Leaders must master the challenges and opportunities of strategy

Perhaps because of my experience of playing strategy games when I was younger. Leadership and strategy have always been closely interrelated in my mind. Yet, over the past few years, I have observed that this isn’t the case for everybody. While strategic planning and strategic analysis are super strengths I’ve developed as an executive leader over the past few years. At the same time, I recognise that these skills aren’t always easy per se. However, mastering them opens-up new doors for leaders in large organisations.

A strategy is about the bigger picture

Wikipedia defines strategy as “A high-level plan to achieve one or more goals under conditions of uncertainty.” The key expression in this sentence is ‘high level’. Strategic thinking is all about the bigger picture of where an organisation or a group of people sit. Its envisioned future or vision will be the foundation of its strategy. If you want to look at the bigger picture of your organisation. Begin by seeking as much information as possible about the past and the present. The more information you can get, the better. Ideally, most of this information will be hard facts and data. Your goal is to get a feel for where you are standing, almost as if you were in the driving seat of a car and looking at the dashboard.

While this sounds easy, in reality, this process can be quite complicated. Firstly, the scale of things in terms of numbers, people or areas; might be so vast that it is incomprehensible at first. Secondly, the most useful and relevant pieces of information may not be readily available. An inquisitive and analytical mindset will be necessary to identify trends and patterns within data and information. Ideally, as much information as possible should be sieved through and looked at. Don’t worry too much about local situations at lower levels at this stage, especially if they are isolated cases. Only take them into account if a pattern repeats itself. Almost inevitably, numbers and hard data will heavily feature in this situational analysis. You may even have to create new metrics that align with your vision. Sounds scary? It can be, but the worse is yet to come …

Strategy requires detachment

Your analysis of the bigger picture may uncover that some areas are underperforming and that corrective action is needed. Fulfilling your vision for the organisation may mean that some very difficult decisions will have to be made. These decisions will have an impact on people, which could be positive or negative. Accepting the negative impact of your decisions is not always easy as it is easy to be emotionally involved in a situation. If you aren’t directly involved, then follow team members might be or might disagree on the suggested course of action. Staying true to your decisions and your proposed course of action will require courage and a degree of detachment. This is especially true if your strategy involves making sacrifices for the greater good.

I am personally a big fan of counterfactual “what if” historical scenarios. I was born during the Cold war but came of age when the threat of nuclear war was replaced by terrorism. Many perceived during the Cold war that a nuclear war was unwinnable. Yet, one man, Herman Kahn pushed strategic analysis to its limit and wrote a book, Thinking the Unthinkable on how to win a nuclear war. The book developed a comprehensive strategy for winning a nuclear war. His strategy involved countless sacrifices but resulted in more people surviving than would have otherwise been possible. The morality of this is beyond the scope of this post, but this book shows that there are no limits to strategic thinking. This means that potentially any vision can be fulfilled … at a price.

Knowing where you’re going

The real prize of a strategy is that done correctly, it can become a guiding light that will last the test of time. A leader who knows where he is going is far more likely to be respected than one who doesn’t. Knowing where your organisation is going can be very empowering, and will help you feel more at home within the group. Leaders who successfully create this feeling will get more followers and will be looked upon with respect. The strategy and its attached vision will also be a rallying point in times of crisis or uncertainty.

Another advantage of having a strategy is that it can save time by clearly outlining what needs to be done and when. This needs to be balanced with flexibility. Nevertheless, all of my recent leadership experiences indicate that everybody likes to know what’s expected of them. The beauty of focusing on the bigger picture is that it can provide a lot of latitude for fulfilling objectives at lower levels.

While a strategy is only a means to an end and only one of the many skills leaders must master. It is one that can make a difference between being a good leader and a great leader. Sure, it has some downsides and can be cold and unemotional at times. Nevertheless, we must remember that leaders aren’t there to be liked or adored but there to drive something forward.

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