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Strategy as Leadership

Leadership.  There has been a lot of talk about it lately, or more to the point the lack of it.  In common talk it is defined as “Doing or standing for the things I like” far more often than is useful.

There is a horrible lack of leadership everywhere in the developed world right now.  Can anyone name a powerful nation with good leadership?  Perhaps you can name a few businesses that have it, but not many.  How about social leadership? Religious leadership?  Are there more than a few people in rich nations anywhere who have a strong following that is capable of getting done what they want or need to?

Then again, the lack of leadership is hardly surprising.  It is not about a charismatic figure that molds the masses to action – it’s about getting things done.  That requires strategic thinking, and strategy is something horribly under-appreciated.  I might chalk that up to excessive selfishness or a failure of moral character in our world, both of which are issues.  But upon reflection, it seems to come down to a lack of understanding of what Strategy is and why it is important.


The military teaches strategy as much as leadership. They are often the same, too.

Teaching strategic thinking is not impossible.  People who have served in our military, especially as officers, have been through programs that teach how to be strategic and achieve goals.  They tend to be very different from the general population as a result – and invaluable to us all.  I do not know how this is done, and would appreciate feedback from anyone who can help.

What I can give you are counter-examples of horrible failure, starting with Washington.  But the best example has to be Occupy Wall Street, a group that deliberately refused to be strategic and eschewed the very idea of “leadership”.  Their failure to accomplish anything must be pointed out as foretold in their attitude.  Yet that attitude is very common among young people who have seen leadership abused and come to think of it as personality driven.  It’s not.  A good strategy can develop its own leadership organically.

Let’s start with what I mean.  To get something done you have to start with a Goal.  It’s something you want to do, to change, to achieve.  I’m not talking about a “vision statement” full of buzzwords – the only good vision I’ve ever seen was Microsoft’s circa 1982 – “A computer on every desktop”.  That was a vision, but for all its power it still only defined the Goal.  A successful organization or campaign always keeps its “Eyes on the Prize”.  What are we trying to do here?

A good roadmap is what strategy is all about.

A good roadmap is what strategy is all about.

That brings us easily to Strategy, which is little more than the roadmap between where you are and the goal.  That may seem like a very passive way to look at it, but a Strategy is rather passive.  It should only change when there is new intelligence about the lay of the land and where danger lurks.

Finally, there are Tactics, which are how you advance through that map towards the Goal.  They are the action, but they are born in the more passive coolness of the Strategy.

The separation between Strategy and Tactics is what usually trips people up.  For example, the Senate Republicans had been blocking everything that came their way.  This is not a Strategy, it is a Tactic.  It says nothing about the obstacles coming or the path that has to be taken.  A Strategy is about what is beyond you, not what you do.  The lack of that understanding renders Tactics to rote, such as blocking everything – a passive exercise where there should be action.

How did we get this way?  This is what may be inherent in the long-wave cycles which run about a lifetime in length.  In good times, people learn to keep on keepin’ on, doing the things that have always been successful. Why not?  As long as they work it makes sense.  But what happens when everything changes?  Strategy is about the territory ahead, and when that is unrecognized Tactics often fail to advance – that’s when we enter the “Winter” or Depression stage as we are in now.  Passive behavior turns into survival mode.  The only viable solution is a new Strategy, which is to say a new lay of the land.

Charismatic leadership has become an excuse for excess.  We've outgrown it.

Charismatic leadership has become an excuse for excess. We’ve outgrown it.

This may seem to be very far away from the concept of Leadership, but it is not.  Separating the functions of Leadership from the personalities shows how it can become what Occupy really wanted in the first place – more democratic and open.  That implies that everyone understands the shared Goal, but more importantly that they understand how Strategy itself works.

What is Leadership?  It is an understanding of how to organize and accomplish things in a complex world.  The lack of leadership we see at the top is merely a reflection of the lack of understanding of leadership throughout our society, which is to say how to think strategically.

In the new economy that is forming through the restructuring process, not through a “recovery” event, there will likely be a new vision of what leadership is.  It’s already happening, too.  Something more open is essential, especially as corporations rely more and more on contract employees for specific tasks.  That implies being goal oriented, which is to say being strategic.  You hire the best talent and set them free – and the leader of the team is the person who provides the strategic focus.

This may also be more democratic in a flatter structure, too, depending on many cultural values and how they change.

Such a new vision of leadership is obviously permeating not just corporate America but also the non-profit world.  It will have to be put to work in government as well, where employees will have to be judged on their ability to meet goals rather than simply enforce regulations.  That won’t be easy, but that reform is going to have to take place.

A greater understanding of the new leadership styles and the need for strategy is one of the skills that has to permeate all levels of our world before the restructuring unwinds and the new economy can take flight.  The more we can talk about this and what it means the better off we will be as we move forward into a new world.

29 thoughts on “Strategy as Leadership

  1. There is no doubt that the workplace is changing. I am asked to provide more advice to clients all the time rather than just run their books for them. Its like a partnership sometimes when they ask for recommendations as to how to set up accounting software, ect. I need to learn to be more strategic so I can help them better. Most of them know where they want to go as businesses but I don’t know how many have a business plan that is a real roadmap to success. Do you know of any books or articles to point people to? Thanks.

    • I don’t have any suggestions, no. The nature of work is changing so rapidly – here you are talking about being a partner in success while not having the security of a W2! That is indeed happening more and more, but what does it mean? Certainly, the more strategic any business can be the easier it is to have these relationships, but it still seems very casual.

  2. Happy New Year to all my liberal friends.

    the more that changes, the more it’s the same thing —often shortened to plus ça change

    Congratulations to Mr. McConnell of Kentucky. You rock.

    • Excellent post, thank you! I especially like this:

      “Every organization has a destiny: a deep purpose that expresses the organization’s reason for existence.”

      I am very interested in putting that vision to practical use, which to me seems to be the hard part. It’s something like the difference between science and technology – and that is something I am trying to push together into an eBook. Thank you for your contribution to my thinking on the topic, this is a great addition!

  3. Forgive my ramblings. Leadership is so often (and unfortunately) confused with authority, making the concept of leadership something of a pregnant issue. Given the bounds of the state (and, with your invoking the various Occupy groups), the concept of leadership tends to be removed from the democratic process (particularly in that it is representative and not conciliatory). Sure, a leader can be elected, and their will then obtains the veneer of legitimacy, though the reality is (theoretically and, in many cases, practically) something of the inverse.

    To extend the idea of leadership into a more abstract area, the leadership you are describing hints at hegemony. That leadership is the solution to a problem that is being created by, and reinforced, by hegemony (particularly considering the re-productive idea that a strong leader will help the people through political and economic issues then necessitates a desire to be led) is problematic, at least historically (which, I might add, bears little applicability to the future). If the democratic process is being slowed, hindered, or undermined by a lack of the democratic process (your example of Republicans blocking, which is probably not in the best interests of their constituents), I see little benefit to come by moving more towards a decisive, well-focused leadership, given that a strategy and a goal, once static, will not bend to the suggestions of constituents.

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