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February 22, 2023 3 Min Read

Being a Strategic Leader

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What Do You Mean?

I had a client who came to me a few months ago with the goal to be “more strategic”. It was feedback he had received from his direct leader. He was told he was getting too in the weeds.

Upon inquiring about what being “strategic” meant, it became clear that we needed to further clarify what it meant to him and how he could demonstrate being strategic in his role as a leader.

The word strategic” has become jargon – meaning many unspecific things, and therefore, really nothing at all. So what does it actually mean to be a strategic leader”, and when people perceive a leader to be strategic, what is leading them to that conclusion?

There is a process to formulate strategy, which is guided by specific frameworks and processes. But that is a separate matter, and we are not discussing that here. We are focusing on the leaders role. But people are not just strategic.

Strategic leaders are simply people exhibiting behaviors and taking actions that help an organization be proactive and forward-looking, and to make effective decisions in pursuit of its goals.

Apparently, these behaviors are both rare and valuable. A large study concluded that employees only rated 8% of their leaders as exhibiting strategic behaviors, and a separate study concluded that those skills had the highest correlation to perceiving leaders as effective”.


What Does It Look Like In Action?

Given the value placed on these skills, it would be worthwhile to codify these behaviors.  Harvard Business Reviews research found that these behaviors were most valuable for leaders to lead strategically:

  • Anticipate: look for signals of change vs. assuming
  • Interpret: use real time data vs. wait and see
  • Challenge: the status quo, assumptions vs. groupthink 
  • Learn: promote curiosity & fail fast vs. fixed mindset
  • Decide: balance rigor with speed vs. analysis paralysis
  • Align: find buy-in and communicate vs. competing visions  

Through this lens, strategic leaders are laser-focused on the goals of the organization and spend a lot of their time looking externally – observing and gathering information that might inform decisions towards those goals. Armed with new insights, they challenge the organization to think and act differently, propelling it forward.


Simple Steps

To be more strategic, here are simple steps I recommend you take:

  • Focus on the Goals. A strategy is simply a means to an end. So make sure you clearly understand where the organization, function or team is trying to go. Have a discussion with your leaders to ensure you understand how your team contributes to the desired results.
  • Look around. What are external sources of news and data that are relevant to your company, customers and competitors? Create space to discuss and interpret these sources with colleagues, and search for new insights.
  • Decide. It is often said that “Insight without action is pointless”. But, without a decision, there is no action. Be deliberate in meetings – declare that the meeting is for the purpose of making a decision, gather the necessary people, and don’t let people leave without making it. Strategic leaders act with urgency.
  • Get people on board. The half-life on new initiatives can often be measured in days.  Decisions are only as good as the leaders who back them up. Communicate decisions broadly, but take the time to go deep and specific as well. Clarify what that decision means to each group, acknowledge the change that it requires, and ensure that the team has the mindset and resources to execute.

If you want to be thought of as strategic”, do the things that drive the strategy of the organization forward. These skills are in short supply and your team values them. Your coach can help you focus on the specific next steps to help you build them. Reach out and set up a 1:1 session to talk it over.


Here are some questions to ponder that invite you to consider for your coaching session:

  • How do I and my team specifically contribute to our organizational strategy?  How are the specific goals measured?
  • How can I widen my view of the market, our customers and competitors?  How can I set up a consistent approach to develop new insights that might inform my group?
  • Who and what is required to make a decision in our organization that would have budgetary impact, or would affect other teams and functions?
  • What do the most effective leaders in my organization observably do that tend to align their people to execute? 


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