Strategic leaders, being at the highest level of an organisation, are responsible for charting its path to success. They visualise an ideal picture of their enterprise in a futuristic environment, capture it into a pragmatic vision and translate it into goals and objectives with specific timelines. To realise their vision, strategic leaders formulate strategy and create an ecosystem conducive to its implementation.
Research evidence, however, suggests that not all leaders at the helm rise to the level of strategic leaders. Most of them fail to put up with the unique leadership demands of the 21st century's strategic arena, which is marked by very high levels of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). Interestingly, a study undertaken by PwC in 2015 revealed that out of the 6,000 senior executives who were surveyed, only 8 per cent demonstrated the prowess of strategic leaders. The majority was found fit only for operational leadership roles.
Institutions lacking in strategic leadership generally take recourse to outsourcing. While it helps tap the readily available pool of expertise, it precludes the holistic growth of senior leaders and in-house talent. To build and sustain competitive advantage, organisations must carefully nurture their senior leaders and empower them with necessary competencies and attributes. As a tenet, enterprises pursuing excellence should desist from outsourcing strategy formulation and training. Homegrown expertise in these areas helps develop a robust foundation for all-round growth and success.
Successful strategic leaders possess unique cognitive abilities and conceptual capacity. They are analytical, creative, innovative, reflective and proactive thinkers, and their capabilities enable them to thrive in VUCA and deal with problems which have no cookie-cutter solutions. They develop an uncanny ability to anticipate the future with a fair degree of accuracy and even make sense of innocuous indicators and whispers in the environment. This aptitude, coupled with their mental agility, helps them manage risk, exploit fleeting opportunities and lead change through innovation and transformation.
Well-ripened mental faculties also help them question the status quo and take bold and hard decisions for the betterment of their enterprise. However, as their decisions have long-term ramifications, they examine the second, third and even the fourth-order implications before promulgation. Conceptual maturity also enables them to make penetrating assessments of their subordinates' competencies so that they can assign the right people at the right place and at the right time. While maintaining a long-term focus, they can work on both big and small pictures simultaneously.
To stay relevant in the fast-paced environment, successful strategic leaders remain committed to self-improvement through consistent pursuit of knowledge and capacity enhancement. They stay abreast of contemporary policies, skills, best practices and advancements in related technology. Moreover, they focus on acquiring sophisticated frames of reference and strive to achieve mastery over strategic art. Frames of reference provide senior leaders with broader perspectives and mental templates to interpret various situations and predict their likely outcomes. They influence a leader's conduct and decision-making. Strategic art, on the other hand, helps senior leaders read the strategic environment effectively and through a deft interplay of ends, ways and means, steer the organisational efforts towards the attainment of its goals and vision.
Effective strategic leaders are a dab hand at building an adaptive and value-based organisational culture that facilitates the implementation of strategy and promotes creativity, innovation, group cohesion, accountability and a desire to excel. Culture is formed over time and is based on time-tested and validated values, beliefs, customs, traditions, precepts and tenets. It permeates down to various branches and segments of the organisation through the climate that subordinate leaders create and foster. As it is a critical facet for the success of an organisation, senior leaders ensure its intimate monitoring.
Interpersonal maturity enables strategic leaders to communicate effectively and become good listeners and readers of non-verbal communications. Also, interpersonal skills facilitate negotiating and maintaining healthy and professional relationships with various stakeholders and entities in the external environment. In the internal space, these skills help them build consensus and communicate their vision, mission, strategy, directives, plans, advice and ideas to members of the organisation. Frequent interactions between senior leaders and the workforce significantly contribute to the strengthening of trust. Great strategic leaders, therefore, seek opportunities to step out of their comfort zones to be with their people. Such interactions help obtain different perspectives, tap ingenious thoughts, gauge levels of motivation and discern signs of conflict.
Biographies of several iconic strategic leaders from various fields reveal that they all had their ups and downs. But what made them succeed despite the heavy odds was their faith in the capabilities of their people and their unswerving resolve never to quit. When the chips were down, they kept their cool and demonstrated emotional balance and stability. They never compromised with their high moral standards and always ensured the primacy of the organisational interests over personal ones. By leveraging collective wisdom, they took bold decisions and worked painstakingly to ensure their fruition. In glory, they were truly humble and attributed the success to their people.
During a discussion on strategic leadership at the US Army War College in 2004, where I earned my Masters in Strategic Studies, our professor had referred to strategic leadership as the 'coin of the realm'. And I understood its literal meaning as a tactical leader. But on entering the echelons of senior leadership, where I had the privilege to rub shoulders with some outstanding strategic leaders from all walks of life, I realised the essence of the phrase. Indisputably, strategic leadership is a sine qua non for any organisation to flourish and attain its goals and vision in the VUCA environment of the 21st century.