In society today, there is a greater need than ever before for people to step up and lead. I think we can all agree that the world has become more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA). Technology has given us the opportunity to interact and collaborate with people around the world that in the past unimaginable. This enables us to access talent from many different sources and we are able to innovate and develop solutions to problems that have been, until now, unthinkable. Technology has also driven generated more ideas, but also polarization of views. The biggest challenge, I would argue, is how do we identify the ideas that should be developed and focus our limited time and resources on delivering these best ideas. Now, more than ever, we need people to step up and lead, identify the ideas to pursue and harness people and resources to focus their organizations on delivering a strategy that will impact the world. This is strategic leadership.
Who is a Strategic Leader?
I would define a strategic leader as follows:
A strategic leader is a person that is trying to achieve a specific goal or goals. They cannot achieve these goals by themselves, i.e., they need other people, money or resources that are outside their control. To achieve what they want, they need to identify and define a strategy both in terms of what they want to achieve but also a strategy of how to achieve it. To deliver their strategy they need to lead others and have people that are willing to follow them. These followers may not be under their direct control and may not want to achieve the goal. Therefore, a strategic leader is someone who has a vision and will lead others to achieve that goal.
Leaders or Managers?
There are many models that try to differentiate between leaders and managers, but I would argue that this is a somewhat academic distinction and in practice it is not easy to pull the two concepts apart. Great leaders need to be also great managers and great managers also need to be great leaders. A leader can be a visionary, inspirational person but if they do not manage budgets or resources they will not be successful. Great managers may be successful in managing the bottom-line, but would not be truly successful unless they are able to be inspirational and get the most out of their teams. Great leaders are not successful unless they can deliver short-term goals. Few businesses or organizations are rewarded just for great leadership - they have to achieve results on time, on budget and to a high quality. There is a danger disconnecting the concepts of leadership from the concepts of delivering value and results.
What are the challenges?
Strategic leaders face many challenges today. First, they have to constantly improve the productivity of themselves and their teams. The business environment is changing rapidly and productivity and innovation must increase to meet this dynamic situation. Leaders who do not meet these challenges will soon fall behind. In many cases there is a gap between a leader’s actual performance and their potential performance. This “leadership gap” has a direct impact on the leader’s performance but also impacts all of their employees. Too often we hear that a leader has been “hired for technical skills and fired for attitude”. This is an expensive way of doing business and leads to uncertainty in the workforce and incurs the major cost of recruitment. We know the impact of poor leadership – it can lead to high turnover of staff, low motivation and loss of credibility of a leader that results in poor organizational performance. There are "leadership risks" associated with “bad” leadership and this is often more visible than the effects of great leadership. If a leader is responsible for large budgets, large number of employees, critical deliverables or a protector of corporate reputation, they have large responsibilities to lead their organization and make the right decisions. Failure to lead and make the right decisions may result at best in lost opportunities to grow and at worst downsizing and loss of jobs.
The second challenge is that leaders have to manage complex, virtual networks of employees, some who report to them and others who are alliance partners (either internal or external to their company). The modern leader is expected to manage these virtual employees in situations where influencing skills are more valued than traditional authoritative power. Leaders who can shorten “virtual distances” are most effective in delivering innovative products and services to market.
The third challenge is that a large number of leaders are in “transition”. They are either preparing for their next role, transitioning into new roles (internally or externally) or changing their organizations following re-organization, downsizing, etc. To be an effective leader in modern organizations, these transitions have to be managed carefully, with the first 90 days being crucial to sustained success. There is rarely a second chance to make that first impression and mistakes made in the first 90 days are difficult to recover from.
What do we expect from Leaders?
Leaders today are expected to wear many “hats”, for example:
They need to be great organizers andtacticians to deliver on short-term goals.
They need to balance short-term success with being a visionary inspirational leader, who sees the long-term big picture and motivate their colleagues to follow them.
They need to develop and coach their team.
They need to be an influenceracross organizational boundaries (internal and external).
They will need to be an effective collaborator with other people inside and outside of their organization.
They will need to be an “Individual contributor” with expertise in a particular area.
Finally, they will need to be change agents, leading and driving changes to the organization (structure, competencies, technologies, etc.). They will often feel that they are “rebuilding the plane while flying it”.
The challenge is to find and develop people in organizations, and in society as a whole, that have the ability to be strategic leaders. People who take on the challenges to step up and lead. This strategic leadership resource is critical for growth, innovation and producing an ecosystem that helps everyone to thrive and reach their level of self-actualization.
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Transformative Leadership Through Astute Insights