There's a definite link between behavior and the ability to take a strategic approach. That being said, individuals and organizations can develop the capacity to think strategically. A recent large scale, global study evaluated the leadership practices and effectiveness of 60,000 managers and executives in 162 countries and 28 industries. 

The study found that found that a strategic approach to leadership was, on average, 10 times more important to the perception of effectiveness than other behaviors studied. It was twice as important as communication (the second most important behavior) and almost 50 times more important than hands-on tactical behaviors. (This doesn't mean that tactical behaviors aren't important, but they don't differentiate the highly effective leaders from everyone else.)

In fact, leaders that were high on “strategic” (those who focused long range and who had a process to
achieve those objectives) were six times more likely to be seen as effective as the leaders that were low
on strategic, independent of any of their other behaviors. A second study asked 10,000 senior executives charged with setting the leadership development goals for their respective organizations to select the leadership behaviors most critical to their organizations’ future success. They chose strategic 93% of the time.

Both the extensive research results and the high priority senior leaders place on strategic leadership
practices reinforce the importance of building this skill and mindset in any leadership development
endeavor. Knowing that, what can you do as an individual to develop your own strategic approach?

It starts with an understanding of your own behavioral traits. There are some great behavioral assessments available. I use the McQuaig Self-Development survey with my clients. It's a strengths focused assessment that stack ranks an individual's behavioral traits and helps them to create an action plan that will allow them to continue to leverage strengths while developing in other areas.

It takes time, effort and commitment to develop your own strategic approach. It is a skill that you can improve with practice and one that will serve you well regardless of how senior your role is in the organization. Robert Kabacoff, Ph. D., has found that strategic leaders take a broad, long-range approach to problem-solving and decision-making through objective analysis, thinking ahead, and planning. That means being able to think in multiple time frames, identifying what they are trying to accomplish over time and what has to happen now, in six months, in a year, in three years, to get there. It also means thinking systemically. That is, identifying the impact of their decisions on various segments of the organization—including internal departments, personnel, suppliers and customers.

There are five areas that an individual should focus on to develop a strategic mindset:
  • Objectives - have you written what you are trying to accomplish? What is your ultimate goal?
  • Plans - what do you need to do to get from where you are now to where you want to be?
  • Implications - how will your actions affect other people in your life?
  • Anticipation - what challenges will come up? What obstacles might get in your way? What opportunities could present themselves to you as you move toward your ultimate goal?
  • Analysis - it is critical that you take the time to regularly analyze the pros and cons of any potential course of action against your ultimate goals.
The key is to continuously articulate and refine and communicate your vision to others. That fosters the sense of accountability that we all need to successfully achieve the goals we set.

Organizations and companies can also help develop strategic thinkers and leaders. Kabacoff noted that it’s not an easy task. Strategic thinking is a difficult leadership skill to acquire because it is as much a mindset
as a set of techniques. What’s more, in the workplace tactical responses to immediate demands are
often rewarded over long term vision and planning. That said, it’s not impossible to instill strategic
thinking skills in managers. Here are some ways you can foster strategic thinking as part of your
management approach:
  • Set time aside for strategic planning - this should not be a once a year endeavor that is undertaken only by senior management
  • Mentoring - connecting managers within the organization with leaders that are highly strategic is the best way to pass that legacy down through the organization. Bear in mind that different people learn differently. If you're going to implement a program make sure that it's geared to the person being mentored.
  • Communication - it's important that the organization is on the same page with respect to vision, mision and goals. One area that is consistently highlighted in engagement surveys is a lack of communication. Keeping people informed ensures that information crosses all organizational boundaries.
  • Ask why more often - encourage your direct reports to do the same. That single question should be followed up with the question when?
  • Coaching - this is something that we've asked every manager to do but failed to teach them how to do it properly. Coaching isn't telling. It's about the act of self-discovery and self-sufficiency.


Bill Cole
07/09/2014 5:09pm

Excellent article. I think Bob has hit on some really key issues. A mentor is certainly key to the process but having worked with a lot of leaders and potential leaders I believe that practice, practice, practice is absolutely essential. This is not an easily developed skill as Bob mentioned. Too often managers are asked to become "more strategic" without a whole lot of organizational support. This is where a mentor and coach can be invaluable A strategic leader needs time to fine tune a new skill until it is well developed and just about second nature.

Bob Woodcock
07/11/2014 9:35am

Thanks Bill. There's a lot of truth to the old adage "practice makes perfect". Great athletes practice far more than they play and yet leaders try to wing it under full speed, "game" situations. I'm a big believer in finding a safe space and practicing your craft before you get into the heat of the moment.

Great insights and much appreciated!


07/11/2014 6:12am

I really appreciated the Post and I buy completely the idea of a need of strategic leaders for organisations.
I also believe embedding Strategic Leadership in an Organizations requires more of Change Management ablities to develop for the people which is a lond-term process.

Bob Woodcock
07/11/2014 9:36am

Thanks Bernis. You make a great point about embedding this as part of a long-term process of development.


Amanda Knight
07/12/2014 10:58am

This is a really useful article as it goes to the 'how to's' - thank you Bob! And I welcome the perspective that strategic thinking / leadership is developable. The challenge many face is committing to the time and discipline that is needed, especially in 'now' focused, 'get 'er done' environments - the time to practice (thanks for highlighting this Bill) and work strategically, and for senior executives to coach and mentor. But of course if they don't commit, they won't be seen as strategic - a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Bob Woodcock
07/14/2014 10:23am

You make a great point Amanda. Thanks for adding to the discussion.


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