Senior executives and mid-level managers often ask us to explain the qualities and characteristics that differentiate strategic leaders from excellent leaders of other kinds.
It is a fair question, one that we have been studying for over 20 years. To be sure, there are plenty of good leaders out there, but many of them seem to lack the strategic capacity and foresight necessary to achieve long-term, sustained growth for their organizations.
This group of managers genuinely enjoy their jobs, and they become consumed by executing the daily priorities that are staring them in the face. These managers are happy operating “in the moment,” and many do it well.
While we recognize the importance of fulfilling today’s responsibilities, managers who either can’t find the time and energy to shape the future, or who simply aren’t interested in or curious about strategic change, are bound to put their organizations’ long-term success at risk.
Strategic leaders know that understanding and studying the variables that come together to produce opportunities or risks for their businesses takes some work. They know that they must use their business savvy and make a concerted effort to step back from their daily responsibilities and view the business from a broader perspective. This is the only way to make sense out of the vast uncertainty of the ever-changing business environment and map out a path to the future.
Non-strategic leaders prefer to maintain a narrow focus. They like to know a lot about one thing. Strategic leaders, on the other hand, tend to exhibit curiosity about many things and take a more holistic view of the world. A quality of a Strategic leader is they want to make a difference—and as a result, they are more likely to take an active role in making sure that their businesses remain relevant and competitive over the long haul.
This “strategic intelligence” consists of a small number of critical elements, but they directly influence the way strategic leaders, think, work, and behave. These are 4 strategic leadership qualities. The first three are curiosity, creativity, and courage. The fourth is strategic agility, and it is this last factor that I believe to be most essential.
We conduct seminars all over the world, and everywhere we go, we find leaders who seem to have strategy in their DNA. These leaders are naturally and tirelessly inquisitive; they hunger to understand how things work and strive to make broad connections and entertain new perspectives. They are constantly learning and taking in new knowledge, and they are not afraid of being novices. These leaders ask bold questions and carefully consider the hypotheticals.
Strategic leaders have a lot of imagination. While these leaders may not come up with the “Next Big Thing,” they are constantly looking for better ways to run their team or piece of the business and serve its customers (both current and future). These leaders challenge the status quo in their operational space or piece of the value chain. They are playful and dedicated to experimenting with new ideas and combinations that will help them and the business be more productive, cost-effective, and customer-centered.
Strategic leaders are bold, audacious. They are somewhat fearless and willing to take risks, but are neither careless nor reckless. The risks they take are smart and calculated. They do their homework, gather critical information, and weigh the intelligence they’ve amassed before jumping in head first—but when it’s time to strike, they don’t hold back. They don’t spend time worrying what others may think, and even when their bets don’t pay off, they are strong enough to weather others’ criticism (and to learn from the experience).
4. Strategic Agility
In my mind, agility is the jewel in the strategic leader’s crown. Having the ability to execute on key objectives and initiatives with speed, ease, and precision is the strategic leader’s ultimate weapon—one that will consistently help your business win. And when you have a team of these leaders working on your organization’s behalf, the sky’s the limit for your business.
Admittedly, strategy takes a lot of work. Even making small shifts in your organization’s direction, core competencies, products, or ways of serving your customers takes effort, and the situation is amplified if your business is undergoing a major makeover.
I constantly run into leaders who are really good at formulating strategy but struggle to move out, implement, and execute their strategies in a timely way. These leaders lack speed. The interesting thing is that with strategic agility also comes composure. These leaders don’t panic; they simply take focused action now.
The agile strategic leader is always moving, alert, and aware. And while these leaders also take care of their daily operational tasks, they understand the importance of making time to make progress on their strategic priorities. In part, this is accomplished through the focused effort of others. Successful strategic leaders encourage everyone on their team to take on a role in the strategic play.
This is how they move the needle. They understand that the future is coming fast, and with or without a driver, the business will keep moving; the question is whether that movement will be in the desired direction. Strategically agile leaders look for windows of opportunity, and when they open, these leaders are ready to strike. They create new opportunities, explore new options, and run a lot of small experiments. These leaders fight against fate setting direction for them and they refuse to surrender power to external forces that seek to shape the future.
Although strategically agile leaders may not be able to control their destinies completely, they know what they want for themselves, their team, the business, and its customers—and they take action—today—in support of those goals.