Recently I led a strategy meeting for the Association for Strategic Planning, Los Angeles Chapter (ASP). What made this exercise unusual is that even though I am the President of the Chapter, I was not the greatest of strategists in the room. In fact, there were several proven strategists who had more experience in me in the area of strategic planning. Moreover, I am a CPA, a profession that usually doesn’t embrace strategy and deals in the past of historical financial statements. So, what is a Strategic Leader?
Cynthia Montgomery’s article How Strategists Lead in the McKinsey Quarterly addresses this question. She offers a few points on what makes a strategic leader:
- Meaning Maker: “It is the leader–the strategists as meaning maker–who must make the vital choices that determine a company’s very identity…” There is more to this than strategy charts. The leader has to tap on the personal gifts of key people to implement the vision.
- Voice of Reason: “A leader must serve as a voice of reason when a bold strategy to reshape an industry’s forces reflects indifference to them.” At the ASP meeting, we chose not to “check the box” strategy style. We asked the hard questions to arrive at our vision.
- An Operator: “A great strategy, in short, is not a dream or a lofty idea, but rather the bridge between the economics of a market, the ideas at the core of a business, and action.” Inadequate implementation is the single biggest failure of strategic plans. The blame would seem to fall on the leader, but leaders, too, sometimes have limited power in corporate culture.
- Consistency and Follow-thru: “…facing an overhaul can be wrenching, particularly if a company has a set of complex businesses that need to be taken apart or a purpose that has run its course.” I recall so many “systems” of implementation that are just a regurgitation of the same cyclical analysis. You think, plan, act, re-assess, think, plan, act, reassess, etc.
All of this is fine, but what really makes an effective leader? Jim Collin’s book, Built to Last answers that in five steps:
- Level 1: Highly capable individual
- Level 2: Contributing team manager
- Level 3: Competent manager
- Level 4: Effective leader
- Level 5: Executive
It seems Ms. Montgomery’s article stops at Level 4 which Mr. Collins defines as a person who “catalyzes commitment to and vigorous pursuit of a clear and compelling vision, stimulating higher performance standards.” Mr Collins goes a level higher which defines Executive as a person “who builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.”
Mr Collins seems to go beyond the function of an individual and focuses on his or her attitude. A lot of his book dealt with those leaders who humbled themselves to lead by serving. Any small business leader should keep this in mind. As Mr. Collins puts it, ” Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company.” In other words, their ambition is for the company, not for themselves.