Strategic Leadership: You Can’t Get There From Here!

Global leaders all over the world have a common goal and that is to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage.[1] Kluyver and Pearce contend in their book Strategy: a View from the Top, that a sustainable competitive advantage is when a company is successful in designing and implementing a strategy that their competitors aren’t using and the products cannot be reproduced.[2] To have a competitive advantage, organizations must have effective strategic leadership which promotes and practices strategic thinking.
The problem organizations face is a lack of strategic leadership and thinking. Christensen states that most companies do not make strategic thinking a core managerial competency.[3] Ireland and Hitt claim that “Effective strategic leadership practices can help firms enhance performance while competing in turbulent and unpredictable environments …as well as can contribute significantly to achieving strategic competitiveness and earning above-average returns in the next century.” When leadership promote and practice efficient strategic leadership practices it will create committed followers willing to assist with creating a sustainable competitive advantage.
In researching this global problem, three corporate leaders were interviewed to find out their understanding of and how they foster strategic leadership, how they practice strategic thinking and how they resolve barriers when applying strategic thinking. In response to their individual problems, this article provides practical solutions to help all leaders so that they can introduce and apply strategic thinking in their organizations so everyone in the organization will be committed to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage.
Common understanding through strategic leadership
It is vital that an organization and its leadership foster strategic leadership in all levels of the organization. The result is a commonly shared understanding, which allow followers and leaders to more effectively exploit the competitive advantage which lead to increased performance of the organization. Ireland and Hitt also maintain that “organizations in which strategic leaders adopt a new competitive mindset—one in which mental agility, firm flexibility, speed, innovation, and globalized strategic thinking are valued highly—will be able to identify and competitively exploit opportunities that emerge in the new competitive landscape.”[4]
Northouse describes the type of leader that can evoke a competitive mindset and develop strategic leadership in others as the transformational leadership approach. This approach is the way leaders initiate, develop and bring about changes in organizations as well as empower their followers to assist with change.[5] Northouse further alleges that a transformational leader creates or assists with creating vision for an organization, which is a conceptual map of where the organization is going, and they include followers in the process.
Rhonda Joseph, a Chief Enterprise Architect in a federal agency, with over 10 years of leadership experience, understands this concept because she stated that she “developed a vision document in the form of a ‘roadmap,’ which outlines our vision, goals, expected results and performance measurement levels that will allow our counterparts to understand our direction and estimated timing to meet significant program goals…The highest level of the vision is mapped from the strategic objectives of the agency. “ Her ability to collaborate on the ‘roadmap’ emphasizes the fact that she understands that everyone is interconnected, meaning decisions are made and business activities are performed based on effective stakeholder relationships.
Ms. Joseph’s ability to achieve buy-in is not only because she has a meaningful vision statement but she has a successful leadership style. She stated that her leadership style is a combination of various leadership styles, but she typically exercises an achievement oriented leadership style and strives for servant-leader qualities. Servant-leader qualities entail having a vision, honesty, trust, integrity, service, modeling, pioneering, appreciation for others, and empowerment of followers.[6] A servant leader is also concerned about the needs of the followers, helps them become more experienced and independent and more like servants.[7]
Karma Cottman, a Program Director for a non-profit organization with over 7 years of leadership experience, also believes strategic leadership should be nurtured. In Ms. Cottman’s organization, the Board of Directors created the vision but they believe that the staff implements the vision. Ms. Cottman’s staff, “collectively crafts goals that support the organization’s vision.” This viewpoint confirms that her organization believes in strategic leadership because they encourage the belief that everyone is unified, that building relationships are necessary, and that everyone should be a strategic leader and have a common understanding of what they are trying to accomplish. She also cultivates the belief because she includes her staff in creating the goals to support the vision. The result is that everyone understands, can explain the vision and there isn’t any resistance. Ms. Coleman’s organization can be considered an organizational community, which is “strategic leadership distributed among diverse individuals who share the responsibility to create a viable future for their firm.”[8]
Ms. Ila Blue is a Director at a federal agency, leading 30 followers in organizational change and in accomplishing the agency’s mission and all strategic goals in the agency’s strategic plan. She has 12 years of leadership experience and in her current position is responsible for providing significant, effective planning and coordination of peer reviews and program evaluations. As a strategic leader, Ms. Blue recognizes that there is an interconnection between her followers and herself regarding how decisions are made and business is completed. She stated that “although a vision was developed at a higher level and the actual vision is transparent in some areas, the high-level officials should identify all means of disseminating creative approaches to implement the mission in all areas of the agency specifically in non-agency program areas such as administration and technology. Doing so will promote effective strategies and insure that all levels of staff can explain how each individual’s role fits into the overall vision of the agency.” Based on Ms. Blues description, the vision is understandable, beneficial, creates energy within the organization, and has been communicated to everyone,[9] but the next step doesn’t appear to have been taken. It looks like higher level leadership have not effectively expressed how they expected their lower level leaders to execute the vision; therefore, making it difficult to get buy-in from the followers because of a lack of direction. It also appears that higher level leadership has not created a corporate culture which reinforces a discipline of execution. Bossidy and Charan contend in their notable book Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, that in a results oriented culture, leaders have to make clear what they want, coach them on how to achieve them and reward them for doing so. They also add that execution is a methodical way of thoroughly discussing the, who, what, when and where questions, following up and making sure everyone is accountable.[10]
Ms. Blue understands her challenges which makes her diligent in ensuring that she effectively communicates the vision to each follower during the performance review cycle, which is twice a year. Each follower’s performance plan is aligned with the organization’s strategic plan which provides her with talking points to explain the role that each follower plays for the organization, resulting in the commitment of others to help create a sustainable competitive advantage for her organization. Ms. Blue is certainly a strategic leader.
These leaders are practicing what Paul suggests in 1 Corinthians 10:24, which is to not think only of your own good or that of the company but to think of what is best for others. Followers need to identify with the organization and when leaders communicate the vision and express high expectations, the followers gain self confidence and self worth.[11] Through this type of leadership and motivation, the common goals can be realized without resistance and followers are willing to help achieve a sustainable competitive advantage.
How to foster strategic leadership
How do you foster strategic leadership in others? Hughes and Beatty propose that organizations ensure everyone is coached to be a strategic leader and that the organization should cultivate a climate for strategic leadership and create an organization of learning to assist with developing strategic leadership abilities.[12] Ralph Stacy portrays in his article Learning as an Activity of Interdependent People, that individuals are in a state of duality when they interact with each other. He further maintains that it creates an entity or system outside of themselves or a kind of super-individual. The super-individual has a cumulative mind and intentions influenced by a variety of values, norms and traditions.[13] Stacy argues that there are patterns of communications taking place between these interconnected individuals. Ms. Joseph fosters an organization of learning as suggested by Stacy in that she and other Enterprise Architect program leaders create and share knowledge in order to develop the vision for their department. Her organization utilizes “EA-specific information technology as well as manual tools to capture, analyze and manage the collection of agency wide strategic, business, data, application and technology information from across disparate operating administrations in effort to determine gaps and identify opportunities for sharing information and IT solutions among stakeholders. Agency governance bodies are used to provide a venue to share knowledge with others, establish working groups, coordinate on pre decisional issues, and ultimately make agency wide decisions.”
To avoid groupthink, which is when people in the group have so many similarities that they all have the same point of view, Ms. Joseph and her followers can use a method called the stepladder technique, introduced by Orpen in his article Using the Stepladder Technique to Improve Team Performance. The stepladder technique:
“aims to improve decision making by structuring the entry of members into a core group and by assuring that each member contributes to the decision-making process. Additional members join the core group one after the other – in steps – provided that they have completed the group task individually first, and present their tentative solutions before discussing the task with members of the core group. The number of steps depends on the size of the final group. For instance, in the present four-member groups, there were three steps. First two members, comprising the initial core group, worked on the task together, until they reached a preliminary solution. Next, a third member joined the initial core group, after he or she had worked on the task long enough to arrive at a preliminary solution. On joining the group, the third member presented his or her solution to the group, after which there followed a discussion among the three members. Finally, when the three agreed, the fourth member entered the larger core group, and indicated his or her preliminary solution, developed from working on the task alone before joining. Finally there was a final discussion aimed to reach a final solution where all concurred.”[14]
Not only has Ms. Joseph’s organization prevented groupthink but she develops strategic leadership because she has gained commitment from others to help create a sustainable competitive advantage for her organization.
Zarraga and Garcia have also conceived a process which develops a climate for creating strategic leaders. They describe knowledge management in their article Factors Favoring Knowledge Management in Work Teams. There are three phases:
The first is that individuals at different levels in organizations have to create knowledge. Once knowledge is created, those individuals will have to transfer the knowledge to others within the organization to be shared. Lastly, the knowledge transferred plus the knowledge individuals already possess will be integrated to become internalized and ultimately becomes one mass of knowledge. Through this process, knowledge is enhanced and links are created between the minds of the individuals. As this process repeats itself, it becomes property of the organization called organizational knowledge.[15]
It behooves all leaders to listen to Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:11-15, where he urges everyone to encourage, teach, listen to, and respect one another as they recognize each others work efforts. Leaders must create an environment that fosters collaboration, opens discussions resulting in a cohesive vision, and achieves a competitive advantage. If this approach is taken, followers will willingly head towards change because they have ownership in and understand the vision as well as trust and will commit to the leader.
Practicing strategic thinking
It is not only necessary for corporate leaders to be strategic leaders but they must promote and practice strategic thinking, which leads to the goal of a sustainable competitive advantage for their organizations. Although strategic planning is what happens after strategic thinking, the plan is ineffective without strategic thinking,[16] asserts Sanders in her book Strategic Thinking and the New Science. Since strategic thinking is so critical in reaching the goal of a sustainable competitive advantage, leaders everywhere should understand the characteristics of strategic thinking. According to Becky Starnes in her article Critical Success Factors for Strategic Thinking that Works, strategic thinking is:
§ “the way, in which people in an organization think about, assess, view, and create the future for themselves and their associates.
§ creating tomorrow.
§ focusing on how to create a better future by being proactive and adding value to society.
§ concerned with taking control of the future by developing practical dreams of the results you want to create.
§ creating and valuing relationships internal and external to your organization.
§ always involves change, and often, profound personal change.
§ imagining the results you want to achieve in the future”.[17]
§ “focused on creating a vision for the future of the organization, and crafting a clear, concise blueprint for realizing that vision,” a claim by Kluyver and Pearce.[18]
Ms. Cottman stated that she knew that she practiced strategic thinking because she says that she is “regularly developing creative approaches to corporate, governmental, policy and individual partners. This requires continuous forward thinking, anticipating issues and having the ability to be flexible. Co-workers and staff look to me for visioning, problem solving and guidance.”
Ms. Joseph practices strategic thinking because in her opinion “the key driver behind establishing an effective Enterprise Architecture (EA) is to use the strategic goals of the agency derived from strategic thinking sessions, to drive the performance of the business lines.” To tie into the agency’s goals, Ms. Joseph established a vision statement for the Enterprise Architecture program utilizing input from business and IT stakeholders throughout the agency. During strategic thinking sessions, Ms. Joseph was involved in critical information exchange with stakeholders on the challenges the agency faces and how they can work together to confront them. This information provided input toward the EA vision and used to promote stakeholder buy-in as part of the process. Another aspect of strategic thinking Ms. Joseph practices is visioning. Ms Joseph is being proactive about a better future for her organization because she utilizes her visioning skills to create output that will help strategic thinking session participants see, imagine or envision the agency’s desired future state. She is again empowering others resulting in those committed to help with change.[19].
Ms. Joseph values the relationships she has in her organization because during her strategic thinking sessions she is concerned with making sure everyone in her organization understands their environment, the challenges they face and how they will work together to confront them. Armed with this common understanding of their environment, contributors are able to actively participate in environmental scanning, which is the ability to scan their internal and external environment for information, ideas, trends or relationships that could lead to a commitment to help achieve a competitive advantage.
To promote effective strategic thinking in an organization, it is crucial that leadership identify, practice, strengthen and instill the above leadership traits throughout the organization, assert Kluyver and Pearce.[20] They also believe that these leadership traits improve the firm’s reputation among its stakeholders and among the followers of the organization. In addition, everyone in the company should be developed in strategic thinking competency areas which are: visioning which Sanders states is the ability to see the future, environmental scanning which is the ability to scan your environment for ideas, reframing which is creative thinking, making common sense which is ensuring your followers understand the organizational environment and challenges, and system thinking which is seeing the big picture.[21]
Ms. Joseph applies system thinking skills with her followers during strategic planning. She stated that “we utilize the strategic plans from the highest level, collaborating with CIO communities throughout the agency, integrating Federal requirements and considering business needs lead us to build plans for not only our specific program, but how our program supports the overall missions and goals for the agency. In EA, we use a top down approach, starting with the agency (highest) level goals and map to the lower levels of the business to ensure we support the overall mission of the agency.” She helps her followers look at the big picture while mapping her department’s goals back to the agency wide strategic plan. According to Authenticity Consulting, LLC, “systems’ thinking is a way of helping a person look at systems from a broad perspective that includes seeing overall structures, patterns and cycles in systems instead of seeing only specific events in the system. This broad view can help you to quickly identify the real causes of issues in organizations and know just where to work to address them…By focusing on the entire system leaders can attempt to identify solutions that address as many problems as possible in the system.”[22]
In further discussions with Ms. Cottman I found that she values the relationships with her staff and their talents. She makes sure everyone on her staff understands the environment and the challenges they face as well as how they will all work together to solve them. She practices what Hughes and Beatty call making common sense. In their prominent book, Becoming a Strategic Leader, they provide a developmental exercise for making common sense, which is one of the strategic thinking competency areas. It is an outdoor activity called Orienting and it can be conducted back at an organization’s worksite. I’ve summarized the exercise as follows:
Orienting involves taking a hiking trip into unfamiliar area. Create small teams and send them off with a compass and map to find their way back to the starting point. The team will have to work together by sharing knowledge, interpretations of clues in order to return to the starting point. This exercise demonstrates strategic leadership at its best because it shows how the team can make common sense out of a chaotic situation (unknown path). It also shows what happens when there is a common vision and a commitment to the strategy of finding their way to their destination.
Resolving barriers to strategic thinking
When leaders do not perform strategic thinking, there are a variety of barriers that can hinder their competitive advantage. One of barrier Ms. Joseph faces is the translation of the vision to the stakeholders in a manner that facilitates implementation for improving business performance. Generally, buy-in exists from the Enterprise Architects (EAs) and CIO counterparts. However, they must be able to understand and explain the targeted vision to those directly related to performing the associated goals, as well as to those responsible for the budget and resources necessary for the goals to be met. She stated that:
“The challenge will be to translate our program goals into outputs that our business line stakeholders will find valuable to improve their own performance outcomes. Traditionally, there has been resistance to understand EA goals because of its origin as a technical discipline and the gap that remains in some areas between technology solutions and the business needs the technology was intended to satisfy…”
Ms. Joseph acknowledges the importance of stakeholders just as Kassinis and Panayiotou have stated in their article Perceptions Matter: CEO Perceptions and Firm Environmental Performance. They have indicated that leadership must acknowledge the importance of addressing shareholder concerns when making decisions because it is reflected in the performance of the company.[23] To resolve the challenge of meeting the needs of the stakeholders, Ms. Joseph has to engage in reframing which involves thinking of creative and new ways about an organization’s strategic challenges and capabilities.[24] She will have to help the EAs translate the programs in a way that allows the stakeholders to see the value. In addressing this challenge with Ms. Joseph, I was able to offer her a Strategic Thinking for Strategic Leaders training seminar that I developed which gives her training materials and exercises which can be used to teach reframing and the other four strategic thinking competencies.[25]
Ms. Blue has several concerns as it pertains to engaging followers in strategic thinking. She is able to encourage some followers to engage in reframing, which involves thinking of creative and new ways about an organization’s strategic challenges and capabilities as well as feeling free to question traditional beliefs and assumptions that organizational members take for granted,[26] but there are others who will not take responsibility for themselves, they do not see their own self-worth and some do not care.” In an attempt to remedy this behavior, Ms. Blue can try a strategic thinking exercise suggested by Hughes and Beatty which allows the followers to use metaphors to describe situations:
“Many different kinds of metaphors are used to describe leadership.
Here are a few:
1. Leadership as combat
2. Leadership as sport
3. Leadership as art
4. Leadership as a machine
5. Leadership as gardening
Use metaphors to describe strategic leadership in your organization. Explore how one-or several-of these metaphors might describe some aspect of your organization’s approach to leadership.”[27]
The value in creating metaphors is that it allows you to see perceptions of leadership, organizations, situations based on what is in another person’s mind. Gareth Morgan asserts that metaphors are ways of seeing and thinking which saturates how individuals understand the world.[28] Morgan also stresses that metaphors always create distortions which if taken figuratively, or to an extreme, become ridiculous. If the metaphor is too far to the left, that will be revealed. Organizations can find out what followers are thinking just by asking questions. This exercise can be directed at specific problems in the organization, but may allow Ms. Blue to see exactly what is on the non-engaging followers mind regarding the organization and leadership.
Another method Ms. Blue could use is advocated by SandersandEskridge in their article Managing Implementation of Change. They suggest motivating foll

Documents are in common file formats such as Microsoft Word (doc), Powerpoint (ppt), Excel (xls,csv,xlsx), and Adobe pdf. 1

Leave a Reply