Businesses often set ambitious goals but most frequently fail to achieve them. According to a survey from Clutch, 77 percent of small business leaders expressed confidence that they would reach all of their goals.
So, how many small businesses actually reach their goals?
Only 5 percent.
That’s a significant gap between a company’s vision and what they achieve in reality. Looking at the numbers, it’s clear there’s a disconnect between what business leaders think they can do and what they actually do.
The same survey from Clutch pinpoints where business failure begins. According to respondents, only 15 percent documented their entire strategy. An even more stunning 27 percent didn’t record any part of their strategy.
Without strategic leadership, companies have a weak foundation. As the business grows, there is no strong structure rooted to the ground to prevent things from caving in. If your company isn’t practicing strategic leadership, you’re putting everyone in harm’s way.
Strategic leadership is crucial for companies to succeed. With so few implementing it, the time has come to fix the problem.
This article will finally set the record straight on:
- What strategic leadership is.
- What it is not.
- How you can start demonstrating it.
- And real-world examples of what a strategic leader looks like.
What is Strategic Leadership?
Strategic leadership happens when a leader shares a vision and goal with their team and inspires them to work together to reach it. A strategic leader often acts as the motivating force for an organization, letting individuals know their role in achieving the vision. This leadership style helps others have direction at all times.
The Qualities of a Strategic Leader
1. Possesses a Clear Vision
Strategic leadership can’t happen without a vision. The vision is what inspires and motivates people to action. It sets the tone for any plans and strategies. With this in mind, a leader must gain that vision before they can take the helm and lead others. Without a clear destination in mind, how could they lead anyone anywhere?
But a strategic leader is more than a person with a vision. They need to cast that vision onto the people around them. The most effective strategic leaders can get others to share their vision and actively work toward making it a reality.
To gain that vision, you first have to visualize it. Spending anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes every day doing visualization practices will help expand your vision and see the destination in your mind. You can then reverse engineer your vision by looking at what steps you need to accomplish to reach it. These smaller goals are what you can measure to judge how much you’re progressing. They also help you make firm plans that you can communicate with others.
The best strategists are visualists. Once you see what you’re working toward, you can outline it, create correct goals, and motivate people to get involved. As Dwight Eisenhower put it, “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” Sharing your enthusiasm for the vision will make others feel it too.
2. Cultivates Innovation
Strategic leaders should have the courage and the mindset to challenge the status quo through innovation. By doing so, they can also instill a spirit of innovation in their organizations.
Innovation can happen in several ways. You may choose to make iterations on existing products or services. That’s what J. Patrick Doyle, president and CEO of Domino’s Pizza, did in 2013 when the company was struggling. Besides using improved ingredients, he implemented changes such as open kitchens so people could see workers preparing their food. He also launched Pizzavestments, where the company gave Domino’s gift cards worth 500 dollars to startup companies, knowing they would use them when participating in brainstorming sessions. These innovations and others helped Domino’s rebound in the ensuing years.
Innovation can also happen when exploring new ideas and markets as part of a blue ocean strategy. This innovation strategy creates an entirely new space where only the innovator resides. Think of companies like Uber, which took the idea of a taxi service and opened it to everyone with a vehicle and a smartphone. Strategic leadership results in this type of success as innovation reigns supreme.
3. Seeks Wisdom
Strategic leaders also spend their lives seeking and gaining wisdom. They have an unquenchable desire for the truth and follow strong principles wherever they lead.
Wisdom is a combination of knowledge, application of knowledge, and truth. It constantly tests what works and what doesn’t. Leaders who have wisdom will also desire to share it with others at every opportunity so others may benefit from it.
4. Takes Decisive Action
Once a leader has wisdom, they can then make significant decisions with confidence. This can happen even if a leader doesn’t have all the information they want. Strategic leaders examine all the options, understand the pros and cons, and approach each possibility with an unbiased mindset.
When push comes to shove, leaders must take action. They can do so with certainty if they act according to their principles and values. During decision-making, a leader considers the impact their decisions will have in the short term and long term. They get others involved in the process since they want feedback and opinions from other people, too.
When they make a decision, strategic leaders never feel like they need to settle for something unsatisfactory. They charge straight ahead, fully committed to what they decide.
5. Focuses on Culture
Another one of the leadership qualities that strategic leaders have is an unwavering focus on culture. They have a clear understanding of the value of a strong culture in an organization. That strong culture has a more beneficial effect on workers than micromanaging them.
Strategic leaders invest in their culture because they know in the long run that the right culture will have a more positive impact on the bottom line than anything else. As LaKisha Greenwade of Lucki Fit explains, “Cultures that thrive have leadership support, champions throughout the organization, and people who believe in what is trying to be accomplished. Without the buy-in from those levels, it will flop.”
Southwest Airlines is well known as an example of a business with a strong workplace culture. From the beginning, founder Herb Kelleher sought to instill core values in each employee. Those values include working safely, wowing customers, possessing a warrior spirit and servant’s heart, and demonstrating a great attitude. Company leadership reinforces these values at every turn, making Southwest Airlines a success. In fact, 85 percent of employees say they take pride in working for the company.
6. Drives Excellence
Strategic leaders never settle for less, including their own knowledge and skillset. Their leadership strategies depend on constantly developing themselves during their lives. They can do this in a variety of ways. They often meet with other leaders to draw on their experiences and expertise.
Leaders also spend much of their time learning through reading to expand their knowledge. Warren Buffet says he read as much as 600 to 1,000 pages every day when he started as an investor. Mark Cuban claims he reads three hours a day to grow his confidence and consume as much information as possible. Every strategic leader should make reading a vital component of a leadership strategy.
Leaders can also practice their leadership skills by becoming a mentor. This gives them the opportunity to share with others all the knowledge and experience they have accumulated through their constant drive for excellence.
7. Refine Strategies
When looking at progress, strategic leaders believe that they and their teams can always do better. They’re constantly searching for ways to refine the work that gets done. They can do this by analyzing current data, checking in with coworkers, and measuring how far they are from hitting goals.
Strategic leaders know that no method is perfect, and there’s always improvement people can make. Maybe a team member will perform better with more resources and support, or perhaps a different coworker prefers a more hands-off approach. Leaders look at current strategies and try to refine them as much as possible so no time or effort is wasted.
Examples of Strategic Leadership
- Ray Dalio: At a time when financial institutions were all about crunching the numbers, Ray Dalio took a different approach. Dalio found that studying history can be a good indicator of future economic conditions. This historical qualitative research has allowed the financial analyst to predict economic booms and busts, including the downturn in 2008. Dalio’s unique strategy has allowed him and his firm, Bridgewater, to become incredibly successful for decades.
- Steve Jobs: To call Steve Jobs a visionary would be putting it lightly. The ways in which his leadership strategy has innovated and changed the world are difficult to measure. From the introduction of the personal computer to the smartphone, Jobs and Apple have been on the cutting edge for generations. There’s perhaps no better example of Jobs’ innovative thinking than iTunes. Before iTunes came along, consumers had only two options: buying overpriced CDs for just a couple of songs they wanted or pirating them. At the time, the pirates were winning. Through iTunes, Jobs created something new and better, satisfying consumers and saving the music industry.
- Napoleon Bonaparte: For good or ill, Napoleon Bonaparte put his leadership strategies to use as he conquered much of Europe. He was the first major world leader to introduce the concept of “total war” in the post-gunpowder era. Napoleon created his strategies from intense study of past military leaders like Alexander the Great, Caesar, and Hannibal. He was also a meticulous planner, having a firm knowledge of even minor details before launching a military campaign. Much of his strategy consisted of distractions leading to devastating flank attacks that divided his opponents. He found tremendous success on the battlefield until opposing nations started to use his own tactics against him.
- Bob Iger: When Bob Iger became CEO of Disney, he examined what the company lacked and came up with a vision for what they could achieve. Iger boiled down his strategy into three priorities. The first was to invest Disney’s capital in high-quality branded content. The second was to use technology to create better content and reach people in different ways. The last priority was to grow in different markets around the world. In the past decade, Disney has primarily succeeded on these points. With a streaming service like Disney+, the company has made strides and seen its influence grow even more than it had before.
- Sara Blakley: Like many entrepreneurs, Sara Blakley started with almost nothing but grew her business to the point where she became a self-made billionaire. During her journey, she maintained a clear vision of transforming the women’s undergarments industry despite numerous challenges and missteps along the way. She believed in her innovative product and knew who her audience was. Blakley also holds true to an ambitious mission, which in her own words is to “help women feel great about themselves and their potential.”
What Strategic Leadership is Not
Many people can confuse what strategic leadership entails, leading to frustration and dissatisfaction throughout an organization. As such, it’s essential to understand what strategic leadership is not.
First, micromanaging is not something a strategic leader does. While some managers may keep a list of tasks their workers need to do, it fails to account for vision and ambitious goals. Micromanagers insist that everyone does X, Y, and Z and may reprimand those who fail to meet this standard. On the other hand, strategic leaders cast their vision to their coworkers. There’s no need (or time) for them to micromanage and ensure everyone stays on task because everyone believes in that vision and works hard to achieve it.
Additionally, strategic leaders are not reactionaries. They don’t spend their time putting out fires. Strategic leadership anticipates problems and sees the bigger picture. Someone who only reacts can never innovate or lead. Strategic leaders should avoid the reactionary model and focus more on being a revolutionary.
How to Become a Strategic Leader
When asking “What is leadership?” every leader should look at creating a plan to become a strategic leader for their respective organizations. You can begin by modeling the leadership qualities listed above, but that might seem overwhelming, especially when you’re starting. To get going on the right path, narrow your focus and try the following tips.
- Take the time to visualize your destination and what you want to accomplish.
- Practice strengths-based leadership to ensure everyone will excel where you place them.
- Model servant leadership for your team and show them you have an innate desire for everyone to succeed.
- Stay out of the weeds for a while by spending less time working and more time learning and thinking. It might seem counterintuitive at first, but this will help you outline a vision others can follow.
As you spend more time thinking, you eventually hit “the shift.” This “shift” happens when a leader spends roughly 25 percent of their time not working directly on the business. Instead, they use that time to think, strategize, learn, meet with other leaders, develop their communication skills, and constantly innovate. Many leaders have seen their businesses take off once they hit that 25 percent mark, but things truly hit another level when a leader can get to the point where they spend about half their time in this stage.
Think of strategic leaders like Steve Jobs or Warren Buffet. How much time do you think they spent away from the day-to-day operations of their businesses and just thinking about new destinations? That should be the goal for every strategic leader. It’s within your reach if you begin that journey today.