We have read the descriptions of “great leaders” from many of the best minds in business—the “level 5 leader” in Jim Collins’ book, the concept of the “leadership duo” in Blueprint to a Billion, and the classic Leadership Gold by John C. Maxwell. And, as Maxwell says, “The toughest leader to lead is ourselves.”
The key difference between a leader and a strategic leader is that the strategic leader has a well-defined vision for the future. Do you have a clear picture of what the company will be like in five years? Some call it a vision, others call it a strategic positioning statement, but whatever you call it, a strategic leader knows where they are going. They balance the present with the future in making resource and operational decisions, especially when planning investments in capital, including technology and management (or “getting the right seats on the bus,” as Collins says) at every level.
Southwest Airlines is an often-used example of a company with a clear vision that guides every decision. For example, they have a unique hiring process that requires certain personalities in addition to experience or skills.
The vision gives strategic leadership a strong sense of purpose every day. Believe it or not, it makes the job much easier, allowing quick assessment of proposals or ideas that can move them closer to the future and those that don’t. I had a client who shared with me that they saved one month in the budgeting process because they understood the priorities.
A strategic leader needs to be able to communicate their vision in order for others to sign up for the journey and understand their role in it. That also means that the vision needs to be motivational (as does the leaders’ communication), with clear responsibilities and expectations set for all involved and quick wins along the way so people feel progress. This creates alignment, and having measures makes it clear when they experience successes along the way.
Another key point to remember is that strategic leadership works best when the leader is able to use influence, not dominance, to rally the troops. If no one wants to follow, perhaps the vision needs some re-examination. Jack Welsh wrote that “engaging people’s hearts and minds is the key to everything.”
The responsibility of a strategic leader is to be able to manage through tough times as well as good times. In fact, Herb Kelleher, one of Southwest’s founders has been quoted as saying, “Manage in good times, so the company can do well in bad times.” So far at least, they are the only airline that hasn’t had to resort to charging for checked baggage.
Are you a strategic leader?
- Do you have good access to important information about your company and the marketplace?
- Do you have a clear vision for the future of your company and a plan to get there?
- Do you run your company according to that plan, investing appropriately, hiring the right skill sets for tomorrow and upgrading technology? In other words, do you budget to a plan or plan a budget?
- Do you have the right people to get you there?
- Do you spend as much time on the future as today?
- Do you limit your tomorrow by your success today? In other words, do you limit change due to current success, even though tomorrow’s world may be different?
- Are you able to identify risks and minimize them with contingency planning or are you risk adverse?
- Do you fear change? And are you able to lead change?
- Have you adequately communicated your vision and expectations of others?
- Do you have measures in place that will show you moving toward your vision one step at a time?
One last factor to mention is the ability to anticipate and manage through chaos, which is becoming the norm. Many say, “Why plan, when everything changes?” The key to a good plan is that you know where you are going long-term, but you can take a detour around an obstacle in the short term, if necessary. (Not unlike a detour during the oh-so-common summer road construction!)