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 meet short-term targets, master their functional area, and create stability for focused execution.
Strategic leaders, on the other hand, must make decisions that position the business for the future, while meeting current demands. They must focus on multiple facets of the business instead of ensuring success in a single area. 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.
The Importance of Strategic Leadership Today
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.
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: the COVID-19 pandemic, exploding racial tensions, global trade wars, industry upheavals, and more. This turbulence creates a pressure on the organization as a whole, and leaders in particular, who are responsible for guiding the way through change and innovation.
Intense crises and rapid change reveal gaps in organizations’ strategies, preparedness, and ability to respond quickly. Carefully developed long term plans can become obsolete overnight as we face futures that are undeniably different than what we anticipated.
When a group faces a challenge that has the potential to create obstacles, it’s often the first instinct of the leader to offer their personal views and ideas to solve the situation. What people often don’t realize is that when one person imposes their personal viewpoint of a situation onto a group, it leads to a shared lack of understanding of the situation and can hinder future progress. Strategic leadership will not happen unless everyone is onboard and moving in the same direction, committed to the survival of the whole.
3 Behaviors to Engage in to Overcome Strategic Leadership Challenges
As a leader in these times of extreme disruption, how does one need to think differently about the role in order to overcome strategic leadership challenges?
At CCL, we’ve studied hundreds of thousands of leaders as they navigate challenges of all kinds, and can offer some suggestions. In our virtual program, The Leading Strategically Experience, we emphasize the importance of being able to do the following 3 things:
1. Think strategically
To think strategically is the ability to prioritize and manage paradox given the complex relationship between the organization and its market ecosystem. 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. Rather than 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
To act strategically is taking decisive and timely actions that are aligned with the rest of the organization and consistent with the strategic direction.
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.
Instead, 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
The process of solving strategic challenges and bringing about necessary changes requires leaders to influence others. There’s clear evidence that the majority of change efforts fail. While a few change efforts are poorly conceived or badly timed, more change failures can be traced to the inability of leaders 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 is 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 it to solve strategic leadership challenges, you can play a critical role in supporting your organization’s long-term success.
Ready to Take the Next Step?
Prepare your executives and senior leaders to think, act, and influence strategically to overcome complex challenges with our virtual program, The Leading Strategically Experience.