We all aim to increase our productivity, and being the right kind of leader is a major step in that direction. Strategic leaders know how to guide employees to make decisions that are good for the business, and to make those decisions on their own. These leaders are also flexible but resolute when the situation calls for it, determined in the face of adversity, able to respond creatively when problems arise, and willing to challenge their own assumptions.
Strategic leadership leads to higher workplace satisfaction and employees who are more engaged. And because happier employees naturally want to do better work, productivity is improved.
Research at the Wharton School has uncovered six skills that strategic leaders share. When they’re considered individually, these skills are nothing new; the key is in the combination, and true strategic leaders have learned how to master all six.
1. Challenge viewpoints.
Strategic leaders are constantly challenging the status quo. Is there a more-efficient way to complete a particular task? What could be changed to increase team unity and trust? They are open-minded and welcome conflicting viewpoints, even if the viewpoint being questioned is their own.
If you want to develop your capacity to challenge preconceived notions, try focusing on the causes of an issue instead of the symptoms or effects. Make a list of your company’s established assumptions and think about them critically. Maybe the reason your clients stay put isn’t because you’re the best deal after all. Holding focus groups where no one has skin in the game can help you uncover any issues, because in these situations, people can be truly objective. Don’t be afraid to ask why. Hold regular “safe-zone” meetings in your workplace. In these meetings, encourage debate and differences of opinion, and be sure people know in advance that that’s the expectation.
2. Interpret ambiguous data.
In order to challenge the status quo effectively, a leader has to be able to make sense of complicated information. This requires sifting through conflicting viewpoints, recognizing patterns, looking for new answers, and being undeterred by ambiguity.
To get better at this skill, practice looking at the big picture and the little details. Look for information that proves you wrong. When you’re dealing with ambiguous or conflicting information, try to list at least three possible reasons for each piece of the puzzle. Consider opposing viewpoints by talking to people who disagree with you. Like learning to challenge accepted truths, interpreting ambiguous data requires you to keep an open mind. If necessary, step outside, take a break, go for a walk, or engage in some other activity that’s unrelated to the issue at hand. Putting some distance between you and the problem can help you to stay objective and creative.
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3. Anticipate challenges.
Leaders have to be ready for challenges before they occur. Look for opportunities or threats on the fringes of your business. In short, learn to be proactive instead of reactive.
To do this, talking and listening to your customers is a must. Learn about your competitors by conducting market research, or find a particularly successful opponent and study your differences. Take a look at any clients you’ve lost recently and try to determine the reasons why.
4. Be teachable.
Strategic leadership promotes an inquisitive workplace culture. These leaders search for lessons in successes and failures alike, and they aren’t afraid to question long-held beliefs or practices. The ability to be self-critical is essential in strategic leadership development.
To get better at this, review all major decisions and document whether they were successful or not. Be transparent about your discoveries. Praise employees when they bravely try something new, even if it ends up flopping. Conduct regular reviews and audits to see which departments are not producing as they should, and seek out the causes.
5. Be decisive.
As a leader, you will often be called upon to make difficult choices with very little time and insufficient information. Strategic thinkers must be able to follow an effective process that balances speed with precision and allows them to be confident in their decisions.
To become a better decision-maker, start asking whether there are any shades of gray in decisions previously defined as having a yes/no answer. Break decisions into their component parts, and work to understand them from the ground up. Be open about where you are in the decision-making process. Are you still taking ideas or are you trying to wrap things up?
6. Align differing opinions.
Strategic leaders must be able to compromise and bring team members and stakeholders together. This requires strong communication skills, a lot of trust, and regular outreach.
To improve this skill, the key is to connect with people early and often. This will help to prevent common complaints and misconceptions. Hold open conversations with naysayers to understand why they disagree and to address any concerns or misunderstandings they may have. Praise employees who further the goal of unification.
Being a true strategic leader means constantly applying the skills discussed above, identifying weaknesses as they arise, and working to correct them. When you continually put these skills into practice, you will create a more unified, trusting, confident team—which will ultimately lead to greater productivity and increased success for the business.