The Strategic Leader

Stepping up while facing in!

Danny Taylor

Leaders of leaders must be strategic and operational. Strategy is about the future, operations the present. Effective leaders do both with ease. They hold everything together. They combine the short and long-term, and they stop their people fighting over which is most important. They signal the need to do both at the same time.   We should call this challenge strategic leadership;  focusing on the business of “today” while moving the organisation to where it needs to be “tomorrow”…… and not just talking about it, but doing it!

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This work can only be done by senior leaders. If they drop the ball, this work is unlikely to ever happen, with significant value depleted. Consultants or middle managers can’t fill the void. Only people in senior leadership roles can meet the challenge.   This strategic work is about planning, but it’s about much more. Consultants can perform an important role in establishing strategic frameworks. And CEOs must do the important work of setting or co-setting the strategic direction, and owning the overall strategic process.

But the difficult work of making strategy happen is ongoing, never goes away, and is the domain of senior leaders. These are the people who simultaneously move the organisation towards a desired future while ensuring the current business continues to be successful. Their role is to hold both perspectives. And they do this while keeping people aligned and engaged.

Spot the strategic leader!

It’s difficult for senior executives to stay focused on strategy. There’s always a temptation to focus primarily on operations; the business of today. And an occasional emphasis on strategy is never enough. Staying focused on both strategy and operations in a balanced way requires ongoing effort and attention. Habits need to be created.

So what are we looking for in a strategic leader?

1. Switching between high and low beam
Successful leaders have the capacity to switch between strategic and operational challenges, and do so with ease. This doesn’t mean being erratic. They need to give due consideration to each domain, ensuring both are cleverly managed. The demands of each domain are different. They’re both complex, but in different ways. Strategic leaders need skills in dealing with both domains, and they can learn this.

2. Treating ambiguity as a resource
Strategic leaders are comfortable with situations being unclear, but uncomfortable with them remaining that way. They don’t give up or get demoralised if challenges become too complex or messy, but they also don’t reduce everything to actions simply to feel good about just doing something! They realise that strategy is not about seeking the one right answer, but generating possible solutions from genuine alternatives, making choices, being OK about mistakes, and sorting out contradictions as implementation occurs. They’re willing to test and fail, to get to the promised land.

3. Leaning-in to trade-offs
Senior leaders understand that all possible solutions can’t be implemented, choices need to be made, and changes must be introduced in a way that can be digested by the organisation.  Trade-offs are key to moving things forward. “Doing this rather than that”, or “a bit of this and a bit of that”, or “this now and that later”, are all important tools of the successful executive. It’s not possible to operate at a strategic level without engaging in trade-offs. This is a major realisation for previously operational leaders.

4. Confidence in using judgement
Leaders of leaders understand the importance of data AND intuition in making decisions. Executive decisions always require judgement. Some executives make decisions based on too little data (too much gut-feel), while others are data obsessed (trying to be expert systems). Colin Powell, the former US Secretary of State, called this the 40/70 challenge. Decision making is sound when executives have patterns of seeking out more than 40% of the information relevant to making those decisions. At the same time, they don’t obsess with excessive levels of data. Anything less than 40% and decisions will be made too quickly, or in a haphazard way, without sufficient understanding of the consequences. Anything more than 70% and the need for perfection will lead to procrastination, holding the business back given its need for momentum, speed, and execution.

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