Recently while going through some old files I came across this article that I initially posted on my old website back in July 2018. I took a look at it, and thought it was still relevant and worth sharing. I dusted it off, polished it up, and here it is.
In a lot of Human Resources’ literature there is considerable mention about the importance of “Strategic Leadership”. This line of argument contends that for too long Human Resources’ practitioners have been too transactional and not focused on providing strategic benefit. As is often the case, commentators refer to a term but never fully describe what it entails, how it works, or how to develop this particular skill.
Strategic leadership is often described not so much for what it is, but rather, what it isn’t. So, what does strategic leadership ability look like? Here are some thoughts and observations.
Components of Strategic Leadership
1. Anticipatory – being able to forecast what will happen next, or understanding what events will likely occur.
2. Critical Thinking – an ability to analyze a set of issues, problems or circumstances in terms of what is going on, how something evolved, what created the situation or problem, and then identifying possible courses of action including the pros and cons of each option.
3. Interpretation – the capacity to synthesize information or input from different sources, see patterns or commonalities, and channel an effective response.
4. Decision-making – having the ability to take in different inputs, and balancing that feedback while recognizing that some input carries greater weight than others, and then proposing a definitive course of action.
5. Alignment – understanding the motivations of different players in any particular situation, including their hidden agendas or motives, and then formulating a common plan.
6. Learning from mistakes – where necessary, it may mean shifting one’s planned course of action from an original plan, or deciding on a course of action that is different from what was originally contemplated.
Developing strategic leadership skills is of paramount importance to those who aspire to managerial level positions (Photo courtesy of Tima Miroshnichenko and Pixels)
What does Strategic Leadership Look Like?
Every busy leader wants to believe that he/she embodies the qualities of strategic leadership. Too often I suspect many leaders may be their own best cheerleaders but not necessarily their most ardent critics. Knowing the components of Strategic Leadership what qualities should one typically expect to find in a Strategic Leader?
I would submit the following are critical traits one would expect in someone who embodies Strategic Leadership:
1. Proactive – a strategic leader is likely someone who is on top of things, not satisfied with the status quo, always looking for improvements, and who anticipates and is comfortable with the concept of change.
2. Open-Minded – good strategic leaders are persons who open themselves up to the unexpected, take risks, and invite feedback and even criticism from their peers, superiors and direct reports. Being receptive to the perspectives of others is a way not only of gaining insights but also a reflection of broader societal or organizational awareness.
3. Future Oriented – those with strategic leadership skills may be based in the present, but they always have one eye on the future. Being anticipatory and attuned to what lies ahead is a means of preparing for what will be occurring later but also responding to future needs.
4. Perceptive – possessing the ability to see beyond the present or the superficial, coupled with a desire to probe for deeper meaning or insights, is key to developing a deeper understanding of people, events and circumstances.
5. Reflect on the Broader Consequences of a Decision – recognizing that every situation presents both opportunities and risks, and understanding that different groups of stakeholders may be impacted differentially by decisions, is pivotal in organizations where resources are tight and benefits may not apply equally.
How Do You Develop Strategic Leadership Skills?
If you are starting out in your career, or you currently are not in a position of significance, but you recognize the criticality of strategic leadership, then how do you master this skill? The following are some suggestions:
1. Go Beyond Routine Thinking. Look at how you can benefit your organization more broadly.
2. Create a Vision. Outline on a piece of paper your own personal Mission, Vision and Value within your company. How does it align with that of your senior management team in your organization?
3. Determine Objectives. On both a personal and professional level identify three key objectives you want to work on in the coming year. Measure your progress, celebrate small wins, and critically evaluate any failures as an opportunity to re-focus.
4. Be Flexible. Recognize that in every role there will be times when the best laid plans go awry. Take these changes in stride, and recognize that how you respond and your ability to adapt is a measure of your versatility.
5. Intuitive. Develop greater awareness and understanding of the needs of those around you.
6. Continuous Learning. Understand that job knowledge is changing at an alarming rate, and that the ability to remain current is important to not just your immediate employment but also your long-term career success.
7. Seek Counsel. Identify a more experienced mentor and at least one trusted colleague in your organization. Don’t be afraid to seek their counsel and advice.
8. Balance Creativity with Realism. When you identify imaginative solutions to problems test them for realism based on the costs, the human resources, and time constraints.
9. Be Patient and Avoid Jumping To Conclusions. Recognize that there are many situations where a lack of facts can contribute to hasty or impetuous decisions. Take the time to carefully analyze your options and possibilities.
10. Challenge the Norm. Don’t be content with simple explanations even when the results seem plausible. Wherever possible, probe for deeper meaning and alternatives.
Being a strategic leader isn’t like learning a software product or figuring out how to use your new Smartphone. You can’t just take a course and apply what you learned the same day with expert precision. What makes it complex is that it entails a number of different variables and traits that encompass a holistic approach that can and often does take years to master.
Strategic leadership embodies many things, but most of all, it is a critical component of modern management. It entails a search for that which is new, an unwillingness to simply accept the status quo, and the ongoing pursuit of excellence