How Strategic Leadership Can Help You Improve Your Business

Are you struggling to reach strategic clarity for your company or project? Find out what it takes to use strategic leadership effectively.
December 21, 2016

"In strategy," said legendary Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, "it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things." This ability to switch lenses in your leadership approach can be a prized capability. It's generally considered one of the key capabilities of those who practice strategic leadership. Strategic leadership may have a great impact on the success of a company or project.

Yet, it appears that individuals with strategic leadership skills may be in short supply. This is the finding from a 2015 study by PwC United Kingdom, in collaboration with Harthill Consulting. The study involved over 6,000 leaders across industries and sectors. It reveals that only 8 percent of the leaders surveyed could be profiled as "strategists"—"leaders who have applied the appropriate capabilities in the right situations to prepare them to successfully lead business change," according to the study.

What Exactly Is Strategic Leadership?

It's important to first differentiate between strategic leadership and operational and visionary leadership. Operational leaders focus on the day-to-day activities of the company. They typically may not have a long-term vision for change. Visionary leaders, on the other hand, are forward-looking. They generally focus on the big picture. We could say that strategic leadership is combining these two types of leadership and not focusing on one at the expense of the other.

But strategic leadership is the ability to communicate a long-term vision for a company and to engage others in creating a shared sense of purpose and mission for long-term success. 

Getting lost in the vision may be one of the pitfalls of not adopting a strategic leadership approach. Keeping your feet on the ground and minding the small things also matter.

And it doesn't stop here. Strategic leadership is not only about providing a sense of direction. It also requires the ability to focus on short-term stability, on controlling the details and facilitating the implementation of the vision or strategy. In short, it's the ability to oversee the day-to-day operations while directing the strategic long-term imperatives for growth and change. It's keeping an eye on the ground and the horizon at the same time.

What Are the Skills of a Strategic Leader?

Here are three skills of strategic leaders:

Critical Thinking

Strategic leadership requires the ability to make clear, reasoned judgments by viewing situations from multiple perspectives. It's the opposite of having tunnel vision. This allows a person to evaluate and synthesize information they gather from observation, reflection and experience. In so doing, it can help them come up with innovative and fresh solutions. Lessons learned are not lost, but are used as a guide for dealing with future uncertainties.

An Agile Mind

Getting lost in the vision may be one of the pitfalls of not adopting a strategic leadership approach. Keeping your feet on the ground and minding the small things also matter. A hallmark of strategic leadership, therefore, is easily moving back and forth from the big picture to the detailed action. 

So, for example, strategic leaders may become equally comfortable painting the vision and crafting and overseeing the strategy to execute the vision.

Inspiring Communication

Inspiring communication may be one of the most powerful tools in the strategic leadership arsenal. That's because without effective communication, a strategic leader may not be able to excite people about the possibilities of tomorrow while at the same time keep everyone grounded on today's realities. It's one thing to have a powerful vision, for example, it's another to have others "see" that vision and share it. Strategic leadership may, therefore, require a skilled use of language.

How Do You Develop Strategic Leadership?

Consider these three ways that may help enhance your strategic leadership skills:

Practice Using Reframing Tools

One way to avoid tunnel vision is to use a reframing tool to help you view an issue or a problem from multiple perspectives. 

One such tool is the Reframing Matrix. This tool is the brain-child of Michael Morgan, author of Creating Workforce Innovation: Turning Individual Creativity Into Organizational Creativity.

This tool works in three simple steps:

  • Draw a four-box grid. In the middle of the grid, write the issue or proposal you're examining.
  • Next, decide on which four perspectives you want to use. The typical business perspectives are program or product perspective, planning perspective, potential perspective and people perspective.
  • Now brainstorm factors or questions for each perspective and add them in each relevant quadrant of your matrix.

When you visualize your issue with a matrix, it may help you approach solutions more strategically.

Adopt Practical and Conceptual Approaches

If you typically focus on practical and concrete approaches to deal with the here and now, consider carving out time to do some conceptual thinking. For example, define what an ideal future would be for your company or project. What might be the critical success factors for the next six months to one year? What needs to be done well? Practice sharing these thoughts with others in the company and ask for feedback.

Practice using outsight, that is, actively looking for trends within your industry and globally. Analyze what's happening in your general business environment both from an economic and political angle. What impact might all of this have on the potential success of the company or the project?

Practice spotting patterns. For example, analyze patterns that might be common in any of your failed initiatives or present in all your successful ones. What's the big picture that might arise from your analysis?

Consider reading five or 10 annual reports of companies in your industry and adjacent industries. Study what their strategy is. What can you glean that might help you think strategically?

Strike a Balance Between Informing and Inspiring

The link between strategy and execution may be communication. A strategic leader may need to use language skillfully to do two things: create clarity and inspire people to action. One way to create clarity is to lay out a clear path for people. For example, start by clearly and succinctly outlining the overall goal, strategy or vision. Show people, step by step, which internal operations are aligned with achieving the goal or strategy and which may not be. Then work with the group to come up with strategies to effectively align existing operations with the desired goal or strategy. What might you need to start, stop or continue doing?

Also, think about making it clear about who's doing what. For example, consider having each person leave a strategy session having chosen which actions he or she will take toward achieving the overall goal or strategy. All of this clarity lifts the fog that may help people see where they're going and what's going to happen when they get there.

The other part of the communication is the inspiring part. Bring the strategy or vision to life with all of the language tools at your disposal. These include metaphors, symbols and analogies. You could include inspiring examples of the positive outcomes expected. Consider making use of a relevant, inspiring quotation or two. And how about a personal story or anecdote to illustrate your points? You could also use mantras. This can help you get others to buy in on a change in strategy.

These approaches may help you reach the hearts and minds of those you're trying to influence with your strategy. Communication as a strategic leader is really about striking the right balance between informing and inspiring.

Read more articles on leadership.

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