By: Steven Winter, Columnist, International Director
There have been many theories about leadership, but not a single unified framework. Some theories attribute success in leadership to individual traits, whereas others focus more on how suitable the leader’s style is to the situation at hand (i.e., situational leadership). For the first category of theories, it has been difficult to pin leadership down to specific traits. For the second category, results have been more specific. Each situation requires a certain set of skills on the part of the leader for success. One specific leadership skill, however, can be common in both types of theories. That skill is strategy. Prominent figures such as Barack Obama or Madonna could not have achieved such levels of success without an apt strategy that set them apart and enabled them to rise.
Several studies have concluded that strategic thinking is far more important for a leader’s effectiveness than communication or innovation. Strategy is the hidden ingredient that can enable leaders to achieve remarkable success. It is highly unlikely that a leader can succeed without having the ability to maneuver his or her way around the environment.
So what exactly is strategy?
Given the importance of strategy, how do we define it? A lot hasbeen said about what strategy is, but still,there is no unified definition that is accepted by everyone as a standard. The concept originated from warfare, but then it was adopted and integrated into corporate lingo. In both spheres, the essence of strategy remains about winning against rivals, be it in the battlefield or in the marketplace.
Real strategies are embedded in uncertainty.
A strategy is most crucial in conditions of uncertainty, not certainty. True leaders also emerge in times of uncertainty. Typically, people view conditions of uncertainty as rife with risks. People with strategic capabilities see opportunities in those same conditions. A typical feature of such conditions is that they can make or break a leader or an organization. Consider buying real estate in a time of war. Such investment could produce one of many outcomes. The real estate could be destroyed because of war, and thus lose its value. Or it could survive, and its value increase dramatically. Or consider a hostage situation. Such conditions are characterized by high uncertainty, and they can cause even the best leaders to experience high tension and crumble under that tension. How leaders deal with that tension eventually determines whether they will achieve amazing success or horrible failure.
Guidelines for improving strategic skills
Luckily, there are guidelines leaders can follow to hone their strategic skills. Those include: improving forecasting skills, challenging the convention, testing different interpretations, making assertive decisions, aligning people and learning. Together, those guidelines can significantly improve the strategic capabilities of the firm and achieve better bottom-line results.
Leaders need to be prescient about the future to be able to act on it. Failing to see changes in the environment early on can prove costly. This depends on the ability to gather information from many sources with varied backgrounds and perspectives to make sure a holistic view of the environment is achieved. Consider the traditional manufacturer that fails to see big manufacturing plants with state-of-the-art technologies and large-scale operations coming and encroaching on its market share.
Challenging the convention
Leaders also need to challenge the convention and prevent complacency, which can be very dangerous. Specifically, leaders need to challenge the deep assumptions held strongly by the team to see if there is still evidence of their validity. For example, a company that continuously achieves a growth rate of 9 percent may expect to achieve it in the upcoming year. But the past does not always repeat itself, and new events may come up. Unless the company is prepared to fend off competitors and hold its stance, then making a projection of 9 percent growth may not be justified.
Testing different interpretations
Identifying root causes and diagnosing problems can be challenging. It can be especially so when different people have different interpretations of events. Before jumping to conclusions, leaders should test differenthypotheses and build their cases carefully and meticulously. Once they build a strong case, they can act with confidence. For example, you may think that your customers buy your clothing-line products because of the design and the color, whereas the real reason could be because of the high-quality fabric. While both reasons may be true, one could be a major and the other a minor.
Making assertive decisions
Once you have the needed understanding with the right interpretation, you are equipped to make a good decision. If you are certain of your conclusions, there will be no need for hesitation, which could cost you an opportunity. Hesitation can indeed be an issue when there are high stakes involved. A good example of a leader who did not hesitate was Bill Allen, the CEO of Boeing in 1950. Allen took a bold move and introduced airplanes for the commercial industry, in addition to the defense industry that Boeing was already serving. Allen predicted that the industry would boom, and he was correct in his forecast and decision.
Once a strategic direction has been decided upon, a leader must make sure that the team is aligned behind it. Incentives can help in this case by tying rewards to achieving strategic objectives. However, different incentives may need to be used for different kinds of people. Leaders must give team members both extrinsic and intrinsic motivations to complete tasks that are required to implement the strategy. Think of forming your team like a V-shaped flock of birds. Such a flock should be able to fly against the headwind and reach its destination. To make sure your team is aligned, ask your team members what their understanding of the current strategy is. Their answers should be very similar to the strategy you have in mind.
A leader and his organization should never stop learning. This learning enables the organization to maintain its competitive advantage. To ensure this happens, leaders must set proper processes and systems in place. Without this learning, the company’s performance will fall behind.
The old saying “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” holds true. Strategic prowess can enable leaders to find advantage in disadvantageous situations. Having a prescient ability and assertiveness can surely help. But communication remains a crucial element in the implementation of strategy. After all, success in carrying out strategy relies on the leader’s ability to win the minds and hearts of the people involved.