is at best ambiguous and at worst unhelpful: not only is it not clear what “be more strategic” actually means, it’s also not clear how to put that guidance into practice.

Most leaders understand that a strategy is intended to bring an organization to a new and more advantageous position in its market. Therefore, the take-away may be that being strategic is about generating a brilliant idea that moves you there. What is the new product, innovation, disruption, business model, or partnership that might lead to a radically better future? If I can conjure that up, I’ll be a more strategic leader!

Or, as often, they think to be strategic is to have a list of goals. But while a strategy has goals, the strategy itself is not the goals. The strategy is a carefully designed plan for how to achieve the goals. Many executives confuse the two. “Our strategy is to become the dominant player in the solar energy market west of the Rockies” is basically a meaningless statement.

In our recent book What Happens Now? we strongly advise executives to grow and develop themselves as strategic leaders in order to continue to thrive and create results. But one big insight we’ve learned is that becoming a more strategic leader is not so much about what you think, but rather how you think.

In other words, a strategic leader is not in the brilliant-idea-generation business, even though new processes, products, or innovations may occasionally result. Rather, a strategic leader is in the thinking-a-certain-way business: a disciplined mindset that allows her to escape the daily management fire drills and other Lilliputian tangles and be able to pull back and see the bigger picture.

Most executives have to some extent built their careers on operational expertise and mastery of tactical details, and they often assume that the tenets of strategic thinking are relatively straightforward. They know that strategic leadership is more about the long term than the short term; that it is more about the big picture than the immediate horizon; and that it requires a broad perspective rather than a narrow focus.

But while the basic outlines are there, thinking strategically can still strike many emerging leaders as a Rorschach diagram. The language of strategic leaders can seem fuzzy to operating executives. Strategic leaders speak of positioning, of environmental conditions, of forces of competition, of unknown risks and yet-to-be-discerned opportunities. It can sometimes be enough to drive an engineering or scientific mind crazy! As Cynthia Montgomery of Harvard Business School has pointed out, strategic leadership is more a right-brain (creative and intuitive) than a left-brain (analytical, precise) exercise.

So how can one develop oneself as a strategic leader? In our experience, training leaders to grow their strategic thinking muscles so they can ascend to a higher level of institutional leadership is best aided by a disciplined thinking process rather than a particular outcome.

To improve strategic thinking capability, we encourage leaders to start with their external environment—that is, the world they and their organization exist in. What dynamics are shaping that environment? How has it changed over time … and why? What are the other players doing in the space, and for what reasons? Who lives next to but not in that space, and how can their activities shape and influence the space? Knowing that change or disruption, often wrenching, is bound to come, from what quarter can it be expected? Questions such as these help a strategic leader develop a set of insights and hypotheses about their landscape in which they are trying to survive and prosper.

We then coach leaders to turn the mirror on their organizations and themselves. We like Simon Sinek’s question “Start with Why”—what is the core purpose of the organization and its work, above and beyond merely what it does?—but we add the important leadership question of “What are we about around here?” That is, what are our values and culture? What drives how we do what we do?

In thinking about What and How we encourage leaders to be disciplined in discerning and identifying their organization's true core competencies or sources of advantage, the one that will be hard for others to imitate. At the end of the day, most organizations have a dominant gene in their DNA of what really drives them, tasks at which they are really good, or what they really care about. Those are their strategic differentiators; few organizations are excellent at more than one or two things.

Only after seriously considering these internal-looking questions is a strategic leader prepared to effectively evaluate where there is a hole or need in the market that their company might be able to fill with a new initiative, business model, product, venture, or innovation. This is an important realization since many companies try to act "strategically" simply by looking for external opportunities rather than first assessing what they can uniquely do and provide. Such companies rarely grow and succeed because their business model isn’t authentic.

For example, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and other movie streaming services didn’t just decide to create (or contract the creation of) original content because it was easy or fun. A long series of trends in their environment shaped the decision—most critically the rising cost of licensing content from existing studios and the changing viewing habits of subscribers.

However, those changes merely created a possible market opportunity for these companies. They still had to do the internal soul-searching to see if it was not just a good opportunity for somebody, but rather a good opportunity for them. And if they were prepared to make the changes in themselves required to take on a new initiative that would be different from, and perhaps even incongruent with, the company they were in the past. Sometimes, if one thing changes in the strategy, the entire enterprise must change as well: people, skills, processes, systems, organizational structure, even culture.

This process: external understanding, internal awareness, and an evaluation of the congruence of possible new moves is just one way to think strategically. But following a disciplined process such as the one we have described will begin to shape the mind of a strategic leader. Creating a strategy is not an activity: it’s a mindset and a way of thinking, and one you should be testing and honing all the time, not merely during planning cycles.

As the last tip to leaders undertaking this journey to think and act more strategically, we often suggest reflecting on the management tools they deploy in their leadership lives. Some tools lend themselves to strategic thinking, others do not. Who can live without their to-do list, for instance? But reliance on lists naturally pulls the mind of the leader into the short term, the immediate, and the urgent. Whereas tools such as an environmental scan, a network map, or a congruence model help pull the leader into a strategic frame of mind.

The ability to think and lead strategically is almost a sine qua non of making it into the top ranks of a profession or organization—and research has shown that strategic capability is not innate talent for only the majority of executives. The challenging news for emerging leaders is that this set of skills is fuzzy and ill-defined – a "judgment call" if ever there was one. The good news is that like any habit or skill, it can be built with focus, discipline, and practice. You must train to be a strategic leader, and if you desire to grow as an executive you must develop your ability to lead and think strategically.

The best strategists are not in the idea game—they are in the thought-process game—and good thought processes are what occasionally lead to a good idea.