Great business leaders understand that leading an enterprise in the direction of continuous growth once it has caught fire can take herculean effort. Inevitably, every organization—from startups to the well established—faces the tenuous transition point where it must be willing to untangle from deeply embedded routines and consistently make core decisions that result in increased employee engagement, loyalty, and a shared vision.
Yet countless entrepreneurs and executives at the C-level simply lose focus. Drawn into the distractions of day-to-day minutiae or succumbing to perfectionism, they all too often become mired in trivial decision-making, which steals their valuable time and spirits away their innovative genius.
It’s no secret that many of today’s business leaders are searching for clarity, creativity, and direction. In fact, most are so busy working in their businesses that they neglect to work on their businesses in strategically meaningful ways that drive greater levels of success.
A successful strategic leader has the ability to influence others to execute on short-term and long-term goals by being focused and clear on the direction of the organization—creating an enduring organization no matter what is happening in the environment. It requires the leader to take a 50,000-foot view, consulting the right people, gathering and sorting through the most important information, and then making connections that align with the strategy.
Understanding that strategy guides every aspect of a business, a strong leader has the unique capacity to define opportunities and risks and determine where to invest resources. By taking tactical steps required to move the strategy forward in line with profit centers, a strategic leader is able to build the most value in an organization and develop targeted plans that align people, systems, and financial resources to ensure that strategy is properly executed and driving the right performance.
The Strategic Leadership Gap
In 2015, Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) conducted a study of 6,000 senior executives using a method of research developed by William Torbert of Boston University and David Rooke of Harthill Consulting. Respondents were asked to provide answers to a series of open-ended questions that were later analyzed to determine which types of leaders were most prominent. Only 8% emerged as “strategic leaders,” a term Torbert and Rooke used to describe those effective at leading transformations.
This group included more females (10%) than males (7%), but those age 45 and above accounted for the highest proportion, sharing three key personality traits:
- They have an ability to challenge the prevailing view without provoking outrage or cynicism
- The are capable of acting on the big and small picture at the same time and changing course if their chosen path turns out to be incorrect
- Operating from humility and respect for others, they lead with inquiry, and advocacy while remaining engaged and in command.
The distance between number one and number two is always a constant. It you want to improve the organization, you have to improve yourself, and the organization gets pulled up with you. That is a big lesson.” — Indra Nooyi, Chairperson & CEO, PepsiCo
Fear of failure is born of failure, but it’s inevitable… in business and in life. What separates great strategic leaders from fear, however, is their willingness and ability to take reasonable risks, improve upon processes when mistakes occur, and courageously forge ahead.
In fact, some organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK-based innovation charity, Nesta, have held “failure fests” where employees who review and learn from past failures accept them as integral not only to organizational success but also to their own development. The alternative, they concur, is to remain paralyzed by fear and accept our minds’ illusions. The ensuing domino effects often include:
- Obvious absence of strategic leaders
- Dearth of critical thinkers
- Lack in communication and collaboration skills
- Nonexistent vision and objectives
- Insufficient capital and other resources
- Poor speed of growth
- Inadequate competitive advantages
- Evident internal strife
- Innovation paralysis
Navigating Organizational Complexity
Because today’s organizations have undeniably become increasingly ambiguous and chaotic, business leaders must strategically observe complexity as a whole—examining both the external environment and internal landscape—in order to make the “best” decisions with the data available and within a reasonable time frame.
This requires full engagement in balancing direction and autonomy of implementation of long- and short-term goals as well as execution of the tactical work. It also requires a resolve to unite the organization under a shared purpose, which is perhaps one of the greatest challenges a business leader will face.
According to Joel Kurtzman and the more than 50 highly successful business leaders he interviews in his book, Common Purpose: How Great Leaders Get Organizations to Achieve the Extraordinary, aligning everyone to a shared vision is a task rarely achieved. As a tenured global thought leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers and former editor-in-chief of the Harvard Business Review, the renowned economist and one of the most respected names in business and leadership takes a rare look at great leaders who have achieved success by unearthing the common purpose within their organizations.
Among others, he offers Joel Klein, Steve Wynn, Shivan Subramaniam, Michael Milken, and Warren Bennis as examples of superior leaders who have made good companies great by guiding and empowering an organization with a positive common purpose rather than by the more typical approach of command and control. In fact, he credits a positive shared purpose to NASA putting a man on the moon, Google becoming the dominant force on the Internet, and Obama winning the 2008 U.S. presidential election. With this strategy ever at the forefront, these powerful, competent, and distinguished leaders have the ability to continuously expand and maximize tangible value.
The Strategic Leadership Essentials – Think, Plan, Do, Be
Dynam offers proven—and powerful—methods that help identify gaps and leaders become more strategic and by doing so, strengthen an organization’s effectiveness and sphere of influence, amplify team energy, and create a collaborative culture of empowered individuals united by common goals—all of which contribute to establishing a competitive edge, minimizing costs, and maximizing resources and profits.
With a sharp focus on the big picture, as well as strategic communication and collaboration skills to build more effective teams, leaders who think, plan, do and be initiate real change and exponentially improve an organization’s performance while on the road to long-term success.
Main Focus: Competencies Training Platform Creation, Strategy, Critical Thinking
Steps: Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation
On a daily basis, set aside time to engage in critical thinking and review your top three priorities. Talk with your thought partners or employ mindfulness techniques that enable you to step back and evaluate, as objectively as possible, what’s being done and whether or not it’s working. Strategic questions for careful consideration and confirmation are as follows:
- Who are we as an organization?
- What are we trying to accomplish?
- What problem or problems do we solve?
- How are we going to get it done?
- How do we reach our customers?
- Who else is doing this?
- What market research have we done?
- Do we truly modify the way business is being done in our industry?
- Are these targeted customer relationships profitable?
- What do we need to accomplish our goals?
- When are we profitable?
Main Focus: Time Management and Prioritization, Operational Effectiveness, Planning
Steps: Organize, systematize, and evaluate
Continuously evaluate your strategic focus: identify and define where to spend time, your leadership team’s skills and talents, and allocation of resources. With continuous review, you’ll be able to differentiate between actions that align with the overall big-picture strategy and those that require more fine-tuning or elimination.
Main Focus: Talent Development, Financial Acumen, Client Specific Skills Development (may include: assertiveness, emotional intelligence, communications, public speaking, etc.)
Steps: Take action, cultivate knowledge, and analyze outcomes.
Execute daily activities and look for opportunities that are focused and driven by your strategy. Build and expand personal knowledge and develop others. Do everything with purpose and continuously analyze actions, concentrating on those that best serve your organization’s overall goals.
Don’t be intimidated by what you don’t know. That can be your greatest strength and ensure that you do things differently from everyone else.” — Sara Blakely, Founder of Spanx
Main Focus: Building Social Capital, Facilitating, Assessment, Leadership Style Debriefing, and Recommendations
Steps: Lead by example and take stock.
Show up with a presence of a strategic leader who drives for results while respecting others’ thoughts, opinions, and work. Take an unbiased look at how you are perceived, how effective you are in assisting, empowering, and enabling your team, and above all, how your leadership inspires positive engagement, collaboration, and bold new ideas.
Executives charged with organizational growth and productivity often benefit from coaching, which invariably accentuates the positive attributes, talents, and communication skills of company leaders to increase engagement and unite workforces.
The Harvard Business Review identified the top three reasons coaches are hired:
- To develop high potentials or facilitate transition – 48%
- To act as a sounding board – 26%
- To address derailing behavior – 12%
As a result of coaching, organizations and executives report that it provides these top three benefits:
- Improved self-confidence – 80%
- Improved work performance – 70%
- Improved communication skills – 72%
Strategic Leadership Capacity
I’m someone who will push you beyond all reasonable limits. Someone who will ask you not to just fulfill your potential but to exceed it. Someone who will expect more from you than you may believe you are capable of.” — Pat Summitt, former head coach of the University of Tennessee’s women’s basketball team, which won eight national titles and 1,098 games
Coaching a team of collegiate or professional athletes is no different from leading an organization, and if sports have only one lesson to impart, it is this: alignment is essential for overall success. Like a winning team, the job of strategy is not limited to a few top executives.
Strategic leaders are needed throughout the network of a complex organization to sustain a competitive advantage. By empowering a high-potential leader with the skills necessary to successfully navigate the unknown, an entire organization will be positioned to face setbacks with intelligence, courage, and resolve and move forward into a dynamic future.
Today’s exceptional modern-day business leaders such as Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, and PepsiCo’s chairwoman and CEO, Indra Krishnamurthy Nooyi, understand that unpredictable environments can be the perfect breeding ground for tremendous opportunity—as long as strong, strategic leaders are placed squarely at the helm.
True leaders draw from experience—whether transformative or catastrophic—and incorporate lessons learned to improve their way of thinking, behaving, and leading. Those who have developed a sharp eye for opportunities before competitors see them, anticipate change and prepare their teams for the shifting tides, and stand confidently poised to achieve mission-critical goals and objectives that matter most will lead their companies into a profitable future.
About the Author
Dr. Theresa Ashby, PhD, MBA, is the president and CEO of Dynam Consulting. A strategist, advisor, and thought-partner by nature, she motivates professionalism and helps clients create a culture of empowerment by delivering groundbreaking strategic plans and processes.