The Big Five for the Year Ahead
The Five Keys to Strategic Leadership

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‘Planning without action is a daydream,’ says an old Japanese proverb, ‘and action without planning is a nightmare.’

Strategic leadership doesn’t deal primarily in the theoretical; it plans for concrete action and tangible, measurable results. In short, strategic leadership is pragmatic, marrying blue skies thinking with grass roots activism.

Arguably there is, in these high-tech times, a version of pragmatism that is less than helpful. I call it ultra-pragmatism; it pushes us to doing something just because it can be done.

As I argue in my new book Fascinating Times: A Social Commentary, we cannot afford to allow the pursuit of progress to devolve into progressivism, which seeks change only for changes’ sake.

Ours is an age of speedy technological development in which potent new techniques can either bring great benefits or wreak enormous havoc, depending on the ethics we apply to their use. The more powerful our technologies, the more important it is that society debates the ethics of certain procedures before adopting them wholesale.

Ultra-pragmatism tends to ignore such seemingly vague considerations as systems of ethics and values.

However, when pragmatism is at its best, constrained by ethical considerations, it is invaluable to leaders in any enterprise or sphere of activity. It is a central part of strategic leadership.

Pragmatic leaders are masters at:

1. Approaching a Project from an Honest Starting Point.

Strategic leaders always fight the battle that is before them, rather than the battle they might prefer to engage.

The history of warfare is replete with examples of generals who’ve tried to fight a battle they studied in military academies, rather than the battle unfolding around them. This is the road to certain defeat, in any campaign.

Pragmatism starts in a place of honesty, asking questions about both the current environment and available resources.

Before launching a project, strategic leaders research the assets in hand – particularly in terms of people and skills. As a result, they’re able to gauge which parts of a project will need to be outsourced or which new skills-sets will need to be developed within the team.

In the process, strategic leaders engage in future-casting. Nobody can definitely predict the future. We can, however, use the benefit of both experience and education to map likely or potential scenarios.

A particularly helpful process is worst-case scenario-mapping, which largely consists of asking challenging questions. What’s the worst thing that could happen as we undertake this project? What might we do in advance to prevent that eventuality?

If that event were to occur, what would be our immediate response? How can we help our key strategic partners to future-cast their parts of the project? These are all invaluable questions for a pragmatic, strategic leader.

2. Focusing Attention and Resources

Having engaged in some future-mapping, pragmatic leaders will apply focus to available scenarios.

Strategic leadership determines where it will focus its attention and then jealously guards that decision. As much as possible, it avoids being side-tracked by criticism or the type of fire-fighting that occurs if one is more focused on the urgent than the important.

If the leader and the team are to focus, there must be clearly defined, near-term, proximate objectives, which support longer-term, ultimate goals.

President John F. Kennedy announced in 1961 that the US would put a man on the moon within the decade ahead. While they appreciated his rhetoric, many of his countrymen saw the target as unrealistic; a goal too far.

For the engineers at NASA, however, the President’s pledge represented a perfectly realistic goal, albeit one that involved significant risks.

For the public, putting a man on the moon was at best an ultimate goal, an end point to NASA’s endeavours. Within NASA, though, it was seen as a proximate goal, an objective nearer to hand.

Strategic leadership identifies the preferred future, the ultimate pragmatic goal. It then mentally works backwards to the present, establishing the steps or proximate goals needed to carry the team to that objective.

Finally, it acts to follow through on those steps, while maintaining momentum and motivation.

A clear, measurable end objective is essential to strategic leadership. Yet without proximate objectives, people lose motivation and enthusiasm, succumbing to discouragement, frustration & burnout.

3. Remaining Flexible

Focus without flexibility produces myopia. The latter stifles creativity and kills a sense of adventure, by filtering out every influence, idea or possibility outside the immediate terms of reference.

In a strategic sense, there is nothing more useless than a rigid thinker. Rigidity leads to frigidity, where people are unable to experience the buzz of a fresh approach, especially when changing circumstances demand it.

If Sony hadn’t been so precious with its venerated Walkman, it would have launched the world’s first mp3 player. It had the technology, but it lacked the flexibility to see that consumer expectations were shifting.

The seven last words of a dying business, project or organisation are: ‘It’s never been done this way before.’

4. Analysing and Revising the Plan

The entire strategic process can be summed up in five stages: Plan – Act – Analyse and Revise – Act.

This is a cyclic process, which needs to be repeated throughout a major project. The strategic leader, being pragmatic, marshals the team to set out a plan for action, as opposed to a theoretical plan. The group then acts upon the plan, aiming in the process to meet proximate objectives.

After a time, the leader will ask for a period of revision, during which the team will analyse their progress in terms of both their goals.

The plan may have to be tweaked or fine-tuned at this point, after which the team will swing into action again. Overall, the strategy changes much less often than the individual tactics that are required to carry it through, but a strategy that is written in stone is one that is bound to fail in the face of changing circumstances.

In 1983 Howard Schultz worked for Starbucks, from its headquarters in Seattle. At the time, Starbucks wasn’t the mega-business we know today; it was a relatively small coffee supply company servicing restaurants.

Schultz, the company’s head of marketing and retail operations, visited Italy and was intrigued by the many espresso bars he found there. These were markedly different from the coffee shops he had seen in his homeland.

For one thing, there was no seating – people drank coffee at the bar. Customers were served their coffee in small porcelain cups, by energetic baristas who treated making a cup of coffee as a form of live theatre. Opera music often played in the background.

On his return to the States, Schultz met with members of the Starbucks board. He shared his idea for bringing Italian-style espresso bars to America. They were, to say the least, unimpressed.

They didn’t think America needed the type of coffeehouse experience Schultz was describing. Actually, their response was less about an awareness of customer preferences as it was about strategic myopia.

Recognising this, Howard Schultz left Starbucks to start his own one-off coffeehouse called Il Giornale. It was closely modelled on the espresso bars of Italy, with Italian décor, no chairs and small porcelain cups. Opera music was piped throughout and the waiters and baristas wore bow ties.

Unlike Starbucks, Schultz understood the importance of tweaking a strategy. His bar became a living experiment. Over time, after watching customer response, he added chairs, tables and take-away cups and replaced opera with folk and rock music. He also changed the menu to add lattes and other less traditional coffees.

By 1987, Howard Schultz had bought Starbucks and adopted their name. He merged its traditional business selling Arabica coffee beans with his approach to coffee bars.

By 2001, Starbucks had 4700 outlets worldwide and $2.6 billion in revenue. Its success was largely attributable to one thing: it had a leader who was willing to subject his strategy to a constant process of pragmatic trial-and-error, plan and analyse.

5. Sacrificing Sacred Cows – on Principle!

Strategic leaders, because they are pragmatic, are happy to cannibalise their own past successes, or those of their company, to produce something fresh.

Benchmarking is helpful to management; but it is often deadly to leadership.

Management’s focus is on structures and systems. Being able to look over the corporate fence and adopt systems that are working elsewhere saves time and money.

In any enterprise, there are clear benefits in knowing what approach one’s competitors are taking when it comes to solving practical problems. There is little point in ‘inventing’ a wheel that someone else has already built. Benchmarking helps us to avoid that.

Yet benchmarking can also quench the fires of innovation – and leadership is about building cultures, particularly cultures of creativity. All too often, benchmarking causes leaders to focus on the rule instead of looking for the exciting exception, which might drive a strategy forward.

Discovery is, by definition, the opposite of maintaining the status quo – and benchmarking is all about the status quo. Left unchecked, it can transform everything into a dull shade of grey, so that there are no stand-out colours to challenge conventional wisdom.

Truly strategic leadership is not simply open to killing sacred cows; it often goes hunting for them. It takes a proactive approach, in an effort to prevent emotional commitments to past success from stalling the strategic process.

If Kodak hadn’t felt so emotionally attached to its film division, it would have marketed the world’s first consumer digital camera. It developed one before any of its competitors, but simply felt too comfortable with film to take the new device to market.

Strategic leaders are always a little ruthless around the edges; not so much with people as with ideas. This is especially true of their own ideas, or with concepts that have served the enterprise well in the past but are nearing their use-by date.

Pragmatic, strategic leadership is not afraid to rock the proverbial boat now and again, particularly if it senses that the wind is changing direction.

Mal Fletcher's new book, Fascinating Times: A Social Commentary, is now available on Amazon Kindle worldwide. For more information, including the movie-style trailer, radio interviews and Amazon links click here.

© Copyright with Mal Fletcher

Fascinating Times - NEW BOOK by Mal Fletcher. Released: 30 November. Click for more info...

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