Guiding Principles of Strategic Leadership
Most organisations possess leaders who have robust operational skills that are needed to maintain the status quo. However, they seem to lack the critical skill of confident and experienced strategic leadership to tackle the critical problems. These critical, or so-called, ‘wicked problems’ often require organisations to transform the way in which they run their business.
The situation is not all that grim. Fortunately, organisations can build strategic leadership competency. The search for strategic leadership begins internally by identifying emerging strategic leaders whose skills may have been overlooked. Employees who scale up the hierarchy ladder do so by demonstrating superior performance, learning agility to solve problems, and their persistent aspiration to progress. These are no doubt valuable traits, but they are not the only required skills of a potential strategic leader.
This article outlines 10 guiding principles which will help you unravel the strategic leadership potential in your organisation. The principles are a combination of individual competencies and behaviours as well as organisational process. You may have already adopted some of these principles and thinking that is enough. But the truth is that only when you implement all these principles together as a holistic process, will you be truly able to develop, attract, and retain strategic leaders who have eluded your sight so far.
1. Empower people at all levels to make decisions. You need to distribute responsibility amongst these potential strategic leaders. Strategic leaders polish their skills with practice, and in order to practice, they would need a fair amount of autonomy. Leaders who are at the top of the management rung need to pass on power down the hierarchy ladder across the organisation. This will empower people at all levels to make decisions. By distributing responsibility, you will be providing strategic leaders with the opportunity to try and see what happens if they take certain risks. It will also increase their adaptability, collective intelligence, and resilience of the organisation with time, by utilising the knowledge and wisdom of individuals who are outside the purview of traditional decision making.
2. Do not limit the flow of information to specific individuals only. You should be completely honest and open about information. The traditional management structure evolved from the command & control, military style of management. It was designed in a manner where the flow of information was intentionally limited. The problem with this style of management structure is that when information is made available only to specific individuals on a need-to-know basis, they are bound to make decisions in a blindfolded manner. They fail to recognise which factors are significant from a strategy perspective for the organisation. They make decisions based on guesswork. However, guesswork backfires when you are not encouraged to comprehend the bigger picture or given the leverage to question the information that you come across. When people face a lack of information, it automatically undermines their confidence to challenge a particular leader or even to propose an idea which may be different than that of the leader.
Transparent communication brings an improvement in your everyday practice. For instance, if the productivity graph goes down suddenly, it could be a great opportunity to implement change. To understand the problem from a 360-degree perspective, it would require people to speak up openly and honestly about the issues. If you try to conceal information, there is a temptation to manipulate data to make it appear better. Hence the opportunity for strategic leadership is completely lost here. Strategic leaders are aware that true power of information comes not from hoarding it, but from utilising it to seek and create news solutions and opportunities for growth.
3. Promote innovative thinking amongst leaders. You need to provide opportunities to create multiple paths for the potential strategic leaders to raise and test their ideas. In fact, developing and presenting ideas is one of the key skills of a strategic leader. What is even more significant is their ability to connect their ideas to the way the organisation generates value. If you enable these individuals to bring forth their innovative thinking, you can help them to make the most of their creativity. It is imperative that you create a variety of channels to promote innovative thinking. Some of these channels may be cross-functional mission, driven teams. Individuals can present their ideas to this group of like-minded individuals and test them against one another’s reasoning. Nowadays, some organizations are seen to set up in-house courses or even sponsor attendance at university programs. Another step which can be effective is to promote reverse mentoring. In reverse mentoring, younger team members can share their knowledge of new technologies as part of collaboration with a senior member of the team.
4. Encourage your employees to fail and learn from their mistakes. It is completely fine as long as the failure is not big enough to lead to genuine loss. It is a common trend that failure is not acceptable within most organisations. Individuals who fail are often seen to pay for it by missing a promotion or a reward. You must project an attitude of acceptance of failure and the willingness to admit failure early on in the processes and practices of your organisation. This also includes your promotion and appraisal processes. For instance, you must have your return on investment calculations in such a manner that it reflects the mutually agreed upon objectives. These objectives are deliberately designed in such a manner that they include the scope of risk. Potential strategic leaders cannot be only expected to learn from efforts that succeed. They also need to get a taste of failure which they then need to strive for to convert it into success. They must also learn how to manage the stress associated with uncertainty and how to recover from failure while trying out new ventures again.
5. Give strategic leaders the opportunity to meet and work closely with peers across the organisation. If they are not provided with access to their peers, they may feel isolated and alone. If they are aware that there are other individuals in the organisation with a similar predisposition, they will be more open and proficient to raise the strategic value of their efforts. The first step towards this initiative is to find these individuals. You can find out about such candidates by asking the team members or the executives who are the individuals who seem to understand the organisational needs and the means to get there. Without being bias, you need to promote the idea that many of the managers as well may have the potential to become strategic leaders. Get the team together first and then encourage them to learn from one another and to explore ways of fostering a relatively more strategic environment.
6. Promote more opportunities for experiential learning. It has been observed that most of professional leadership development is informative instead of experiential. Classroom based training is relatively easier and less expensive to implement. The classroom based sessions provide good evidence of short-term thinking instead of long-term investments in the leadership pipeline. While traditional leadership training can certainly develop managerial skills, yet strategic leaders need to gain real-time experience in order to step up to their potential.
7. Change your style of hiring and overcome the natural inclination to hire like-minded individuals. Aim to hire for transformation. You need to make your hiring decisions based on careful consideration of the capabilities and experiences of the candidates. You should aim for diversity while hiring. Try to test the candidates on how they react to specific real life situations. You can do this by carrying out substantive research as to how these candidates performed in their previous organisations. While interviewing, try to delve deep into their psyche and abilities. Test their sense of empathy and their skill in reframing problems. You should also test their learning agility while considering big picture questions along with analytical data. All these pointers should help you in looking out for and selecting potential strategic leaders. Once you hire your potential strategic leaders, at the time of on-boarding, you should convey that they are free to experiment and innovate, take up additional responsibility, and do more in order to transform the organisation. Give them a sense that the culture of this organisation is open towards change and diverse views are welcome.
8. Encourage strategic leaders to bring their whole self to work. It is understandable that strategic leaders will have to deal with the most challenging situations and problems. Hence, they need to draw on everything that they have learned in their previous organisations and overall what they learnt in life. Strategic leaders need to tap into their interests, capabilities, experiences, and passions to come out with innovative solutions. Strategic leaders do not wish to waste their time in organisations which fail to align with their values. Hence, strategic leaders encourage their direct reports to project the same attitude. By doing this, strategic leaders can create a low stress environment at the workplace, as no one needs to pretend to be someone else. People are encouraged to project their true self. This helps in creating an honest an authentic work environment where people can freely share their capabilities and motivations as well constraints in their life.
9. Spend time reflecting on your actions. You should question the way in which you analyse and question. The goal here is to raise the level of your game in double loop learning. Double loop learning entails thinking in depth about a certain situation and the problems that are inherent in it. It also entails analysing your own thinking and the assumptions or biases that you may have. Self-analysis and reflection helps you to learn from your own mistakes. It also gives you the time to figure out the worth of your aspirations and whether you can raise the bar higher for them. Self-reflection enables you to spot great ideas by reflecting on what you are already doing or on things that are going on in your life. It is understandable that managers are often caught up in various pressures at work, and a mistake can prove to be overwhelming at such times. However, if you spend a minute to step back and reflect on the issues at hand, it may provide you the vantage point to see what you did right.
10. Leadership development is an ongoing process. Strategists need to be intelligent and humble enough to realise that learning and development is a never ending process irrespective of how experienced they may be. It is impossible to have all the solutions and answers to problems. Hence strategic leaders need to share ideas by encouraging new ways of thinking and asking for advice.
As a leader, you may realize that you are not only concerned with your role as a strategic leader, but you are also responsible for cultivating opportunities for others. Hence, you need to have a clear vision of the talent pool lying around you.
By adopting the 10 principles that have been outlined here in this article, you can successfully pave the way for others to follow. This is significant, as the ability to transform in the midst of social and business challenges and disruptions is essential for your organisation’s survival and success.