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Effective Leaders Think Strategically, and So Can You

By Randy Hall

I have often heard leaders tell me that to get to the next level, or sometimes to get their business to the next level, they need to be more strategic.  Usually the conversation happens because someone gave them that feedback.  And it’s true, the more of an organization you lead, the more strategic you have to think in order to lead it.  If you’re a business owner, you have to be able to shift between strategic and tactical thinking because you likely need to be doing both.

Sometimes people get stuck here.  They are told, or come to believe, that they need to be more strategic as a leader.  So, what’s the first step to being more strategic?  Can you be strategic during the day, or is that just reserved for retreats and meetings that are labeled as strategic meetings?  What if you’re just not a strategic thinker?  I get a lot of these kinds of questions when a leader thinks they need to be more strategic, but they aren’t sure what that really means, or how to go about it.

So, let’s break down what strategy means, and how to become more strategic as a leader.

First, strategy is about timeframe. Strategic questions are long term. Example:

  • Where do we want to be as a business in a year?
  • How do I make next month better?
  • What do we need to improve on next quarter?
  • How do I plan a great afternoon?

It is future-focused, not right-now focused, unlike tactical questions such as:

  • How do I get through the day?
  • How do I get this task done?
  • What’s the next thing on my list?

Secondly, strategy is about influence, not authority. 

  • How do I build a more effective team? 
  • How can I increase employee engagement? 
  • What does our best culture look like?

I can’t do these things without influence.  I can’t make a policy about effectiveness, culture, or engagement.  I can’t do any of those things through authority.  “Be more engaged or else,” rarely gets the job done.  Tactical thoughts, on the other hand, would be, “how do I get them to finish this project by Friday.” Or, “I need Jennifer to move into a different role,” or “people need to understand how important this client is.” I can directly do or say those things because I have authority.  I can tell, shift roles or resources, reinforce, and even apply pressure to make things happen.  That is authority-oriented work and is almost always highly tactical.

Strategy is also focused on cause not effect, inputs not outputs.  “I need Mason to listen more,” is tactical. “How can I have a conversation with Mason that helps him choose to practice better listening,” is strategic.  “What do people need to do,” is tactical. “How do I lead in a way that helps people make change more effectively,” is strategic.  I am not focused on the results I need to occur, I am focused on the steps, thoughts, ideas, changes, and behavior changes that would lead to those results.  I am focused on the upstream actions that would cause those downstream outcomes.  Keep in mind, it is easy to have that thought and jump to authority as an upstream behavior, but we would then be tactical again, even though we started with a strategic thought.

So strategy is about the future, influence, and inputs.  If we are predominantly thinking about what we will do differently to influence others to achieve greater success, we are exceptionally strategic. If we are occupied with what these people need to be told to do differently right now so we can finish this job today, we are having a very tactical moment.  

Let me be clear about a few things here too.  This is about leadership thoughts, and tactical is not necessarily bad.  Having the thought that I need to buckle down right now and crank this work out is very tactical, and also sometimes very necessary.  It is also something we have total direct control over, can do by ourselves, and it doesn’t affect future behaviors for ourselves or others. So it’s really not leadership focused.  Tactical approaches are needed, they get a tremendous amount of work done, and allow us to cross the finish line effectively on many occasions.  We just cannot be an effective leader if we aren’t capable of strategic thinking much of the time, because if we are not thinking about how we influence the future of our business or our team, who is?

So that’s what strategy means.  It’s not a perfect definition and there may be things you want to add or incorporate as you build the right definition for yourself.  But it’s the one I have had with many leaders that creates a framework for thinking about strategy so it can become less vague and more action-oriented.

As for how you can become more strategic, the answer is challenging yet simple.  Practice strategic thinking.  That starts with asking yourself those strategic questions from above over and over as you start your day, prepare for your week, or think about next year.  It is about taking your mind to a strategic place, even if it has been practicing tactical thinking most of its life. We can change our thinking simply by asking the right questions of ourselves repetitively.  That is one of the great secrets of the universe, but it’s leveraged far too infrequently by most of us.   We prefer to stay in comfortable thinking, follow yesterday’s habits, and stick with what we already think.  Pick 3 - 5 questions from the paragraphs above and work through them every day for five minutes.  Watch what happens, what you begin to think about that you wouldn’t have, what insights you can create for yourself that never existed before. Push through the questions and the answers.  If you hear yourself saying, “well I don’t know how to make my people more engaged,” do not stop there, ask yourself this follow up question.  “What is one thing I can do that might help,” and keep going.

You can build the mind you need to be a great leader.  It just takes a little time. It’s about influencing your thoughts and putting new habits into place so that you get different results.  That’s a very strategic thing to do.

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