What is Strategic Leadership?

Strategic Leadership

The term ‘Strategic Leadership’ may seem to be used excessively at the moment. You see it everywhere. It also tends to get diluted and mixed up with other leadership terms such as strategic management, visionary leadership and transformational leadership. So what is Strategic Leadership?

It is important for consultants and advisers – whether internal or external – to understand what the role of Strategic Leadership in any organizational context is and how it differs from other types of leadership. There can be a misunderstanding that strategic leaders are ‘just’ visionary, authentic or even charismatic leaders (which they may well also be). However, this understanding misses an important point: Strategic Leaders need to BE all these things and more.

But what is Strategic Leadership?

Strategic Leadership can be defined as: “The ability to set and communicate a compelling vision of the future, together with the motivation to achieve it”. This definition comes from research by Dr Dorothy Leonard-Barton (MIT) and supported by General Electric’s Jack Welch. Although at first sight this definition may seem rather academic, it implies several important points.

The first point is that Strategic Leadership is about creating a vision of the future for an organization. It’s not just about any old vision – it needs to be one that motivates all the key stakeholders (customers, employees, investors etc.) and enables them to see how their organization will better meet their needs.

Strategic Leadership is not the same as Strategic Management. Although both may appear to strive for similar ends, there is a different focus: Strategic Management (in an operational sense) seeks to find and exploit opportunities in the external environment; whereas Strategic Leadership focuses on creating a vision of how this will happen inside the organization. It brings together a number of diverse perspectives and creates a ‘common cause’, a sense of purpose. Strategic Leadership is more about inspiring groups within the organization to work together, often across traditional boundaries, in order to realize that common purpose. It’s about being able to communicate effectively at every level of the organization and creating an organizational culture that enables people to recognize opportunities and make changes.

Strategic Leadership is not necessarily about charisma and high profile: It may also be what you do (and how you behave) when no-one else is watching; those quiet conversations with your people; those tough decisions that will make the difference between winning and losing. We all recognize it in others – we call it integrity, authenticity, a quiet confidence – all the things that make you more than ‘just’ a leader.

Strategic Leadership is not about being a visionary – it’s also about taking effective action towards realizing the vision. It’s difficult to define precisely what makes for effective action because it can be very dependent upon context and various other factors, such as the time horizons that are being considered.

Strategic Leadership is about being a role model for others and demonstrating how to manage change successfully. It’s about courage, commitment and confidence – but it’s also about recognizing risks and opportunities. This means having the ability to think ‘outside of the box’. Although Strategic Leaders must be able to translate their vision into a simpler, more manageable form for others to understand and act upon, they must also know when to lead from behind; when to take a back seat rather than jump in and take over.

A common misconception is that Strategic Leadership can be achieved by ‘remote control’: You appoint (or elect) a powerful, visionary leader and then sit back and let them get on with it. Although this approach may work for a while, it is not sustainable in the long term and will eventually lead to problems: The organization becomes top-heavy; too many committees are established; people stop taking decisions and wait for ‘the vision’ to tell them what to do. This approach also means that others don’t get the chance to develop Strategic Leadership skills.

Strategic Leaders are able to ‘walk the walk’ and ‘talk the talk’, following-through on how they lead and what they say. They recognize that people learn by observing others – this is particularly true of younger staff – so it’s important for them to demonstrate how they want others to behave.

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Strategic Leaders are able to influence others at every level of the organization. They do not need to ‘give orders’: People want to follow them because they can see that it makes sense and will benefit everyone. We all know individuals who may not be in formal leadership roles but whose opinion carries weight or who simply ’round up votes’ when necessary because people trust their judgment. Formal leaders need to learn (and adapt) how to replicate this behavior in order to become more influential. Being able to influence others is not about having positional power; it’s about building relationships, recognizing the value of diversity and creating an environment where everyone has multiple opportunities for development.

A key part of Strategic Leadership is building and maintaining relationships; relationships between individuals, within teams and across the entire organization. It’s about understanding ‘the big picture’ and the organizational context in which your team operates; it’s also about recognizing that you can’t (and shouldn’t) do everything by yourself.

Strategic Leaders are able to work well in teams: They value diversity and recognize that different people bring different perspectives to the mix. They create opportunities for others to work together and devise ways of resolving conflict and disagreements in a constructive way.

Strategic Leadership is also about making tough decisions: People expect their leaders to keep them safe, to protect what they have worked so hard for, and to guide them through risky or challenging times. This means taking action in order to safeguard what’s important and sometimes having the courage to do ‘what’s right’ even if it might be unpopular among some of your people.

A Strategic Leader demonstrates that they are committed by delivering on their promises; consistently following-through on actions; not over-promising (and under-delivering). They are also open to learning from their mistakes and making necessary changes.

These leadership skills will help you be a more effective leader if developed and applied with integrity, empathy and humility. You might have situational awareness or a vision for the future but unless you can communicate it clearly enough for others to understand – and adopt – your ideas will stay at the level of a good intention.

Strategic Leaders share a common vision and blend a variety of skills to help them achieve their goals within the context of the organization’s overall strategy. They have a clear sense of purpose, know where they’re going and what needs to be done to get there.

If you want to become more effective as a leader start by identifying your own ‘leadership style’ and the skills that have been most effective for you. Think about what might be missing from your skill-set or behaviors that need some work. This self-awareness will help you to identify the gaps, enabling you to select appropriate training and / or seek out coaching support.

Strategic leadership pros:

– Strategic leaders are able to see the big picture.

– Strategic leadership is less concerned with short-term targets and more concerned with long-term objectives.

– Strategic leaders are good at seeing all sides of the story in order to make effective decisions.

Strategic leadership cons:

– A strategic leader can’t be everywhere at once, and may need to delegate tasks at times.

– Strategic leaders work long hours and can face substantial stress (though this could be said for many leadership positions).

Strategic leadership in practice: using the “three P’s” to guide strategy development

– Developing a mission statement: All strategies must support the mission of an organization, which should be communicated throughout the organization.

– Setting goals: Strategic leaders help create realistic and measurable goals to raise accountability and ensure that employees can answer “how” when asked “what is your goal?”

– Developing a plan: It’s one thing to set goals, it’s another thing to create a plan so those goals can be achieved.

In summary,

Strategic leaders have strong interpersonal, communication and decision-making skills. Since strategic leadership is a long-term role, it can be conducted as a second career after years of experience in another field. Strategic leaders are able to effectively communicate their vision for the future within an organization.

In addition to being able to act strategically, they are also adept at bringing people together to achieve common goals. strategic leadership can be advantageous in uncertain times. By having a broader vision for the future, an understanding of how various factors within an organization affect others and the ability to make effective decisions; strategic leaders are well-equipped to lead their organizations through difficult situations.

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