• Published January 31, 2023
  • 7 Minute Read

How to Become a Strategic Leader

Strategic leadership is broad, future-focused, and change-oriented. Start your journey to becoming more strategic by asking the right questions.
Published January 31, 2023
How to Become a Strategic Leader

The Differences Between Operational vs. Strategic Leaders

What makes strategic leadership different from leadership in general? If you’re a good leader, aren’t you in turn a strategic leader?

Effective strategic leaders — who have the ability to solve strategic leadership challenges — need different skills and perspectives than those in day-to-day operational leadership roles.

Operational leaders must master their functional area, meet short-term targets, and create stability for focused execution.

Strategic leaders, on the other hand, must focus on multiple facets of the business instead of ensuring success in a single area. They make decisions that position the business for the future, while meeting current demands. And, typically, strategic leaders are involved in creating significant organizational change. This difference means that the challenges faced by strategic leaders will also be different.

What’s a Strategic Leader?

Being a strategic leader means having the ability to make common sense of a situation, no matter how complex and ambiguous the conditions. This is especially critical in today’s complex and disrupted environment post-pandemic, including social, economic, and political instability; global trade wars; industry upheavals; and more. This turbulence creates pressures on the organization as a whole, and leaders in particular, who are responsible for guiding the way through change and innovation.

As a strategic leader, you must be able to offer guidance that allows people to make sense of the encompassing world and collective challenges, and also explain how the team as a whole will face them.

Strategic Leadership Stands Out in These 3 Ways

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?

How to Be a Strategic Leader: 3 Keys

Strategic Leaders Use These Behaviors

At CCL, we’ve studied hundreds of thousands of leaders as they navigate challenges of all kinds. Our research shows that the most strategic leaders do the following 3 things.

Infographic with the words, 'How to Become a Strategic Leader. Think strategically. Act strategically. Influence strategically.'

1. 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. Rather than try to solve challenges alone, leaders who think strategically invite internal and external experts to bring their wisdom to the table where it can be carefully considered and tested.

Individuals solving strategic leadership challenges don’t rely only on what has worked in the past, but are excited by opportunities to test entirely new approaches. Instead of waiting to be caught by surprise, they revel in scenario planning, learning about future trends, and imagining how they can influence the world to their advantage.

Leaders who endure through challenge after challenge are learners at their core, and they soak up knowledge from everywhere and everyone. They welcome new ideas, debates, and even controversy because they know that standing still is the surest way to be left behind. Rather than concentrate on consolidating power, they engage others in collaboration because the prize they seek is infinitely larger than whatever they currently possess.

2. Act strategically.

Take decisive action consistent with the strategic direction of your organization — despite ambiguity, complexity, and chaos.

Solving strategic leadership challenges today means acting at the speed of change. It’s not helpful to sit in a conference room or on a Zoom call, spending months figuring out your digital strategy while the world is passing you by and doors to opportunities are closing. Leaders used to spend a long time solving challenges and developing strategies, with the idea that having a well-thought-through strategy was better than not having a strategy.

But leaders who think and act strategically are constantly learning and acting. They’re not afraid to re-strategize as they learn new things, and they’re careful to pay as much attention to the parts of the strategy that didn’t work as those that did. Things that don’t work as planned indicate that more learning is required.

3. 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.

There’s clear evidence that the majority of change efforts fail. While some change efforts are poorly conceived or badly timed, more change failures can be traced to leaders’ inability to influence key stakeholders inside and outside the organization to see the change through.

What’s clear is that new strategic leadership challenges will require new capabilities on the part of the organization. An adaptable organization is characterized by people jumping in where they’re needed without worrying about who’s getting the credit. Obstacles are cleared out of the way so that people who know what to do can do it.

In order to influence strategically, an organization needs a culture that supports collaborative problem solving and relies on high levels of commitment by people to do the right thing, unselfishly.

When leaders think, act, and influence strategically, they’re able to bring individuals across the organization together and build trust in the vision and the goals.

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

Strategic Leaders Ask the Right Questions

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. It starts with understanding your organization’s key leadership drivers.

Questions that can help you be a more strategic leader include:

  • 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.

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?

Build more strategic leaders at your organizations with a customized learning journey using our research-backed modules. Available leadership topics include Boundary Spanning, Leading Through Change & Disruption, Innovation Leadership, Thinking & Acting Strategically, and more.

  • Published January 31, 2023
  • 7 Minute Read
  • Download as PDF

Based on Research by

Kelly Simmons
Kelly Simmons, MS
Global Director, Custom Leadership Portfolio

Kelly oversees the design and delivery of custom leadership solutions for our global corporate clients, and she was lead faculty on the design of our Advancing Technical Women program, designed to help hone women’s leadership skills so they stay and rise to more senior roles. She’s the co-author of Beating the Odds: Winning Strategies of Women in STEM.

Kelly oversees the design and delivery of custom leadership solutions for our global corporate clients, and she was lead faculty on the design of our Advancing Technical Women program, designed to help hone women’s leadership skills so they stay and rise to more senior roles. She’s the co-author of Beating the Odds: Winning Strategies of Women in STEM.

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About CCL

At the Center for Creative Leadership, our drive to create a ripple effect of positive change underpins everything we do. For 50+ years, we've pioneered leadership development solutions for everyone from frontline workers to global CEOs. Consistently ranked among the world's top providers of executive education, our research-based programs and solutions inspire individuals in organizations across the world — including 2/3 of the Fortune 1000 — to ignite remarkable transformations.