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Strategic leadership: What it is and why it matters

Great leaders can be hard to come by. In fact, Gallup's research shows that only about 10% of people have the natural talent to manage others and only 22% of employees strongly agree their leaders have a clear direction for their organization.

However, effective strategic leadership can go a long way for your personal success as well as the success of your team or organization. Many businesses will thrive thanks to the careful strategic planning of the company's leaders—or, alternatively, they'll struggle due to a lack of planning and inability to carry out any sort of vision or broader objective.

That's where strategic leadership comes in. Let’s talk about why strategic leadership is so important and how you can train yourself to start thinking more strategically. 

What is the strategic leadership style?

Strategic leadership is when a leader plans, leads, and executes work to successfully fulfill the strategic goals of an organization or of their own team. Strategic leaders often are future-focused and may have a vision for what they want the team to work toward and where they want them to go.

In short, they ensure the work they do or that their teams do is completely aligned with the goals of the business or organization. They connect the dots between the bigger picture and the individual work of team members.

Strategic leadership skills

So, what does it take to be incorporate a high level of strategy into your own leadership style? Whether you're working on your own professional development or leadership development as you prepare to take on a leadership role or are simply interested in what goes into effective leadership and organizational performance, here are the skills required to pull off strategic management:

1. Ability to see a vision

Strategic leaders are constantly looking toward the future to understand what it could potentially look like or how they could make mindful and thoughtful improvements. They often will see the potential of a situation and articulate that vision as something to work toward.

2. Goal-setting

After finding that vision, strategic leaders are able to set goals and establish a plan to make that end result come to life. They don't just see the finish line and leave the rest of the process as ambiguous—they're able to identify what tactical steps and tasks are required to achieve their strategic vision.

3. Comfort with change

Change is constant for a strategic leader, and that doesn't make them feel anxious. Instead, they're comfortable with it and see it as a telltale sign that things are improving within their environment. A leader who is change-oriented understands new tactics and goals are part of moving the organization toward the future.

4. Communication

The best strategic leaders are the ones who not only have a vision and plan for the future, but they're also able to communicate their goals and strategies effectively. Otherwise, they won’t have a team to help them get there. They’re able to spell out the "why" of any plan (which helps to motivate team members) and explain what’s needed from each individual to make it happen.

5. Collaboration

Similarly, strategic leaders are excellent collaborators. They know it takes multiple people and teams to make the vision come to life and rely on those partners to bring their own knowledge, skills, and expertise to help achieve the shared end goal.

6. Influence

Leaders who follow the strategic leadership style also have a high level of influence in their organization. They know how to influence without authority and can share the benefits of the vision with skeptical partners to bring them on board. In addition, they know which stakeholders they need to get buy-in from in order to have widespread alignment and support of their goal.  

7. Execution

A strategic leader isn’t an effective leader unless they’ve mastered the art of execution—meaning, they have the ability to get things done. This type of leader doesn’t shy away from decision making. They understand how to take action on a plan or their goals and can help others be inspired to get things done as well. Strategic leaders also make the most of the resources or support available to them to complete their mission.

What are the benefits of strategic leadership?

Embodying the strategic leadership style has many benefits. Leaders who use this approach are often motivated, good collaborators, and results-oriented. They take note of the corporate strategy set by the senior leaders and shape their own plans and strategy based on those overarching goals. These leaders often have a detailed plan and stick to that plan to get the job done well. Their work and leadership contribute greatly to successful projects, innovative ideas, and industry-leading developments that set the organization apart.

What are the disadvantages of strategic leadership?

Like any leadership style, strategic leadership isn't all good news—it also has its drawbacks. First, since strategic leaders are planners, they tend to stick to the original plan instead of being flexible to adapt to the needs of other people or other unexpected business changes. It can also be a more risky leadership style since these leaders try to promote change for the future, but the future can be tough to predict or prepare for. Strategic leadership can also hinder leaders from focusing on the present and current issues since they’re so future-focused—they forget to pay close attention to the here and now.

3 real-life examples of strategic leaders

How does strategic leadership show up in everyday life? Here are three well-known leaders who’ve implemented their long-term visions and strategies to lead their teams to success.

1. Jeff Bezos: Amazon’s founder and former CEO is a perfect example of how thinking about the big picture can lead an organization to success. He founded the company in 1994 because he heard the statistic that internet usage was increasing by 2,300% every year. With that potential growth, Bezos knew an e-commerce platform could be hugely successful long term.

He wasn’t far off. Under Bezos’ leadership, Amazon’s stock grew by 225,233% and the company is the most notorious leader in the e-commerce industry. In the last two decades, the company has expanded from its origins as an online book store to a massive conglomerate of e-commerce, digital streaming, artificial intelligence, and more.

2. Bill Gates: Microsoft’s founder is another leader who used strategic planning to propel his company forward. Gates says from the early days of Microsoft, he always knew he wanted the company to have more than one product. He was future-focused when building the company and, from day one, led his team in the direction he ultimately saw Microsoft and the technology industry as a whole going.

While he’s no longer leading the strategic direction of Microsoft, he also leads with a strategic vision in his philanthropy work. He and the other leaders of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation align all of their work under their main goal of fighting poverty, disease, and inequity around the world.

3. Steve Jobs: Jobs’ vision and strategy execution is credited for establishing Apple as a leader in technology products. His strategy focused on customer service, ease of use, and simplicity of the product—which are all features that set Apple apart from competitors today.

In 1996, Jobs returned to Apple after 11 years away to help the company get out of its slump. He refocused the strategy to prioritize the consumer experience and product innovation, and within the next 10 years, Apple introduced the iPod, iTunes mic store, iPad, and iPhone. This quickly turned Apple around from a struggling company to a tech leader.

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How to become a strategic leader

Ready to up your strategic leadership skills? Here’s how you can become a more strategy-minded leader.

1. Think about the big picture

In order to think more strategically, you have to get comfortable analyzing the situation from all angles. That includes zooming out from the minute detail and ensuring that you're understanding and considering the big picture. F4S’ coaching program, Big Picture Thinker, can help you grasp abstract concepts, ideas, and possibilities and use this perspective to make better decisions for yourself and others. The program is free and led by a personal coach who will encourage you to look outside the details of a situation and at the broader landscape of an industry or business.

By developing a big-picture thought process, you’ll be able to quickly understand the scope of an issue and focus on it—planning what will work and hypothesizing what won’t. This broad view will enhance your strategic thinking and allow you to plan for potential scenarios that may come up during the project. A big-picture thinker is able to prioritize better, act faster, and easily lead a team through ambiguity. This is key to making strategic decisions and leading a team successfully.

2. Anticipate what could happen (both positive and negative)

A leader who doesn’t have a good sense of the direction of the industry or future of the business isn’t a person who values strategic leadership. Once you’ve mastered looking at things from a broader lens, try to identify potential roadblocks or innovations that may come up in the next three, five, or even 10 years. Then, see how you can prepare to address those potential issues or capitalize on potential opportunities to get ahead in your industry.

A real-world scenario of anticipation tying into strategic leadership is Netflix’s release of House of Cards in 2013. The show was Netflix's first original series and the first time a streaming service created content that could be exclusively viewed on its platform. Netflix was trying to maintain its status as the leading streaming platform and set to differentiate itself by offering original content. The company’s anticipation of viewers’ desire to see new, unique content was a smart bet. Now nearly 10 years later, it’s also proven to be quite successful with 96% of U.S. states having a Netflix original in the top-watched list. Since 2013, Netflix has released hundreds of original movies and TV shows and other competitors have followed suit to give viewers reasons to stay with their streaming service.

By learning to anticipate opportunities or roadblocks, you’ll set your team or company apart from the rest of the industry and have more success navigating the future landscape.

3. Communicate effectively

Communication is a key leadership skill that’s vital for anyone to be successful in leading a group of people. To gain buy-in and support from a team, you have to be able to communicate the vision you see and your strategy to get there. Plus, it’s important to share what each person contributes to the group. This will help them see how they fit into the grand scheme of things and why their work is needed.

If you want to work on your communication skills, try one of these tips:

  • Listen to understand, not just to wait until you can speak next.
  • Take a beat before speaking to gather your thoughts.
  • Speak succinctly and get to the point.
  • When asking for assistance, explain the reasoning behind the request.
  • Use communication mediums strategically and ask yourself if a phone call or face-to-face conversation would be more effective than an email.
  • Take notes during meetings and send out a recap of the conversation with clear next steps and responsibilities.
  • Make eye contact and use open, unaggressive body language.

By mastering your communication skills, you’ll be better equipped for the most important role of a strategic leader: Sharing your vision and rallying other people around it.

4. Practice collaboration

If you want to take on a leadership role, learning how to collaborate with others will make your job a lot easier. Strategic leaders know it takes multiple people and their expertise to make a plan come to life. As a result, they’ve mastered how to collaborate and work well with others.

To improve your collaboration skills, try building a network of colleagues who work outside of your team but within your organization. By establishing strong relationships with other employees, you’ll develop a better sense of how work gets done across the organization and which teams would be helpful for any projects you work on. Plus, you’ll be able to understand what goals other groups are working toward and how your vision can align with those plans.

You can also improve your collaboration skills by setting clear expectations and deliverables for your employees or working team. Sometimes roles and responsibilities become blurred with teamwork, which can make collaboration tricky. With tasks and responsibilities laid out for everyone to see before diving into the work, teammates can work together more efficiently and without letting duties slip through the cracks.

5. Learn the art of strategy execution

Remember that, ultimately, a great leader is one who doesn't just plan to take action—they actually take action. You need to be able to get things done. However, being responsible for leading multiple employees in completing the necessary tasks is much harder than simply giving orders. So, how do leaders guide teams toward success? A detailed strategic plan or timeline is a good place to start.

When executing your strategic goals, it may be helpful to outline which steps will need to be completed to reach your final outcomes. You already know where you want to end up, so work backward from the end result to see what tasks need to be tackled. Then, assign reasonable deadlines for when the work should be completed at each step. It may also be helpful to prepare any contingency plans in the event a deliverable needs to be pushed back or the team runs into roadblocks along the way.  

It’s also important to keep the team accountable for deadlines and deliverables outlined in the plan for successful execution. While you may not be doing the day-to-day work in your leadership role, keep your ear to the ground and see how the team is progressing or if they need your assistance. For example, if the team is having trouble receiving approvals from a senior leader for a project, see if you can connect with that person to understand what’s holding them back or if you can resolve any concerns they have. By staying informed about what's happening with the working team, you’ll understand what the team needs, how well the work is progressing, and how you can help move the project forward.

Ready to become a strategic leader?

Implementing a strategic leadership mindset in your work has many benefits, including motivating your teammates, working more effectively with others, and delivering results. By thinking long-term and setting a plan into motion, you’ll be able to lead your team successfully and achieve the goals outlined in your strategic plan.

Ready to get started? Strategy begins with vision, so start by looking at the big picture and the other leadership skills will quickly follow.

Learn how to become an effective strategic leader who thinks about the big picture with free, personalized coaching. Get started for free now.

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