What Is The Difference Between Strategic Leadership and Strategic Thinking?

StrategyWe are often asked, “What is the difference between Applied Strategic Thinking and Strategic Leadership?”

The fundamental difference lies in the role a person fills in his or her organization and the way in which strategy is incorporated into the job, but let us clarify the other key distinctions.

Applied Strategic Thinking is the ability to anticipate and begin exploiting tomorrow’s opportunities today.

Ahead of the Curve: A Guide to Applied Strategic Thinking was our first book on strategy.  In this book we set out to help people on the front lines of an organization learn how to think more strategically in order to become a more effective force in their work.

ahead-of-the-curve-coverAhead of the Curve is based on the idea that everyone can develop the ability to think, act, and contribute more over the long term by discovering their own “strategic contribution concept.”

Today’s organizations need to be full of people who can adapt to a changing environment, unlock value, and help the business be more competitive. Because of this, strategy is everyone’s job.

At CMOE, we’ve studied leadership strategy in all types of organizations around the world. We’ve worked closely with these organizations and expanded our knowledge about the application of strategic principles and the characteristics that individual contributors offer to the business.

Through our work, we have found that highly successful organizations are calling on all employees to think and act strategically in order to help them take on competitors and substitutes.

Applied Strategic Thinking helps the individual contributor learn how to think and achieve success tomorrow as well as today. As part of an internal economy, they have to understand there is a market for their services with real customers who have real problems to solve and jobs that need to be done inside the organization. 

Everybody has to keep an eye on the routine operational needs, but if you over-manage the present, you are doomed to mediocrity over the long run.  And if you’re not careful, you may even run the risk of becoming irrelevant and obsolete.  Applied strategic thinking helps prevent that from happening.

Employees’ won’t need to think as far out as senior managers but they do need to think and plan ahead for the innovative ‘next practices’ that will solve any problems on the horizon and create lasting value. CMOE’s Applied Strategic Thinking program addresses these skills and concepts.

 Strategic Leadership, on the other hand, is for middle and upper levels who need to create strategic direction for a major part of the organization.

Strategy Is Everyone's Job - Cover Only - FinalStrategy is Everyone’s Job, our second book on strategy, focuses on this population of strategic thinkers. These are people with significant responsibilities and fulfill roles like directors, senior managers, general managers and business unit leaders.

The long-term, sustained success and competitiveness of the entire organization depends on getting leaders to proactively and creatively shape the future which is why strategic leadership training incorporates many dimensions of classic business strategy.

Each manager inside the organization is running a small enterprise, so we coined the phrase “Managing the Business Within the Business™” to describe strategic leadership work. The people leading these operations have stewardship over a significant bundle of resources and capabilities. As a result, they have a duty to ensure that those resources are used in a way that supports the overarching direction of the firm.

These mid and higher level leaders are responsible for ensuring that their function adapts and evolves to a shifting business environment. Strategic leaders have to take full advantage of opportunities and work through strategic problems that stand in the way of positive, long-term change for their department.

This entrepreneurial view of the business-within-the-business is based on the belief that an organization is only as successful as its component parts and how well they fit together.  In short, the task of both leaders and employees inside the firm is to break away from the “task magnet.”

This attraction to the tactical work or project that must be done right now, must be tamed.  Leaders must start thinking and acting more strategically. The CEO of one of our clients said it best: “Our firm cannot compete in the marketplace unless each department or unit can figure how to out-compete, out-strategize, innovate, and change faster than your counterparts performing the same functions and activities in the firms we compete with head to head.”

Leaders at every level have an obligation to chart a course for their team that will enable it to change and evolve over time. This is the only way to ensure continued relevance for the team and the sustained success of the larger organization.

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About the Author

Stephanie Mead

Ms. Mead has experience in operations management, leadership development curriculum design, organization development consulting, and international operations. Stephanie has developed complete leadership development curriculums for some of the world’s leading organizations. Her experience also includes creating specialized learning experiences and blended learning programs aimed at maximizing human and organization performance. Stephanie has also co-authored 4 books with other CMOE consultants.