Ignite the spark

Igniting The Strategic Spark In Others

If the whole purpose of leadership is to leverage talent and achieve results through the efforts of others, then leaders have a very special stewardship when it comes to igniting the strategic spark in others. Leaders who understand the essence of this part of leadership have a golden opportunity to mine strategic ideas and capitalize on strategic actions of others. All it takes is a willingness to teach and motivate others about how to think and operate strategically. This in turn creates an organization that is prepared and ready to seize opportunities and head off catastrophes, which translates into better operating results down the road. But there is a tradeoff; it does require an upfront investment, discipline, and a skill set that unfortunately are foreign to some leaders.

For many leaders, building a strategic workforce can be a very real dilemma. On one hand, leaders face an onslaught of pressures and demands to achieve the task at hand or be successful in the moment. Leaders have been taught to pay attention to current activities and have learned how to squeeze the organization operationally (reduce costs, eliminate errors, and improve service). So, many leaders pass these priorities and pressures on to their workers, absent any coherent strategy. On the other hand, some leaders lack the understanding and discipline to direct time, energy, and attention to the strategic side of work. They have not been especially encouraged to nurture the seeds of future innovation, ideas, and plans that ensure the team will be successful in the future as well as today.

It is critical for teams to perform now, in the moment, or there won’t be a “later on.” But the fact is “later on” won’t be optimized unless you get strategically ready now. “Later on” won’t be any different than now if your people are still doing the same things in the same way. You are simply destined for oblivion, obsolesce, or irrelevance; it is “the dinosaur strategy”. Effective leaders can’t let this happen; they must enroll others in a concerted effort to add value, be relevant, and be secure in the future. We are not, however, advocating that people take their eye off the short-term focus. The operational house should be in good order if individual strategies are going to work, However the future is coming and there is no way to stop it; leaders and their teams need to become cunning and agile. You can’t assume that someone will come along, rescue your future, and magically take care of strategy for you. Each worker has to be individually responsible and pro-active right along with having a good leader that paves the way for others to think and act strategically.

The first task of a strategic leader in helping others grow strategies is to convey expectation by explaining to others that strategic thinking is part of the work like any other requirement. A leader must convince others that strategy is a natural part of everyone’s job. Then a leader has to hold people accountable for formulating individual strategy and tracking implementation progress.

This first strategic task leads to the second strategic task. That is, a leader has to teach and lead by example. A strategic leader shows others how to think, diagnose, and anticipate the future. She/he helps people see into the future, what it will bring, and how to deal with it. A good leader will share his/her strategic plans and help light the way as others create their own plans.

The third task is to provide the time and resources for people to act on their strategic ideas and initiatives. Everyone knows that how time is spent is a perfect reflection of one’s priorities and what they truly value. So if you are serious about strategy, you have to be serious about people using appropriate amounts of time and resources to make their strategies a reality.

The fourth task is to empower others to be strategic. This means giving people some creative latitude and discretion in the area of strategy. People need some freedom and to feel emancipated from a pure tactical focus. They will become excited and motivated as they take hold of the future and know that their strategy won’t be over controlled and micro-managed. This is one way of helping people achieve that elusive state that Abraham Maslow called “self actualization.”

Task five in igniting the strategic spark is for leaders to track, coach, and periodically review progress. This provides the leader an opportunity to strategically coach, offer constructive suggestions and guidance, and ensure that individual strategies are linked with the strategic themes of the organization. It is critical that leaders set up mile posts so that people know there will be periodic points of accountability about the use of organization resources in the implementation of strategic ideas.

There is no doubt that nurturing the seeds of grass roots strategy requires focused effort. But, if you want to harvest better results later, you have to create a strategic friendly environment. Leaders can successfully grow strategy through others by adhering to these five fundamental tasks. In some ways, helping others grow strategy is like growing the Bonsai Tree. It takes four things: moisture, good earth, light, and proper temperatures. In fact some people say that with a Bonsai Tree, you don’t “grow” it, you “care it.” It is the same way with your people if you want others to be more strategic in their work, you have to “care” the process along. This is done by nurturing it, sharing your own strategy, leading by example, and illuminating the way into the future for others.

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About the Author
Steven Stowell, Ph.D.
Dr. Steven J. Stowell is the Founder and President of the Center for Management and Organization Effectiveness, Inc. CMOE was created in 1978 for the purpose of helping individuals and teams maximize their effectiveness and create strategic competitiveness. Steve’s special interests lie in helping leaders and organizations transform into high-performance cultures that are focused on long-term, sustained growth.

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