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What is a strategic leadership?

By Atip Muangsuwan


“What is a strategic leadership? It is a leadership style that masters these 6 skills; i.e., anticipate, challenge, interpret, decide, align, and learn.” – Atip Muangsuwan, The Best Coach International

One of my leadership clients showed up with his aspirational topic: “How can I become a strategic leader?”

Our conversation went on something like this…

Client: How can I become a strategic leader?

Coach Atip: What makes you want to become a strategic leader?

Client: I’ve heard my boss touching on this leadership style very often these days and he even told me to learn to become one!

Coach Atip: That’s great! But first things first. First, we must know what a strategic leadership is. Any idea?

Client: I guess it is a leadership style that the leaders must think and plan before they take any actions. Is my understanding correct?

Coach Atip: Based on an article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), there was research done at the Wharton School and at a consulting firm which involves more than 20,000 executives, there are 6 key skills identified that describe a strategic leadership.

Client: Wow! I’m really curious to learn about these skills. Can you share them with me and give a real-life example or a case-study as well?

Coach Atip: Sure, I can. And I can give you a recent real-world case study, too. Let’s talk about the on-going war between Russia and Ukraine for a sake of case-study and educational purpose from a leadership-lessons-learned perspective. Let’s look at each skill under strategic leadership position.

  1. Anticipate

Strategic leaders must be able to anticipate the future like the upcoming events, situations or circumstances by using all available information, data, news, other media, and so on as an input for creating strategies.

For the Russia-Ukraine war case, if the Ukraine president could anticipate that the war was coming at Ukraine even for 1 or 2 years ahead of time based on the input that he had received, and if he tried to make friends with Russia president since that time of knowledge, there might be no war between the two nations like today. He could have used a diplomatic approach or a friendly neighbor-to-neighbor approach with Russia president if he could anticipate this war ahead of time.

  1. Challenge

Strategic leaders always question the status quo. They challenge their own and others’ assumptions and encourage divergent points of view. Only after careful reflection and examination of a problem through many lenses do they take decisive action. This requires patience, courage, and an open mind.

In addition, strategic leaders focus on the root causes of a problem rather than the symptoms.

For this war case, if Ukraine president could challenge his own assumptions or beliefs about the Russia president’s dislikes about Ukraine since the past years and tried to find the root causes of his dislikes, then the Ukraine president might be able to prevent the dislikes from escalating into the big war.

  1. Interpret

Leaders who challenge in the right way invariably elicit complex and conflicting information. That’s why the best ones are also able to interpret. Instead of reflexively seeing or hearing what you expect, you should synthesize all the input you have. You’ll need to recognize patterns, push through ambiguity, and seek new insights.

Finland’s former president J. K. Paasikivi was fond of saying that wisdom begins by recognizing the facts and then “re-cognizing,” or re-thinking them to expose their hidden implications.

For this war case, if Ukraine president could interpret from the news and intelligence information and found out the hidden implication why Russia had massive military drills in Belarus on February 10th, the Ukraine president could have immediately started a negotiation or diplomatic protocol with the Russia president just in time to prevent this war from happening.

  1. Decide

In uncertain times, decision makers may have to make tough calls with incomplete information, and often they must do so quickly.

But strategic leaders insist on multiple options at the outset and don’t get prematurely locked into simplistic go/no-go choices. They don’t shoot from the hip but follow a disciplined process that balances rigor with speed, considers the trade-offs involved, and takes both short- and long-term goals into account.

For this war case, before the war actually started, by interpreting from the hints and clues obtained from many sources of information, the Ukraine president could have decided on the pros and cons of going into war with Russia. Anticipate the short-term and long-term impacts and consequences of the war, then consider all the possible options that he could do for the Ukrainian people and the country.

According to Sun Tzu (a renowned war and military strategist who wrote ‘The Art of War’ book), “the highest victory is defeating the enemy without even fighting.”

So, the Ukraine president could have decided whether he wanted to make a friend or foe with the Russia president long before the war would start.

  1. Align

Strategic leaders must be adept at finding common ground and achieving buy-in among stakeholders who have disparate views and agendas. This requires active outreach. Success depends on proactive communication, trust building, and frequent engagement.

For this case study, the Ukraine president could have engaged with the 2 regions in the east of Ukraine more frequently before they broke away to become independent and took side of Russia instead.

In addition, he could have communicated and aligned with his government and the Ukrainian people for the best approach to deal with Russia long before the war was about to start.

Strategically speaking, Russia has been one of the key stakeholders of Ukraine’s peace and security. Thus, getting aligned and engaging with Russia president consistently through diplomatic approach would have prevented this ongoing war from happening.

According to Sun Tzu’s core strategy, “If one can change conflicts to harmony, one will win from the start!”

  1. Learn

Strategic leaders are the focal point for organizational learning. They promote a culture of inquiry, and they search for the lessons in both successful and unsuccessful outcomes. They study failures—their own and their teams’—in an open, constructive way to find the hidden lessons.

For this case study, the Ukraine president could have learned the lessons about the war and its severe consequences from the history like the Crimean Peninsula case that Ukraine had lost it to Russia 8 years ago.

Learn from the mistakes in the past or from the history, then don’t repeat the same mistakes or don’t let the history repeat itself.

These are all 6 skills that the strategic leaders possess.

Client: Wow! Very insightful explanation and practical up-to-date case study indeed. Now I can understand what a strategic leadership is. Then, can you coach me to become one of the strategic leaders?

Coach Atip: Certainly, I can! With my pleasure!

Client: I’d also like to come up with some practical strategies to help me meet my organization’s sales target.

Coach Atip: Absolutely! We can work out the strategies together.

Client: By the way, in your opinion, what’s the best leadership style?

Coach Atip: In my opinion, it’s “transformational leadership”!

Client: Transformational leadership? What is it exactly?

Coach Atip: You can read from my article: “What’s a definition of transformational leadership?” I wrote about it very clearly there. However, a strategic leadership skill would be a leverage for transformational leadership.

Toward the end of our session, my client and I continued on with our coaching conversation and came up with some key strategies in order to help my client meet his organization’s sales target.

A month later, this client shared his outcome with me that… not only did he become better at strategic leadership skills, but his organization also exceeded the sales target by 300% due to applying the key strategies obtained from the coaching session.

To me, “If asked, ‘What is a strategic leadership?’, it is a leadership style that focuses on thinking and acting strategically by applying all those 6 skills.”

If you want to become a strategic leader like this client of mine does, you can get in touch with me via my homepage for a discovery session @ Home – The Best Coach International (thebest-coach-international.com)

Strategically yours,
Coach & Strategist