Aspiring young leaders often ask me, “How can I learn to think and lead strategically?” Normally, I smile and reply, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer is, of course, practice. Lots and lots of practice. That’s how you get to Carnegie Hall, and that’s how you learn to think and lead strategically.
Strategic leadership is a form of leadership that is future-oriented and broad in scope. It emphasizes building the organizational capabilities and culture that strengthen a firm’s competitiveness and its ability to create customer and economic value on a sustainable basis. Strategic leaders speak a language of growth and value creation, rather than cost-cutting and downsizing.
Role of Strategic Thinking
Strategic thinking is the engine room of strategic leadership. It’s impossible to lead strategically without the ability to think strategically. They are two sides of the same coin. Strategic leaders have an innate ability to recognize patterns and seize emerging growth opportunities in dynamic market environments and tend to have strong conceptual skills and immense creative capacity that is fueled by an insatiable curiosity, openness to new experiences, a vivid imagination, and eclectic interests.
Many leaders struggle with strategic thinking and regard it as an inborn trait possessed by members of the lucky gene club rather than a cognitive capability—a mind-set and muscle—that can be developed. It’s is my belief, however, that with the right development experiences, working under the watchful eye of a master teacher/coach with expertise in enterprise-level strategic thinking and transformation, operationally oriented managers can develop the capacity to think and lead strategically in dynamic market environments that are undergoing profound change. I have watched scores of operationally oriented managers develop the capacity to think and lead strategically in my executive development programs.
Building Your Strategic Muscle
Here are some tips and development activities for developing your capacity to think and lead strategically.
Read Business Journals to Develop a Repertoire of Patterns
Strategic thinkers are expert pattern recognizers. A leader learns how to think strategically one pattern at a time. Commonly recurring patterns in business include a disruptive threat from a new entrant, organizational decline and renewal, growth spurts and growth stalls, industry maturation and commoditization, and price wars that create a death spiral.
A great way to develop a repertoire of patterns is through reading business journals and case examples in business books. Most of the strategic leaders that I have worked with are voracious readers and lifelong learners. Reading periodicals like Businessweek or the Wall Street Journal is a great way to develop broad, cross-industry business acumen and a repertoire of patterns.
Develop Eclectic Interests
It’s also important to develop eclectic interests outside of your work environment to develop your creative capacity. It doesn’t matter what you pursue, whether it be music, art, or birdwatching. The key is to pursue an interesting activity outside of work that brings your innate creativity out of hibernation and allows you to look at the world from different perspectives.
Develop Networks Outside Your Industry
It’s also vital to cultivate professional relationships outside your industry in order to develop a broad, cross-industry perspective. Thinking outside the box requires spending time with people in different boxes. Industries become inbred over time, so it’s important to connect with “switched on” leaders outside your industry to gain fresh perspectives that you can apply to your organization.
Participate in Strategic Projects
Experience is by far our best teacher. One of the best ways to develop your strategic thinking skills is by participating in enterprise-level strategy projects at your organization. You can also ask a senior-level mentor to shadow and/or support he or she on a shorter-term strategic project. During my doctoral studies, I worked with a retired CEO on strategy projects in an apprenticeship-type arrangement to hone my strategic thinking skills. The experience accelerated my development immeasurably and continues to bear fruit.
Maintain a Strategic Thinking Journal
Finally, it’s a good idea to maintain a strategic thinking journey to capture your insights, observations, and reflections. Nearly all the executives I have worked with over the years maintain a journal to capture key insights.
Enhancing your capacity to think and lead strategically is clearly within your grasp provided you have the passion and drive and are willing to invest the time to hone your craft. There are no shortcuts in life.
You have to practice, practice, practice! That’s how you get to Carnegie Hall!
About Dr. Jeffrey Kuhn
Dr. Jeffrey Kuhn is a distinguished thinker, author, strategy advisor, and educator with expertise positioned at the intersection of strategy, innovation, growth, and organizational renewal and vitality—the work of strategic leadership. His work centers on helping senior business leaders develop the capacity to think and lead strategically in dynamic market environments undergoing profound change. He holds a doctorate from Columbia University and has served on the faculty of Columbia Business School and Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a founding member of the Strategic Management Forum and is a Fellow at the Royal Society of Arts. In 2017, Dr. Kuhn was inducted into Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches.
Dr. Kuhn is doing four IMS programs in October. Learn more about them HERE.