How to Become a Strategic Leader

How to Become a Strategic Leader

What’s your strategic leadership challenge? Do you understand how to be a strategic leader?

Are you responsible for leading product development? Growing market share? Driving digital transformation across part of the organization? Are you helping your organization navigate the disruption caused by the global coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath?

Do you find yourself competing with other senior leaders and priorities, wondering how to forward the long-term health of the organization?

Much is made of the importance of strategy in today’s organizations. A well-crafted, well-implemented overall strategy that links business priorities to leadership strategy is essential to an organization’s long-term success. Even so, managers and executives often struggle to move strategy beyond setting direction or goals and toward an ongoing process of transforming and sustaining the organization.

Being a Strategic Leader Stands Out in 3 Ways

The role of a strategic leader requires different skills and perspectives than those required by day-to-day operational leadership roles.

Strategic leadership is broad in scope. Strategic decisions impact areas outside your own functional area, business unit, or even the organization. An effective strategic leader sees the organization as interdependent and interconnected so that actions and decisions in one part of the organization are undertaken with their impact on other parts of the organization in mind. Operational leadership does not necessarily extend this far.

Strategic leadership is future-focused. Strategic work takes place over long periods of time. The strategic leader operates with a far-reaching timetable, integrating short-term results and a long-term focus. Not all leadership requires a forward view to be effective. Very good operational leaders manage day-to-day functions effectively and are skilled at working with people to ensure that short-term objectives are met.

Strategic leadership is change-oriented. The strategic leader is often a driver of organizational change. The impact of their work cascades or ripples throughout the organization. Effective operational leadership doesn’t necessarily institute significant organizational change.

For example, achieving the quarter’s targets may require that your team works well together — an important leadership task — but it doesn’t necessarily require change.

Senior leaders looking to become more strategic leaders must look beyond the process of setting strategy to what comes next by asking themselves these questions:

  • What do I need to pay attention to?
  • How do I implement?
  • How do I orchestrate the various efforts and tactics into a strategic whole?
  • How do I contribute to organizational leadership?

Becoming a Strategic Leader: A New Approach

Our virtual program, The Leading Strategically Experience, is about the mindset required to be a strategic leader. It brings together solid thinking and cutting-edge practices — and participants apply the knowledge to their personal strategic leadership challenge. In the program, senior leaders examine how they approach leadership and how they need to shift to be a strategic leader.

In order to become a strategic leader, you must engage in the following 3 behaviors:

Infographic: How to Become a Strategic Leader. Think strategically. Act strategically. Influence strategically.

  • Think strategically. Begin with understanding the complex relationship between your organization and its environment. Using that knowledge, you can then make decisions that facilitate your organization’s enduring success.
  • Act strategically. Take decisive action consistent with the strategic direction of your organization — despite ambiguity, complexity, and chaos.
  • Influence strategically. Build commitment to the organization’s strategic direction by inviting others into the strategic process, forging relationships inside and outside the organization, and utilizing organizational culture and systems of influence.

Participants in our Leading Strategically Experience look at issues that typically challenge senior leaders — leading change, shaping culture, leveraging polarities, and spanning boundaries to forge organizational networks.

The program includes a self-assessment, an intensive business simulation, and time to practice new skills and work through participants’ specific challenges. Participants engage in deep and relevant conversations with their peers and facilitators centered on their organizational context, strategic challenge, and building on the strong tools and methods surfaced in the program.

The simulation is engaging, intense, and highly practical. In the simulation, leaders run an organization in small teams. They have the opportunity to set priorities for the organization and see the results of their decisions. They get a real-time view of how their decisions influence other functions in the organization and how the organization’s outcomes play out in the marketplace. In the next round, they can try out new information or a different approach.

At each stage, they learn a new element of the strategic mindset and then work through how it applies to their personal strategic challenge.

The program also bridges individual and organizational leadership, which happen in parallel. On the individual level, the experience is focused on you, your competencies, and working on that personal leadership challenge. At the same time, you build your capacity to think, act, and influence as a leadership team. As participants work with the other people in the program, they address the collective skills and organizational culture needed to lead strategically and create high-performing organizations.

Asking the Right Questions for Success as a Strategic Leader

Asking the right questions — and returning to them to re-evaluate the answers and unearth new insights — is one way effective leaders align and execute strategy.

Participants in The Leading Strategically Experience learn to ask a number of key questions, including:

  • What are the 2 or 3 key drivers where we should invest our resources, time, and energy?
  • Do we have business strategies that are aligned with our key drivers?
  • Do we have the organizational capabilities that enable us to execute the business strategies?
  • Do we have good processes and dialogue for dealing with conflicting priorities?
  • Are we paying attention to the cognitive and emotional dimensions of leading change?

It’s a common misconception that leading strategically is all about making the right choice at the right time. Crafting strategy is more of a discovery process than a matter of choosing among a set of options at a given time. The questions above help leaders engage in that discovery process and improve their ability to think, act, and influence strategically. Learn more about how to overcome strategic leadership challenges.

Being a strategic leader involves discovering the few key things that your organization needs to do well and can do well in order to differentiate yourself from competitors. Discovery takes discipline and a commitment to continuous learning throughout the organization.

By recognizing opportunities to become a better strategic leader and finding ways to enact them, you can play a critical role in supporting your organization’s long-term success.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Learn how to become a strategic leader, or prepare your executives to think, act, and influence more strategically, with our virtual executive leadership program, The Leading Strategically Experience.

November 16, 2020
Leading Effectively Staff
About the Author(s)
Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

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How to Become a Strategic Leader

The role of strategic leader requires different skills and perspectives than those required by day-to-day operational leadership roles. Learn the 3 behaviors you must engage in to become a strategic leader.


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