Thursday, 16 September 2010

Where are the Strategic Leaders?

A discussion earlier today with a very experienced and successful colleague got on to the subject of senior leaders and the 'art' of strategic leadership. In his view, many senior leaders confuse the tactical with the strategic - sometimes deliberately as a way to keep apparently busy and yet avoid tackling the really big issues or facing up to the need for a bold, clear vision. Our shared experience of Boards has illustrated how ill-prepared and reluctant many Directors and other senior leaders are to take on the panoramic view of the whole organisation and its universe - preferring to remain within their 'discipline' of Finance, Marketing, Engineering or whatever.

Unfortunately, if senior leaders remain rooted in their functional role, the creation of a whole-organisation and strategic vision becomes virtually impossible and we develop instead the 'council of war of tribal chiefs' that so many board meetings turn out to be.

Worrying, on a number of levels. Wasn't this the very problem the MBA was designed to solve? Our discussion made evident that 20 years or more of MBA growth hasn't sufficiently lifted the sights of many senior teams, neither, apparently has it brought a more holistic grasp of the many strands and disciplines of strategic leadership to the boardrooms of UKPLC.

Is this evidence of a dearth of creative thinking in our senior leaders?
Or evidence that we value, and therefore promote, the 'wrong' skills and capabilities - seeking a safe pair of hands and the low-risk option rather than embracing the maverick or the disruptive influence?

More importantly: how can we hope to be truly visionary and strategic, to be innovative and entrepreneurial when the people who exhibit these characteristics and 'think differently' are so often marginalised or attacked like a virus?

The world is changing radically and at unprecedented speed. We face the toughest challenges since WWII.

Where are the strategic leaders?


  1. Hi Nigel,

    I'd have to agree wholeheartedly with this point - strategy has become a cliche in the business community with many failing to understand the journey they should be embarking on when talking about such a grand concept.

    To use an analogy, people have frequent strategy meetings in the way I would nip to my local superstore. They plan the week ahead (in my case groceries or produce) and then live through the next week executing that plan.

    This is often called strategy.

    Real strategy is thinking and planning what your children are going to be having for their dinner when they're grown up and have their own home! It's not about changing direction every couple of weeks; it's not about bailing out at the first hurdle and seeking the easy option - it's about saying this is the right thing to do and it's going to take years of effort, commitment, determination and absolute single-mindedness so they naysayers will not detract me from my mission.

    These days we change our business strategy with the fashion trends.

    Perhaps there is an argument for fast, frequent and constant change in a society where the attention span is constantly shortening but that only ever seems to take us from one collossal wave on the sea of life to the next rather than charting a course to the shore and enjoying the exotic fruits of this new land.

    I think the best example of recent strategy is the coalition's plans for Britain. It's a 5 year strategy - pain and spending cuts are front loaded and by year 3-4 we'll be well into the campaigning and there'll be some small giveaways for the electorate.

    It's unpopular now but, the speed and depth of the cuts excepted, I think they've got a winning formula; I think they're doing the right thing, at the right time and in a few years we'll be harvesting the crops that were sown today.

    That, for me, is real strategy by real leaders and I'm not a natural Conservative by any manner of means.

  2. These days we change our business strategy with the fashion trends...

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