Six Traits of a Strategic Leader

After years of working as a marketing professional and serving as a leader in many of my roles, I am more convinced now that strong strategic leadership is the cornerstone of every successful company. Likewise, in the sphere of marketing, strong leadership is usually the defining component of effective, creative, high-performing marketing teams.

The challenge for most professionals is understanding what effective leadership is and what is required to be an effective leader. There are different kinds of leaders, and organizations usually need leaders of all types in different roles. Recently, I challenged myself to explore and consider what characteristics are important particularly for the kind of leader who is able to think strategically.

There are many traits inherent to a strategic leader, but here I’ll share six I’ve seen in action – I’ve striven to apply these in my own leadership approach.

Strategic Leaders See Beyond Their Own Role and Team

Strategic leaders develop the ability to understand and see what it means for their team or organization to achieve key objectives or vision. In a way, it’s about connecting the dots where, many times, it seems there are no dots to connect. At the same time, strategic leaders don’t lose sight of the fact that it’s about more than just the vision.

I worked in an intrapreneurial “startup” role years ago, and, for the first year, the single focus and vision was launching a new media website that would disrupt the company’s target niche audience and quickly get to the #1 spot. The team eventually reached the goal through a mix of established relationships with the parent-company and a strategic acquisition, but it all came at a price. Burnout, high turnover, and significant quality issues arose as a result of the single-focus on the goal.

Strategic leaders don’t lose sight of the big picture while staying focused on the vision and objectives of the organization. This is essential when things don’t go as planned, and it goes hand in hand with the next trait of a strategic leader.

Strategic Leaders Are Always Several Moves Ahead

Leaders who think strategically are able to picture a range of possibilities several stages ahead of the current phase of the organization and its ongoing development. Strategic leaders are like a very good chess player – they can visualize several moves ahead across multiple variables and explore appropriate courses of action for each.

Steve Blank, entrepreneur, author, and father of the LeanStartup movement, reminds his audience that the best plans will never survive first contact with customers. Or, like Jeff Bezos says, “Any plan won’t survive its first encounter with reality. The reality will always be different. It will never be the plan.” A strategic leader can’t be so rigid and focused on the “here and now” or the action plan to reach a goal that he or she gets caught by surprise by the ever-changing variables common in every organization and industry.

Strategic Leaders Are Pragmatic

This is a tough characteristic to consider and put into practice when we live in a world of leaders like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs. But in most organizations, unless you are a CEO with “carte-blanche” from your board or the majority shareholder, strategic leaders can’t lead with their heads in the clouds.

Strategies we develop as leaders need to drive tactics that others on the team will have to engage and succeed with in the real world. That real world, many times, includes people you did not hire, upper management you don’t get to pick, and budget limitations you can’t magically make disappear.

Therefore, strategies we develop must be based on realistic appraisals of the environment in which the organization finds itself, the resources at its disposal, and the opportunities that appear.

This doesn’t mean a strategic leader doesn’t dream big or can’t radically disrupt and transform his or her organization. It just means that strategic leaders don’t ignore the realities; they must leverage the following 3 traits to overcome them.

Strategic Leaders Value the Power of Good Timing

Strategic leadership requires a keen sense of timing. Whether it be about making bold decisions earlier than others expect or having the patience to wait until the timing is right to make a major intervention, a strong leader uses timing to his or her advantage.

Strategic leaders have the boldness to strike decisively when the moment is right. Leveraging the power of timing requires open eyes and alertness to internal and external factors so that opportunities can be seized. Part of being able to leverage timing is having strong relationships with others in order to understand the larger picture and have the needed information to make timely decisions.

Strategic Leaders Are Future-Focused

This is probably the one trait I am most aware of in my own roles and the one I have found most important for my strengths and leadership qualities. Leaders whose current work is future-focused are more likely to be working strategically. Strategic leaders know how to invest their time in developing people and capabilities for the future of the organization while not ignoring the current needs of the organization.

This is particularly important when it comes to organizational digital transformation and marketing organizations’ digital maturation. Companies or teams going through the process of digital transformation have to continue “running the engine” while simultaneously taking decisive steps towards transforming into a different kind of organization or team. Knowing when to sacrifice “this is how it’s always been done” or “this has always worked for us” for “this is what our customers need” is never easy. When it comes to organizational design, or leading the process of digital transformation (something most leaders are involved in these days), being future-focused is absolutely essential. Justin Ferrell, the Fellowship Founding Director at the Institute of Design at Stanford University, says something powerful when it comes to being future-focused and how it relates to designing systems:

“Organizations which design systems are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the [existing] communications structures. If it’s your job to come up with new ideas, spend time with different people.”

These challenges are rooted in human nature, so strategic leaders have to look outside their own organizational paradigm (see last point) and recognize the opportunities for creative self-disruption for the sake of long-term success.

A big part of being able to lead an innovative organization is having the courage to recognize when existing “cash cows” in a product portfolio should be sacrificed for new disruptive ways to solve consumers’ needs. Making choices today for the benefit of the future organization not yet in existence requires vision.

One might argue that not every leader has to be future-focused. There are certainly many operational teams that appropriately need to be focused on today, but even those team’s leaders can and should be keeping an eye on the future demands of their internal or external stakeholders and the future needs of the team.

Strategic Leaders Work Well with Others

Strategic leaders are willing to work with others in alliance and partnerships (both internal and external) to make a bigger impact, reach common goals, and achieve the vision that would not be possible alone. The well-known Harry S. Truman quote is appropriate for this point: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” Strong and strategic focused leadership requires the humility to subjugate the leader’s need for recognition to make progress against the larger vision. And, as Justin Ferrell argues, working outside of your usual circles can bring broader perspective and insights that will fuel greater creativity and problem solving.

These are certainly not the only traits of strategic leaders, but they’re six that I’ve observed having a big positive impact. Having the above six traits flourishing and living in the culture of your organization through its leaders will allow you to reap positive rewards in strong talent retention, higher productivity, strong morale, and greater innovation. More importantly, strong strategic leaders drive the type of organizational advantage that is very difficult to imitate – a healthy and thriving culture.

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