What is a Strategic Leader?
Updated: Feb 28, 2019
The question of strategic leadership and what it involves is a conversation that is ongoing between my colleagues and I and with good reason. We debate this frequently and passionately because we all know that it matters. Professional environments that embrace strategic leadership perform better, are more efficient, and exhibit greater morale throughout the organization as evidenced through individual team members. There are so many ways one can be a strategic leader and there are many strategic leadership techniques (hints why the conversation is ongoing) but if you are looking to become not just a strategic leader but a phenomenal leader, I want to drill this into your head: Think ahead, adapt, and empower. These are the fundamentals of strategic leadership and quality traits every valuable leader must have.
Before we breakdown: Think ahead, adapt, and empower; first, I want to point out why strategic leadership matters. There are a variety of leadership styles. Truthfully and surprisingly, most leaders are not strategic leaders. Most are authoritative leaders where the end results may still be favorable in terms of success, but the team is easily burned out and has a higher turnover. We all probably can think of one or two individuals who may fall into this category. I definitely know of one in particular. However, strategic leadership is different, and the end result is having influence over others to voluntarily make the best decisions that impact the company’s long-term success. It is a balance of analytics and humanism and causes your organization to run like a fine-tuned machine. And, it gets the best out of people!
Strategic leaders are proactive and detailed in their planning. This creates an in-house insurance policy because you understand and layout what you want to achieve, how you will achieve it, and take it a step further to identify what potential roadblocks could derail you and how you would overcome such obstacles. In addition, thinking ahead allows us the opportunity to determine evidence-based key performance indicators that will allow us to know confidently when we have achieved our goal. I had the pleasure early this year of creating vision boards with my closest colleagues, friends, and allies. We created visuals of our biggest 2019 dreams and then discussed a solid plan of action to turn our dreams into a reality. Charting what big success we want is easy to do but the ability to anticipate challenges and plan for them requires a lot of critical thinking. Monthly, we hold accountability sessions to ensure we are on track according to the plan and can adjust accordingly. Lastly, having a plan for how to react to diverse business situations is equally important to identifying objectives that you wish to achieve.
No matter how much we wish or try to force our plan, product, goals, or profit, nothing is ever set in stone. Yes- the ability of letting an ideal go or molding it into a more suitable and tangible goal is a necessary trait of a strategic leader. Hence, the accountability sessions noted above. Successfully thinking ahead must be met with the ability to quickly and effectively adapt when necessary. Adapting to an unfavorable or new turnout means remaining optimistic, reflecting on what could have been done differently, and creating a better fitting, better ending scenario. Change is a constant. Coping with change is a must. Don’t be rattled by a curve-ball, handle that curve-ball with grace and tenacity because they will get thrown. In my experience, I find that the best way to adapt to a changed outcome is to learn more and grow more in order to do more. Knowledge is power, which as we firmly know no one can take away from us. When I need to quickly adjust to the growing or unexpected needs of my company or teams, educating myself or seeking wise counsel on this newly entered variable helps me adapt quickly and reach a positive and desirable outcome. Lastly, know that the ability to adapt well is first a mindset. You have to be open to flexibility and receptive to change and this openness will benefit you as a leader and all of those who are impacted by your leadership.
The most important trait of a strategic leader is the ability to empower others. Some leaders exert power by delegating tasks, some by implementing quotas and charting individual success, and unfortunately some leaders rely on intimidation tactics to rally their team to perform extremely well by focusing on the consequences of failure. A strategic leader will get a desired response, high morale, and positive work culture by focusing on humanism and empowering his or her entire team. A strategic leader empowers by:
Understanding their team’s worth and value to the organization;
Giving team access to complete resources to get their job done, including the support in order to get the job done;
Compensating their team at or above industry standards; and
Giving their team member control over their role and the ability to be creative and define their contribution on their own terms.
Strategic leaders do not hesitate to build up their team. This requires getting to know them and understanding their goals, both professionally and, in many cases, personally. This allows a leader to know how to support employees, individually as a collective. In this method, a leader leads with engagement versus force or solely delegation. If you are unsure how to empower others, let me assure you it is not difficult and the first things I do to INSTANTLY empower those who work with me are:
I genuinely solicit their input and insight;
I address them as and treat them like a leader; and
I do not micromanage.
A leader who trusts his or her team and builds that team into a culture of support and accountability will have natural non-forceful influence and get great results. This is the heart of strategic leadership: Long-term thinking to reach and maintain success in longevity, adapting to meet the changes that will arise, and embracing the philosophy of empowerment to have the best, energetic, loyal, capable, and efficient group of individuals who will work endlessly to achieve the organization’s shared vision.
Every position I have held required the development of a strategic plan, which allowed us to think ahead. Then, we had to adapt the strategies, while keeping the goal(s) the same, which allowed us to adapt. Finally, we had to empower others to crush it. As a team, we did this by building individual and collective capacity and allowing individuals to use their wings to fly and soar like eagles. Due to that, regardless of whatever may have been thrown at the organization, the work still occurred at high levels, and the goals and outcomes were achieved due to strategic leadership.