The Strategic Leader’s Work (Part 1)

I am thankful to the Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit and Dr. Brian Barnhart for the opportunity to have clarified these ideas through presentations to both their senior leadership and their executive leadership teams during 2017.

“Where once we could count on the seeming certainty and predictability of binary choices… choices and consequences are now far less clear.” – Eric McNulty

In my last post, I introduced the U.S. Army concept of levels of leadership and specifically, strategic leadership.  What I hope to do in the next several posts is to expand on this often-confusing territory for leaders and provide a framework for you to be able to think differently about what strategic leadership is and what it takes to do it.

My tenth grade English teacher, Donna Couy, was a great writing teacher.  She would have us write an essay and then bleed comments all over it with her red pen, have us re-write it, bleed over it again, and re-write again.  When I first experienced this, I asked her, “Miss Couy, when will this be done?”  She looked at me and said, “Geoff, the work is never done, it’s just due.”

One of the main things I’ve learned over the years is that the work of a strategic leader is never done, it’s just due.  People change; organizations change; leadership challenges change; and a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) environment makes even the best plans irrelevant and confusing, but leaders must make important decisions about direction and solutions to the big unanswerable questions they face.

I’ve identified the following core responsibilities of a strategic leader (you may have more or see it differently; please let me know):

  1. Manage and lead yourself
  2. Create the team, generate their commitment, and get clear on who’s responsible for what.
  3. Set the vision
  4. Intentionally set time aside for thinking
  5. Establish the organizational framework and continuously connect the dots to fulfill the vision
  6. Determine what needs attention in a VUCA environment
  7. Frame the strategic questions we need to answer
  8. From those questions, establish a Leadership Agenda
  9. From the Agenda, determine our current priority
  10. Commission teams to run experiments to begin to answer the question to fulfill the vision

1. Manage and Lead Yourself


“Rest and self-care are so important.  When you take time to replenish your spirit, it allows you to serve others from the overflow.  You cannot pour from an empty cup.– Eleanor Brown

 “Successful leadership depends on the quality of attention and intention that the leader brings to any situation.” – C. Otto Scharmer, “Theory U

One of my clients recently shared this with me: “Physically, I’m a mess.  I’ve spent so much time taking care of everyone else.  Now it’s time to take care of me.” His self-assessment could apply to many of the leaders I’ve known.  It even described me for a large portion of my professional career.  But his declaration – “Now it’s time to take care of me” – is the starting point of defining a different future.  But where does he start?

Our culture traditionally has taught us to put ourselves last, don’t get a big head, be humble, sacrifice yourself for the good of whatever cause you’re involved in.  While some of those concepts certainly are admirable, they come with a cost.  My mentor when I was a young businessman in my 30s once cautioned me against my tendency to be a workaholic.  He said, “Geoff, the day you die – and that day may be sooner than we’d like to see – and they erect your statue out back, within a few months, the only ones who will remember you will be the pigeons who roost on the statue.”  It was sobering.

I’d like to suggest a radical idea that goes against everything we’ve been taught culturally – that we have to take care of ourselves so that we can play our game at the highest level.  When you get on an airplane and the flight attendant is going through the preflight procedures, at some point he or she will say, “In case of emergency, a mask will drop from a container in the airplane ceiling… Put your mask on first before helping anyone sitting with you…”  If you run low on oxygen, you have little chance of helping others.  Supply yourself with good air and you’ll be in better condition to deal with those around you.  It’s the same for our lives and our leadership.

There are many reasons why we don’t take care of ourselves – family time, work responsibilities, exhaustion, social commitments, saying “yes” to every request – all convincing reasons that we make up and tell ourselves in any different way to live, “I’ll be acting selfish.”  “I can’t take time to do that because there are other things more important.” “I wasn’t raised that way.”  We put ourselves and our well-being last – and that has long-term, often catastrophic results.

In a recent Harvard Business Review post, Brigid Schulte addresses some ways to take care of yourself.  In it, she points out, “…surveys show that managers and executives describe the ‘ideal worker’ as someone with no personal life or care-giving responsibilities… A majority of leaders themselves – the ones who set the tone for organizations and model behavior for everyone else – think work-life balance is – at best an elusive ideal and – at worst a complete myth.”  Some of the effects of this approach to living and working are illness, anxiety, depression, lack of free time, fatigue, lack of attentiveness, relationships that go bad.

However, Schulte points out that there are some leaders who have figured this out.  “…pioneering leaders were really good about taking vacation, being able to turn off work, connecting with their families and friends, and returning [to work] refreshed.”  And the benefits are more than just personal.  “When you get leaders to behave differently, it sends a signal to the rest of the organization that they can behave differently, too.”

She quotes a bank executive who decided to live and lead differently, “I don’t think you have to work like a crazy person to get ahead.  I just think, in the time you are working, you have to learn to be effective.”   What we see – our role models – shape what we think is possible.  What are you modeling for your team and those in your organization?  What are they learning by observing you?  Or are you too busy to be bothered thinking about this?

In the February 2002 issue of Harvard Business Review, Bruch and Shoshal authored an article, “Beware the Busy Manager.”  In a ten-year study of managers, they found that “managers who take effective action (those whom make difficult – even seemingly impossible – things happen) rely on a combination of two traits: focus and energy.” Focus is “concentrated attention – the ability to zero in on a goal and see the task through to completion.”  Focused managers aren’t reactive; they’re intentional.  Energy is “the vigor that is fueled by intense personal commitment.” Energy is what pushes managers to go the extra mile when tackling heavy workloads.  This kind of focus can only come through personal practices that put you in the driver’s seat, not the crisis du jour.

Focus is a critical skill in strategic leadership.  It’s the direction the organization is heading and the initiatives that deserve time and resources.  Warren Bennis has defined four competencies for leaders (“An Invented Life: Reflections on Leadership and Change,” Chapter 5):

  • Management of attention – they communicate an extraordinary focus of commitment, which attracts people to them. They manage attention through a compelling vision that brings others to a place they have not been before.
  • Management of meaning – to make dreams apparent to others, and to align people with them, leaders must communicate their vision. Communication and alignment work together.
  • Management of trust – trust is essential to all organizations. The main determinant of trust is reliability.
  • Management of self – knowing one’ skills and deploying them effectively. Without it, leaders and managers can do more harm than good.

Successful leaders manage their attention and their intention.  In every interaction, they are present, open and engaged.  In which practices do you engage on a regular basis?  Which might be a good one to start with or add to your practices?  How might you begin to do that?

While focus is an essential component of leading people, energy is the other component that combines with focus to make you more purposeful.  (see my post on Energy, for more on this topic).  Creating and sustaining energy is a core, fundamental practice for effective leadership, yet is often relegated to the “I’ll get to it when I can” list of wishful thinking.  Leaders often believe that energy “just happens” or worse, happens from caffeine, sugar, or energy drinks.  But it’s a personal responsibility; no one else can do this for you and it doesn’t “just happen.”  A leader’s energy determines what he or she is able to accomplish and sends a visible, observed, often-unintentional message throughout the organization about the model and norms of behavior.  Creating and sustaining energy can only be accomplished through physical, relational, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual practices.

The Making of a Corporate Athlete”  by Loehr and Schwartz is another classic Harvard Business Review article that addresses some of the components of creating the energy required to create “sustained high performance in the face of ever-increasing pressure and rapid change.”  If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend spending a few minutes reading and thinking about it.

Managing and Leading Yourself is the foundational practice that each leader must make a priority in order to show up fully energized and focused in order to do effective, successful strategic work.  So make sure your air mask is firmly fastened before you’re off helping others.

Next post, we’ll examine what it takes to create the team you need to do the strategic work.

© Geoff Davis 2/15/18


One thought on “The Strategic Leader’s Work (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: The Strategic Leader’s (Part 2) –

Leave a Reply