We are often asked what makes a leader a strategic leader. One of the special characteristics that makes strategic leaders stand out from the crowd is their sweeping view of the world in which they operate. They have a broad view and interpret the road signs and indicators they see, using the insight they gain to actively shape the future.
They seem to recognize that being attuned to the various forces working for or against them reveals valuable information about the strategic opportunities they are pursuing and the obstacles they may face. In comparison, leaders who are less attentive to the world around them or consumed by their daily demands are more susceptible to being caught off guard by unwelcome surprises, and they often miss windows of opportunity that open up.
Being able to step back and view your world from farther off gives you an advantage because you can clearly see what you need to change in response to the hazards that are lurking, as well as the rich opportunities that are available for capture.
Think of this characteristic of strategic leadership as “mental radar” that sweeps continuously across the spectrum of your world. “Your world” might include your team, functional areas, the organization, your industry, the market, the technology you use, and so on.
Good strategic leaders are able to spot and interpret the cues from this continuous stream of intelligence.
Unfortunately, when we are not in tune with these signals, we may miss pieces of information that can have a significant impact on our careers or lives.
Nobody wants to risk overlooking something crucial. As such, leaders must consistently and intentionally pay attention to their surroundings as they dig for insights and seek to understand the forces influencing the future.
So what, exactly, does an alert and aware leader do to gain this valuable insight? Strategic awareness boils down to having the ability to do four things:
- Step back
- Stay informed
- Think deeply
- Consult with others
Let’s face it: Most leaders have an addiction—to activity. As leaders, we are trained to think fast and take quick action. And while this is a good skill to have in many situations, it can be overused to the detriment of our teams’ and organizations’ long-term success.
Even though leaders are often rewarded and recognized for moving quickly and taking action, strategically agile leaders also have to be able to pause and step back.
When leaders have the discipline to actively disengage themselves from their daily demands and activities—even for a short time—they are able to focus their creativity, energy, and attention on things of longer-term significance. Becoming an alert and aware leader means that you have to break free from the activity trap and gain a new perspective on your world.
You’ll be amazed at what you can see when your mind is freed up to think more broadly. We aren’t suggesting that you neglect your responsibilities—not in the least. But we do recommend that you take some time to pause and shift into a strategic frame of mind so you can also fulfill your longer-term responsibilities.
As a shaper of the future, it’s your job to discover ways to be distinctive and add ongoing value to the organization. That responsibility can’t be ignored for the sake of meeting today’s demands alone.
We like the phrase, “The things we don’t know tend to control us.” Strategic leaders take this idea to heart. They work hard to stay informed and tap into valuable sources of information that give them clues about where they need to go and what they need to avoid.
Most importantly, they seek to understand the strategic direction and priorities of the business. This allows them to align their own strategic efforts with the strategy of the broader organization.
Leaders with high levels of awareness tend to have a strong and honest relationship with their surroundings. They are unafraid of looking at the sometimes-harsh realities of their situation. By being informed, they have a complete view of their situation, understand the issues they need to consider, and collect and use information about the things that will influence their goals and strategies in either a positive or a negative way.
Without gathering this intelligence, it is difficult to know where you are headed and what you may face along the way.
Organizations want leaders who can think deeply, and strategic leaders know that the best way to dig down to the heart of issues and situations is by asking useful questions such as
- Why am I doing these activities?
- Who is my customer, or who am I serving?
- What will my customers want from me in the future?
- What processes, resources, knowledge, skills, and abilities will my team need to be successful over the long run?
- How is my operating environment changing, and what does that mean for me?
- What can I do differently now that will produce a payoff in the future?
- How is my organization changing, and what is it trying to achieve?
While asking these types of questions may seem like a little thing, it’s one of the hallmarks of a strategic leader. Questions can be the catalyst for strategic inspiration because they provoke deep insight.
They force us to step back and see things from a different perspective, which allows us to explore new possibilities. When the full picture comes into view, people are better able to plan for the future, and planning for the future is the mark of a strategic leader.
Consult with Others
Leaders have choices about how to work with their own team and other teams across the business. Some choose to take a less-inclusive approach. Strategic leaders tend to take a more-collaborative approach, tapping into the diverse ideas of others and unleashing their creativity, empowerment, and engagement in a way that benefits the organization over the long term.
Strategic leaders work in partnership with others to build their awareness about important issues facing the team or organization, and they work alongside their team members to achieve shared objectives. Collaborating on strategic challenges and opportunities breathes life into the organization and keeps teams functioning more effectively. It makes strategy part of everyone’s job.
Leaders need the input, ideas, and commitment of every team member to solve problems, spot opportunities, make effective decisions, and find productive ways of executing on critical strategic initiatives. Start a conversation about the things influencing your operation and get as many insights as you can.
The bottom line is that for you to achieve leadership excellence, you have to be able to let up on the action from time to time and expand your awareness. If you can master this quality, you, your team, and the organization are all more likely to experience greater growth and success.