Strategic Leadership 2021: Lessons from Strategy Class

Strategic leadership means leading for today, tomorrow, and beyond. It manifests through helping shape a continually evolving organizational paradigm while operating effectively in the current environment. Leading the long view takes place by engaging team members in creating co-ownership of the future-state vision and strategy that brings the vision to life. Vision is distilled into actionable priorities, which become the day-to-day operating plan guiding all team members in performing their work.

As I work with organizations preparing for the new year, one of the most common topics of discussion is what it takes to set a strategic course through times of uncertainty. In part, this requires acknowledgment that the operating landscape is a dynamic environment in continuous change. Under more normal circumstances, we might not feel base-level change; similarly, even though planet earth moves at a speed of 1,000 miles per hour at the equator, we don’t feel that baseline movement. Events like Covid-19 accelerate and focus change, but even absent extraordinary accelerants, the nature of business is dynamic motion.
When I taught a college course in strategic management, the notion of strategy as a fluid process rather than a static document created confusion for some of my students. How could an organization be both, clear in its’ path forward, and malleable as conditions changed? My answer: Strategic leaders must achieve balance, with the business’s vision as the fulcrum. The future state picture vision describes is the destination; the path, aka: strategy, may need to change as conditions shift. When environmental changes accelerate, a strategic leadership approach becomes essential.
Here are five ideas to help sustain a strategic leadership approach with your organization:
  • Recognize that defining, designing and delivering strategy is a team sport. The environment – within and outside your organization – is dynamic, and your team is the source of rich, diverse observation and interpretation of what the changes mean. Capture their input for distillation into strategy adjustments designed to fulfill your future state vision. 
  • Acknowledge that it’s daily actions that matter, not the strategy document. Future state vision informs organizational priorities. Priorities define activities. Strategies are bundles of activities. The aggregation of activities create operating results. Having a great plan that doesn’t translate into what team members do in their work every day is a waste of the paper it’s printed on. A CEO I worked with said “if a competitor got a copy of our strategic plan, it wouldn’t matter because they wouldn’t be able to execute the activities the way we do”. 
  • Align expectations – yours and your team members – in the dynamic nature of your operating environment. When expectations differ from reality, people are frustrated or disappointed. If your team expects status quo, it will be harder for them to adjust to varying rates of change. Spinning in space at 1,000 miles an hour is an overwhelming concept if you were expecting something different. 
  • Adjust activities to fit the current environment. Adjustment is easier for some organizations than others. If adjustment is difficult for your business, 2021 is the time to build up your adaptability competency. 
  • Own the Tone – Leaders are vision stewards. Set the tone by giving voice to the vision. Holding vision as the destination, without attachment to the path, is essential to sustaining balance between where your organization is today, where you’re going and how you get there.  
As you fine-tune your 2021 business plan, remember – strategic leadership is about achieving balance between today’s reality, tomorrow’s aspirations and connecting the two.

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