The Principles of Strategic Leadership

Strategic leadership is the capability to anticipate change, and create direction, alignment, commitment and results in complex environments. To do so, leaders think and work in a strategic way to discover the future AND make it happen!!! It does not mean you are simply a great strategist. What it means, to us is that you are able to understand your context, get a team together, agree on a target and how you are going to get there, and then create the conditions that get you there!

Strategic Leadership (SL) is not a style, nor is it reserved for top echelon leaders. It is a way of thinking and way of working by managers and leaders throughout the organization. The central tenant of strategic leadership is that given the uncertainty and ambiguity presented by the context leaders must work in a strategic way. Working in a strategic way means that leaders work to change the atmosphere by bringing a philosophy, a method, and a way of thinking and working that leads to sustained, not scattered success.  At its core, working in a strategic way requires the ability to make and execute consequential decisions about ends, strategies, and tactics. It requires that managers and leaders are able to think strategically and execute change effectively with a profound appreciation for stability. 

The Philosophy

Philosophically, strategic leaders (SLers) know that that their ability to find the future and make it happen is dependent on people embracing solutions and acting upon them; not technical tools.  SLers believe that:

  • We must first cultivate ourselves and then our organization/team.
  • We cannot teach people anything; we can only help them discover it in themselves.
  • People want to be part of something larger than themselves.
  • We and our colleagues must be open to new experiences and ideas. Therefore, we must be learners first and leaders second.
  • We must move from problem solvers to solution finders by applying new science tactics.
  • We must move from "Buy-in to Join in" philosophy to create a shared reality and then a shared direction since change must go through those who have been most successful in the current organization.
  • We believe that the quality of our leadership is found not in our actions, but in the actions of our followers, members, and colleagues.  Therefore, SLers must be gardeners who cultivate change by creating the conditions that result in sustained not random success.
  • Performance is the result of a combination of effective intent and excellent execution. Therefore, SLers prudently use the SL Methodology and a non-gameable set of metrics to push their organizations to action.

The SL Methodology (SLM)

In my book, The Strategic Leader: New Tactics for a Globalizing World (2009), I present a puzzle, posed as series of questions, that leaders who want to find the future and make it happen must solve.  What is going on here? What needs to happen here? Do we need to jump the curve? What is precious and what is expendable? How do we make it happen? How do we keep making it happen? These questions form the core elements of the strategic leadership system (SLM). When we honor the process to answer these questions, we are working in a strategic way to find the future and make it happen.

A Case in Point[i]

Carlos Ghosn who was born in Brazil, schooled in Lebanon by Jesuit priests, and graduated with a degree in Engineering from France’s prestigious Ecole Polytechnique works in a strategic way. In 1999, at the age of 46, he was sent to Japan to change the financial status of Nissan motors from $50 million in debt to profitability in three years. Ghosn made it happen by using a ‘listen first, then think, and then speak’ philosophy and a generative inclusive style to run the SL METHOD.

What is going on here? Ghosn would say - establish with and within the company a very simple vision about the destination. He went to Nissan without any preconceived ideas -just a clean sheet of paper - and set about, with his top team, evaluating the company systematically to find the problems that were limiting performance. He personally interviewed over 300 employees at all levels and scoured financial and performance data. What Ghosn found was an unclear vision and vague goals. Ghosn fondly quotes a former teacher’s words: “If you find things complicated, that means you haven’t understood them. Simplicity is the basis of everything.” This affection led him to capture Nissan’s vision in a concrete and measurable number; 180. The number is short hand for Nissan’s aspiration; add one million vehicle sales, achieve an eight percent operating margin, carry zero debt over three years. Ghosn would say diagnosis; interact with many people to make sure you have the right priorities then share this diagnosis through a clear and concrete goal.

What has to happen here - What is Precious - What is Expendable or Modifiable? Ghosn would say, the company for the most part determines its own faith. Develop a strategy, action plans, at every level of the company so everyone knows the contribution that is expected of them from the company. In Nissan’s case, the point was not to change culture just for the sake of change. He wanted to change the culture for the sake of performance. In every step he took, he was very careful not to institute changes that were not based strictly on the advantages they give Nissan to improve company performance. By showing that every change made was for the sake of performance and benefit to the company, gradually these changes were approved and accepted.

How Can We Make It Happen? Ghosn is convinced that the biggest mistake leaders make is not connecting with people. Leaders must feel the situation, understand the expectation of people, and respond to them in ways to improve overall performance. He believes people need to feel a strong personal and team commitment coming from the top. You have to listen deeply - not only to direct reports - into the organization. When you find something out of place, act fast and empower as many people as possible to make decisions. Communicate not only what you are doing but the results also - then reward people. He believes that in the end results cement everything. They give you credibility - make people feel safe and want to sign on for the journey.

How Do We Keep Making It Happen? Ghosn says that many times people make great speeches but frequently nothing happens. While words are important, they do not automatically translate into action. He believes that measurement pushes you into action. The only way you’re going to make sure actions are going to follow talk is by measurement. He believes in straight talk focused on results from his managers and employees. But he also believes in having an appreciation for simplicity in setting up monitoring indicators and surveys - not just to see how our customers rate the quality of sales processes, but also to understand what's going wrong. He believes that measuring objectively the way individuals and teams have contributed to the performance of the company is more useful for motivation than subjective views.



[i] From Pisapia, J. (2009). The Strategic Leader: New tactics for a globalizing world, (pp. 158-161). Charlotte, NC: IAP.  Washington Post Top 5 Business Books 2010.


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