After years of reflection, I have decided that there are two key points to make about how strategic leaders think. The first was put forth by Joel Kurtzman, in his excellent book, Common Purpose: How Great Leaders Get Organizations to Achieve The Extraordinary, Jossey-Bass 2010. As he wrote, “Strategic leaders are people within organizations who plot the course... Strategic leaders generally can think far into the future...The best of these people understand where the future is going and how to get there.”
On the other hand, Kurtzman points out, “The role of operational leaders is quite different from those of strategic leaders. Operational leaders make certain the trains run on time, the manufacturing process are adequate, the logistics systems work, the technicians are well trained, and the the trucks are where they are supposed to be.... like strategic leaders, operational leaders are vital to an organization’s success.”
Marcus Buckingham in his book, The One Thing You Need to Know ... About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success, Free Press, 2005, also notes a key difference between strategic leaders and operational leaders. As he explains, “To excel as a manager you must never forget that each of your direct reports is unique and that your chief responsibility is not to eradicate this uniqueness, but rather to arrange roles, responsibilities, and expectations so that you can capitalize upon it. The more you perfect this skill, the more effectively you will turn talents into performance.
To excel as a leader requires the opposite skill. You must become adept at calling upon those needs we all share. Our common needs include the need for security, for community, for authority, and for respect, but for you, the leader, the most powerful universal need is our need for clarity. To transform our fear of the unknown into confidence in the future, you must discipline yourself to describe our joint future vividly and precisely. As your skill at this grows, so will our confidence in you.”
As both authors note, strategic leaders have the capacity to look over the horizon, recognize what is coming, plot a course of how to respond, and then communicate “vividly and precisely” about how we all need to move forward together.
This week, reflect on the above two quotes and how well you and your team are doing at thinking and communicating strategically.