Every leader, from a low-end crew supervisor to a six-figure-salary CEO, has a long list of daily responsibilities.
Those responsibilities and duties can easily overwhelm leaders and leave them locked in a holding pattern, addressing only the most pressing concerns at any given time. It happens to the best of us: we become so involved in watching where we step that we don’t look up to see what’s farther down the path.
Many leaders have fallen into this trap and have subsequently found their wings clipped by it.
They can neither reach their full potential nor lead their team members to achieve their own. The resulting tunnel vision has prevented countless leaders from looking ahead to see opportunities and challenges. These mistakes can lead to lost revenues, lost jobs, and (in some cases) failed businesses.
So, what’s the solution?
You can achieve success when you practice strategic leadership. A leadership strategy is a detailed plan designed to help leaders anticipate future variables and achieve a desired, long-term goal. Thus, strategic leaders design and execute strategies to make their team the most effective it can be. The key is knowing how to create a winning strategy, and how to execute it effectively.
I can almost hear you thinking, ‘that’s all well and good, but how do you become a strategic leader?’
And what are the principles of this type of leadership?
This article will guide you through just that, by illustrating the attributes that help leaders lift their gaze from their feet and focus on preparing for the future. It will also provide examples of strategic leadership, outline the importance of strategic leadership, and share some critical strategic leadership skills.
1) Delegate Responsibility and Foster Ownership
The antidote to short-sightedness—strategic leadership—comes right out of the military playbook (which is designed entirely around anticipating the unexpected). History remembers truly excellent strategists, like Napoleon and Genghis Khan, because they shaped the world as we know it. What’s important to keep in mind is that none of the great commanders accomplished anything alone; each had an army at their backs, and they had to trust their soldiers to carry out the orders issued to them.
This same component of strategic leadership can be applied to business. While you may not be conquering nations in the course of your efforts, there is a difference between leaders who treat their “army” like soldiers and those who treat them like serfs. Being a strategic leader means filling the necessary roles with the right people and then giving them the autonomy and resources they need to do their jobs well.
When you begin any new project, plan, or initiative, don’t hog all of the duties and responsibilities, and don’t micromanage your soldiers. If they require additional training or need assistance completing tasks, that’s one thing. But if they have the capacity to do the job you’re paying them for, let them.
Delegate the responsibilities you can to the team so that everyone is sharing the burden, including (but not solely) you. Then, encourage your team to accept ownership of their duties so they hold themselves accountable for the task’s success or failure. Finally, if there is commendation to be given, pass it on to the person who did the work.
2) Be Tenacious
Even with the most carefully crafted strategies, no commander (on the battlefield or in the office) has a perfect record. No strategy can account for every variable, and even when most variables have been taken into account, it can still be challenging to be properly prepared. Sometimes a shortfall is bigger than expected. Sometimes equipment breaks down. Sometimes employees quit or go on strike. The point is, things don’t always go according to plan.
What makes strategic leaders different is that they don’t fold simply because of the risk of failure. Setbacks and complications may slow strategic leaders down, but they don’t come to a full stop. Instead, they push past difficulties with a calculated tenacity, and that tenacity quickly becomes infectious. If your team sees you maintain optimism in the face of adversity, they will pick up on your disposition and will usually find renewed dedication.
3) Be Agile
Not all changes to the plan are bad. Some can be opportunities that open up unexpectedly, and often without warning. The primary difference between a “plan” and a “strategy” is that a strategy is designed to be modified on the fly as circumstances change, while plans tend to be rigid and fixed (like the floorplan of a building). A strategic leader has the agility to make hard right turns when needed, whether to follow a valuable lead or to head off an approaching complication.
It’s much like the difference between a novice chess player and a chess master. Novices tend to execute plays that have worked for them in the past, even as their opponent perceives their strategy and begins employing a countermeasure. Masters start with one tactic and then quickly switch to another as their opponent closes windows and opens vulnerabilities.
4) Take Strategic Risks
In business, as in life, nothing is a sure bet. Every venture involves some risk, and with risk comes the potential for failure and loss. Most of us spend a healthy portion of our lives trying to minimize risk. But as the old saying goes, “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” We can’t get a job if we don’t apply, we can’t get a date if we don’t ask, and we can’t paint a masterpiece without putting some color on the canvas. As such, strategic leaders aren’t afraid to take strategic risks.
There is a difference, however, between a “risk” and a “gamble.” We’re not advising playing the metaphorical lottery with your business capital or blowing all your chips at the craps table. What we are advocating is something more like a poker game: careful evaluation of possibilities for failure or profit, and decisive action for or against available opportunities.
Poker, while often grouped with true gambling games like craps or roulette, is actually a game of skill. It’s not a game of chance, it’s a game of risks. You can predict your potential for success with relative accuracy, even though you don’t hold all the cards. You can tell when you have a losing hand, and when it’s a hand worth betting on. And, perhaps most importantly, you have a clear understanding of what you stand to gain and what you stand to lose.
The risks you take in business should be the same way. Don’t go all in on something that has only a marginal chance for success, or that will only repay meager returns. Study your options and be cautious, but don’t be afraid to bet on a winning hand.
5) Make It Safe for Your Team to Take Strategic Risks
Just as you should have the personal courage to take risks, you should also build an environment that fosters the same courage in your team. Your primary adversary in that endeavor is a legitimate fear that nearly every employee has: if they screw up, their boss will fire them (or discipline them in some other way).
If you want your employees to have the courage required to make difficult decisions, you have to give them a little breathing room in case of failure. If they take an intelligent, calculated risk and things don’t pan out, don’t bury them for it. Turn it into a learning experience so that they’re better equipped to evaluate risks in the future. While there’s no need to let them feel like taking careless risks is acceptable, removing some of the consequences for taking a strategic risk will empower them to seek out new opportunities and ventures that could be profitable for the company.
6) Encourage Collaboration
Business is evolving faster than ever before, so the ability to support a collaborative environment has become an important strategic management and leadership skill.
The rise of digital technologies has dramatically changed how we work, and many companies that have failed to keep up with the breakneck pace have faltered. In our increasingly connected and interactive culture, there is a serious risk (and not a strategic one) in becoming insulated against what’s happening around us.
The same is true inside of organizations. When departments and individuals become “siloed,” they tend to lose sight of the needs of the larger team, as well as what that team may have to offer in terms of helping them achieve goals. Fostering a collaborative culture helps keep everyone aware of how they fit into the larger picture and what resources are available to them. Collaboration provides fertile soil in which team diversity can cultivate innovative ideas.
Not every situation needs collaboration, however.
For example, the manufacturing team doesn’t necessarily have to lend a hand to the accounting team in keeping the books. In other words, don’t try to force collaboration where it won’t be helpful. That said, opening lines of communication between individuals, and between teams, is always a good idea, especially when one is impacted by the efforts of the other.
7) Gather Information to Form a Complete Picture
To make clear decisions and take calculated risks, strategic leaders need to have a complete picture of the situation.
Getting a complete picture requires some legwork: you have to collect data, do A/B testing, hold focus groups, research options and costs, and more. What’s important is making sure there aren’t gaps in the information. The less you know, the less strategic your decisions will be, and the greater your chance of failure. Do what it takes to get the information you need.
8) Take Intelligent Action
Once you have the information, you need to act on it.
Proactivity is a central tenet of strategic leadership. If you’re not proactive, you’re merely sitting and waiting for things to happen — and that leaves you at the mercy of circumstance. Getting ahead of future obstacles and being ready for future opportunities requires being active and actually doing things. In other words, a leader who’s just coasting is a leader who’s unprepared.
9) Drive Change
We already mentioned how leading a successful team or company involves changing with the times. That’s par for the course.
However, if you want to excel in the professional world, you need to drive change, not just keep up with it. A sampling of famous names in the business world (Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Mark Zuckerberg, etc.) quickly brings to mind individuals who were drivers of change. They brought about revolutions in their industries.
A lot of that comes back to taking strategic risks and knowing when to jump on a good idea. What you need to accept is that you can’t continue doing things the same way indefinitely. Eventually, if you want to survive as a team, and as a business, you’ll have to change things up. The sooner you can change for the better, the greater the benefit to your business.
10) Have a Vision
Ultimately, to reach a destination, you have to have some idea of where you’re going and where you want to end up. A journey without a destination is just wandering, and strategic leaders know they can’t afford to wander. They know what success looks like for them, for their team, and for their organization as a whole. They can clearly describe the destination they want to reach, and they have a good idea about what kind of steps they need to take to get there.
That said, you can’t pick a destination on a whim. Your goal needs to be reasonable and within reach, but something that makes your team stretch. Selecting a goal like this requires that you have all the relevant information and make use of your strategic-thinking skills. You need to know hard numbers before you set your destination. Otherwise, your vision will be flawed.
11) Share Your Strategic Vision
Once you have a strategic vision, one with appropriate goals, you need to share it with your team. When your team sees what they’re working towards, they will be more motivated to achieve it—and they’ll feel more accomplished when they do. Leaving them in the dark usually leads to frustration and misunderstandings. There’s a lot of “Why am I even doing this?” in situations like that, and that’s something you need to avoid.
Let them in on your grand, master plans. Better yet, let them be part of the process of developing goals. That way, they will feel like they have a say in their future, which will empower them and enhance their motivation.
12) Strive for Inner Growth & Reflection
Last, but certainly not least, a strategic leader is always striving for improvement, both personally, and on their team. Making improvements is a two-step process: first, reflect on what you’ve been doing well, what could use improvement, and what kind of competencies you would like to have. Second, apply the principles above to plan out a strategy.
Prioritize attributes and competencies to determine what you want to work on first. Then, gather the necessary information, get a vision of possible growth, and proactively move towards achieving the goal. The more you and your team know and are capable of, the greater your value to the company and the more you can accomplish. Don’t ever stop improving.
Becoming a strategic leader isn’t easy, and implementing these principles certainly qualifies as hard work. But the work will ultimately pay off. Strategic leaders tend to become pioneers and trendsetters in their industries and frequently steer their teams and organizations through dangerous waters while other companies flounder. If this is the kind of leader you want to be, it’s time to start implementing some solid strategy.
Are you interested in strategic-leadership development? Get in touch with CMOE to learn how to improve your strategic-leadership skills and apply them in your business.
CMOE’s Design Team is comprised of individuals with diverse and complementary strengths, talents, education, and experience who have come together to bring a unique service to CMOE’s clients. Our team has a rich depth of knowledge, holding advanced degrees in areas such as business management, psychology, communication, human resource management, organizational development, and sociology.
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