Rapid, unpredictable change has become an inescapable feature of the modern business environment. For some leaders, that can be overwhelming. For others, it's an opportunity to grow and evolve. That's where strategic leadership enters the picture.
Strategic leadership skills are no longer a luxury for today's business leaders — they're essential to the long-term success of your organization. That's because strategic leaders are experts at embracing change, identifying the opportunities therein, and ensuring everyone at all levels of the organization is aligned around a specific vision and set of objectives.
At The Bailey Group, we're committed to helping leaders and executive teams develop the skills and competencies needed to make sound strategic decisions and keep their organizations ahead of change — and the competition.
What is strategic leadership, and why is it important to your success?
The modern business environment is constantly changing. Client needs are in flux, business conditions are constantly evolving, and emerging technologies routinely disrupt markets. Essential to success in this environment is staying adaptable and demonstrating an ability to stay ahead of all forms of change to continue delivering value for customers no matter what happens.
That's why strategic leadership is so important to organizational success. At its core, strategic leadership is about change. It refers to the ability of leaders to both cope with change and be a catalyst for it within their organizations. In the first instance, they are experts at embracing change and turning it into an opportunity for growth, meaning they are constantly staying ahead of industry trends and understanding how they can work with them to their organization's advantage.
There's also a proactive component to the strategic leadership approach. Strategic leaders have the influence and attention to detail to implement change, not just envision it. They craft and communicate impactful strategic visions and align departments, teams, and people around the same set of shared objectives — all while motivating everyone at each step of the way.
The Kotter approach to strategic leadership
At The Bailey Group, we refer to Dr. John Kotter's model for change management to define and establish the expectations for strategic leadership. This 8-step framework is informed by Kotter's decades of experience working with leaders and organizations and continues to underlie the leadership approaches for numerous successful organizations today.
Kotter's eight steps for effective change management are:
- Create a sense of urgency: Strategic leaders are able to see the opportunities in emerging trends that others — even other leaders — often miss. It's critical that they're able to communicate the importance of anticipating and implementing change to the rest of their organization.
- Build a guiding coalition: Instituting change requires buy-in from key decision makers across departments and at all levels of the organization. Leaders must identify a cohort of influential individuals to help lead, manage, and guide change efforts.
- Form a strategic vision and initiatives: It's important to communicate exactly what future the organization is working towards in a way that motivates and inspires team members. Leaders need to "paint the picture," and clearly articulate their course of action, so everyone understands what steps are required to succeed.
- Enlist a volunteer army: Ultimately, any serious effort at lasting change is only possible with support, effort and dedication from large numbers of people. It's vital for leaders to move beyond the boardroom and top-level leadership teams and communicate effectively with people at all levels.
- Enable action by removing barriers: The structure of an organization needs to be fit for its purpose. Leadership teams must inspect every aspect of their operations and processes and identify ways to eliminate unnecessary structural limitations and enable teams to achieve real progress.
- Generate short-term wins: Short-term wins get things off to the right start by creating confidence and gathering momentum. The more wins strategic leaders can generate early on, the better positioned they will be to achieve their longer-term objectives.
- Sustain acceleration: Leaders must avoid resting on their laurels and ensure the consistent pursuit of their defined goals over time. Follow one win up with another and keep stringing them together as the larger vision comes to life.
- Institute change: It's important to constantly reinforce any changes that have been successfully implemented by emphasizing their centrality to the organization's overall mission and success until they become the norm in the company.
10 characteristics of the effective strategic leader
Strategic leaders display a range of core competencies and characteristics that fuel their success. Here are the ten most common:
- High energy: Implementing change is a long, ongoing process with a number of steps required for success. Strategic leaders bring high energy to the job every day, helping to motivate and fuel their teams.
- Optimism: Change takes a long time, and it can be grueling. It also almost never goes according to plan. Strategic leaders are always optimistic about the future, seeing mistakes as learning opportunities and never getting discouraged by one (or more) setbacks.
- Sense of humor: A strategic vision will suffer in an organization that is stale and lacks positivity. A sense of humor helps create an organizational culture that's fun, open and engaging, maintaining cross-organizational support for the broader mission.
- Psychological safety: Getting buy-in from all members of the organization starts long before change is enacted. Creating a psychologically safe workplace ensures that employees feel valued and appreciated at work. Employees who feel safe thrive, deliver their best work, and support the organization's mission – which are critical ingredients to strategic success.
- Desire for change: Strategic leaders don't simply react to change or adapt reluctantly to new trends. They embrace change as a chance to grow and evolve. They actively seek opportunities to update, enhance and create more value, and that ensures they're always ahead of the market.
- Future-focused: Change doesn't happen in the past. It's in the future. Strategic leaders maintain a laser focus on the future, constantly staying abreast of industry and market changes to better identify the latest opportunities for growth. Stagnancy is not an option.
- Results-oriented: There's always an objective in mind when implementing large-scale organizational change. Ultimately, a propensity to embrace change needs to be validated by results. That's no problem for the strategic leader, who keeps a close eye on every metric showcasing the performance of their initiative.
- Promotes healthy conflict: Buttressed by strong conflict resolution skills, strategic leaders understand that a healthy level of debate and deliberation helps bring good ideas to the surface and fine-tune them into something actionable.
- Strong communication: A great strategic vision goes nowhere unless leaders are able to communicate clearly and effectively to the rest of the organization. Team members need to be sold, and communicating the vision in a digestible, engaging, and exciting way is what gets them there.
- Calm under pressure: Change, by its nature, is unpredictable, and that means a lot won't go according to plan. Strategic leaders know how to stay calm when the pressure gets high, operating their teams with a steady hand and ensuring new circumstances are properly managed.
The pros and cons of strategic leadership
There are few downsides to strategic leadership, and most organizations (and individual leaders) today have recognized the fundamental importance of strategic thinking to their long-term success.
Some of the main advantages of strategic leadership include:
- Promote engagement: Employees like knowing they're part of something bigger than themselves. Strategic leaders are highly skilled at crafting visions every employee can identify with and aligning long-term objectives with short-term responsibilities to make it clear where everyone fits into the bigger picture.
- Withstand sudden change: Change is often a choice for the strategic leader, but it can also arise unexpectedly. When that happens, the strategic leadership team is prepared and eager for the challenge. They've already planned for this, and they know how to absorb change, embrace it and turn it into something worth pursuing.
- Fuel growth: Organizations don't evolve by staying the same, making change the ultimate catalyst for long-term growth. Strategic leaders aren't embracing change for the sake of it — they're putting plans in place that promote the future development of the entire organization and ensure its long-term stability and profitability.
- Better hiring and retention: Employees don't just want to show up to work. They want to be part of an organization with a mission they can believe in and for which they understand the importance of their contribution. Strategic leadership teams are better able to draw the best and most committed talent from the labor pool — and keep them.
- Increase the bottom line: The results-oriented strategic leader knows how to achieve the ultimate objective. They're better able to persist through disruption and deliver results, which means monthly and annual financial goals are consistently met (and exceeded).
Despite the above advantages, there are possible pitfalls that strategic leaders sometimes fall into if they are not managing their approach and properly responding to present circumstances. These can include:
- Poor crisis management: It's not always beneficial to keep an eye on the future. In fact, sometimes, it's counterproductive. In a crisis situation, leaders have to be able to draw themselves in and focus on the immediate concerns — like stability and security — before putting their attention outward
- Detachment from reality: Visionaries sometimes get lost in their own dreams and ideas and might fail to properly acknowledge the limitations and circumstances in which they find themselves. In those cases, their visions can become overly lofty, making it difficult (or impossible) to actualize them.
- Overly focused on change: Change is a good thing — except when it isn't. Many employees crave a healthy degree of certainty and consistency on a day-to-day basis, and constantly enacting change can become both disconcerting and even demoralizing.
- Turning vision into reality can be a challenge: Forming a vision is the exciting part. Developing a strategic plan to make that vision a reality is a lot more challenging. It involves meticulous planning, rounds of trial and error, and frequent communication — and even then, it might not succeed.
Comparing strategic leadership to other leadership styles
There are numerous different types of leadership styles, each with its own advantages, drawbacks and applications. Some of the most common (and effective) leadership styles include:
- Visionary leadership
- Servant leadership
- Transformational leadership
Despite their differences, there is one thing that the most effective leaders of each leadership style can still agree on: strategic leadership is essential to their success. Whether a leader takes a command-and-control approach to leadership or joins the front lines with their team members, the ability to embrace change and stay ahead of emerging trends is uniformly accepted as the key to long-term growth and success.
Tips for becoming a more strategic leader
Many leaders recognize that there are opportunities to improve their strategic leadership capabilities. While we always recommend working with a trained executive coach to truly maximize your potential, there are a few methods you can practice to get started.
Learn to think strategically
Actualizing a strategic vision is a lot easier said than done. Becoming a more strategic leader starts by understanding what it really means to put a strategy in motion in a way that maximizes the chances of its success. It's important that once you've crafted your vision, you identify a series of goals, subgoals and benchmarks that progress logically from one to the next and clearly point to an end objective.
Enhance communication skills
Because communication plays such a critical role in strategic leadership, developing these skills is essential in helping you better convey and realize your strategic vision. You can work on your communication skills in the following ways:
- Listen: Being a great communicator starts with being a great listener. You should fully engage others by giving them your undivided attention when they're speaking, recognizing their concerns, feelings, and perspectives.
- Engage: Speakers don't just want their listeners to hear them — they want to know their message is being properly conveyed. Offer occasional feedback, like relevant follow-up questions, that affirm what the speaker is saying.
- Focus: A good message can easily get lost if the speaker constantly diverts into tangents. Practice staying focused on a single topic of conversation, changing subject only when absolutely necessary, and providing just enough detail to get the point across.
How executive leadership coaching can help
One of the most effective ways to become a more strategic leader is to engage an executive leadership coach and develop your skills in a focused, real-time setting.
At The Bailey Group, we use the leadership pipeline model developed by Ram Charan to inform our approach to strategic leadership development. According to the Charan model, every level of leadership faces its own distinct challenges that require the development of a specific skill set to achieve success. Charan's leadership pipeline consists of the following five primary transitions:
- Leading self.
- Leading others.
- Leading leaders.
- Functional leader.
- Business leader.
Moving from one leadership level to the next is more complicated than simply expanding one's leadership responsibilities. It requires a new set of skills, and that means leaders have to learn new techniques, methods, and approaches (while also unlearning some established behaviors that might be unsuited for a new leadership transition).
This fundamental shift in skills and job requirements can be jarring and disorienting for new leaders. That's why our team of executive coaches at The Bailey Group takes the time to learn about our clients' individual development journeys, identify their specific strengths and weaknesses, and work with them to create an executive coaching strategy that is tailored to their unique needs and goals.
Crafting a strategic vision that wins
With the leadership pipeline model as our guide, our team of coaches and consultants works with leaders to strengthen their strategic outlook and approach, helping them learn how to craft an inspiring vision capable of earning sufficient buy-in from all levels of the organization.
In particular, we challenge them to think creatively about what the organization can and should look like in the short-, medium- and long-term future. We help them add layers of specific detail to those visions and put the necessary strategies in place to bring their vision to life.
Bring your strategic visions to life with The Bailey Group
The Bailey Group's team of executive leadership coaches takes a holistic approach to leadership development. Unlike other leadership coaching firms, our executive coaching bench consists of licensed psychologists, experienced business professionals, and trained leadership coaches. This range of expertise gives our customers deep insight when engaged in any of our service offerings, from individual executive coaching to team development and strategy-building..
Demonstrating our firm commitment and belief in our leadership development approach, we apply our coaching methods to our own leadership team. Not only does this help us ensure we're achieving our potential as leaders, but it also helps us identify what works and what doesn't, meaning we're constantly honing our strategies to the benefit of our clients.