How to Become a Strategic Leader

How to Become a Strategic Leader

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

Effective strategic leadership — and the ability to solve strategic leadership challenges — requires different skills and perspectives than those required by day-to-day operational leadership.

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.

Being a Strategic Leader Stands Out in 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?

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.

Participants learn to think, act, and influence strategically while looking 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.

Related Content

Please update your browser. requires a modern browser for an enhanced and secure user experience. Internet Explorer is no longer supported or recommended by Microsoft. The Center for Creative Leadership recommends that you upgrade to Microsoft Edge or similar.