Every leader is expected to be strategic in the way they think and see the world -- it's the hallmark of great leadership. However, as often as the term is used, what does it mean to be strategic and, further, how do you know when you are not?
Before we get started, let's define what it means to be strategic. Merriam-Webster dictionary says, "of or relating to a general plan that is created to achieve a goal in war, politics, etc., usually over a long period of time."
Translation in the real world and as it relates to business leaders: Be clear on your end goal. Then make sure you are thinking at least five steps ahead and can anticipate the reactions to each decision or move you make. In other words, being strategic is like being a great chess player. You have various resources available to you (pawns, knights, bishops, rooks, queen and king). You need to think ahead and anticipate the consequences of your moves relative to your environment and in the context of your larger goal... to win the game. This same methodology makes a successful business leader, only you're exchanging knights and rooks for employees and products.
So what does it mean when people say, "that wasn't very strategic." Translation in the real world: That was a dumb move. What were you thinking? Oh that's right, you weren't thinking. You were reacting.
So how do you know when you are not being strategic? Here are three major signs.
- You put pressure on yourself to be visionary. Being a visionary is not the same as being strategic. They are not even the same word! So why do people generally associate the two? To be a visionary means you can see the future 5 to 10 years out and can imagine what the world will one day be like. Leaders who are visionaries put a lot of pressure on themselves when they can see that far in advance. In contrast, being strategic is much more oriented in the short-term, relatively speaking. With shorter one to two-year goal(s), strategic thinkers see what they need to do today to ensure they get there. With each decision you make, be sure to anticipate all the bumps in the road and plan for different issues and roadblocks.
- You must have all the answers. A lot of leaders assume that to be strategic means that they have to come up with the plan by themselves and appropriately allocate resources. This means that they have thought the entire plan through from start to finish...all on their own. That doesn't mean you are strategic. That just means you took the time to sit down and be thorough. No wonder most leaders think they don't have time to be strategic! Coming up with a plan all by yourself is a lot of pressure. Instead, to be strategic means you are driving the conversation with your team and colleagues. You don't have to have the plan completed from the get-go. Bring your team together to brainstorm things you need to think about and plan for. Play devil's advocate to bring out the best in their thinking. Generate the ideas together, but remember, it's your job as the leader to be the one thinking about how these ideas will propel you into the future and making sure you bring the right people together to help plan for any potential problems that may arise.
- You are constantly putting out the small fires right in front you. It's hard to see the big picture and larger goal when all you focus on is solving the issues right in front of you. How can you even begin to think about how to plan for the future when you're reacting to all the tiny problems that pop up? Thinking strategically means you take a step back and remove yourself from the day-to-day fire-fighting mode. Delegate so you can slow down to think things through. Stop being the hero junkie and let someone else get the glory for putting out the fires. Put your time and energy into the higher-level issues that will impact you long-term.
Be alert to the warning signs above and the steps required to realign your course. Most of all, staying strategic requires thinking through the implications of your actions today and their impact on tomorrow. In other words, don't go after the Queen just because she's there. Instead, think through all of your moves and get the checkmate.