Organizations can improve business results and increase organizational resilience by developing more strategic leaders, but they have to address leadership and strategy in an integrated way.
We studied more than 300 leaders from around the world through the lens of leadership and strategy in our new book “Leading With Strategic Thinking.” Our analysis revealed several key insights: Leadership without strategy lacks focus, strategy without leadership lacks impact, and leadership and strategy together create insight and drive change.
The best leaders think strategically about how they lead. They adapt to each situation, picking the right times to promote a vision, provide direction, empower others or collaborate.
Here are three steps you can take to integrate leadership and strategy into your development programs.
1. When you consider strategy, focus on strategic thinking.Rather than teaching strategic planning or management practices, emphasize principles from cognitive psychology, systems thinking and game theory.
Today’s leaders must be self-aware as well as situationally aware. They must deal with complex situations, manage competing priorities and address unexpected barriers. Developing this self- and situational-awareness draws from three related fields of study:
• Cognitive psychology: the study of perception, creativity, decision-making and thinking.
• Systems thinking: an approach to understanding how systems behave, how they interact with their environment and how they influence others.
• Game theory: the study of decision-making when the decision involves two or more parties, the decision-maker and the adversary.
Incorporating strategic thinking into leadership development will influence how executives perceive their current reality, how they interpret opportunities and how they imagine the future.
2. When you think about leadership, think in terms of context and personal adaptation. The definition of a leader has to evolve. Beyond a set of universal leadership skills and behaviors, the best leaders adapt to a given context.
Strategic leadership is important. Unexpected events occur almost daily as technology drives increased connections and greater disruption in every industry and geography. In such a turbulent environment, executives must understand the current state, anticipate challenges and opportunities, and act accordingly.
The right actions include both a leader’s direction and how they decide to lead. Our research revealed several types of leadership, each uniquely suited to a given situation and purpose. Sometimes leaders set the vision themselves; sometimes they empower others to do so. Knowing when to apply the right approach is critical to achieve the best outcomes.
Incorporating strategic leadership into leadership development will influence how quickly executives adapt to changing contexts and engage their followers appropriately.
3. When you think about strategic leadership, consider the followers’ hearts, minds and hands. A strategic leader’s success relies on followers. When it comes to attaining their buy-in, commitment, contribution and advocacy, we encourage executives to win hearts, engage minds and leverage hands.
We address all of these in both our graduate class at Northwestern University and in the high-potential programs we teach for Aon and other companies. We do this through a variety of exercises rooted in real-world case studies to allow application of strategic thinking.
We ask them to analyze their organization’s strategy using multiple frameworks, then compare different findings exposed by each framework. We also ask them to identify relevant types of leadership that are or should be demonstrated by individuals in the case. Then we put them in situations to role-play and apply some of the insights they’ve gained. By going deeper than the typical case study method, we prompt them to apply strategic thinking in ways they tell us are different than prior experiences in the classroom or in work situations.
By incorporating these ideas into your own leadership development program, you can develop leaders who are more resilient and better equipped to face an increasingly dynamic set of business challenges.
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