The Strategic Leader’s Work (Paying Attention)


Part 6 of a series on Strategic Leadership

In previous posts, we’ve been exploring one way to look at strategic leadership.  As a strategic leader, you’re in shape to bring your best self to the game, created a team of committed leaders who are executing on both their own responsibilities and looking out for what’s best for the entire enterprise, and created a compelling vision that tells the story of the future you’re all striving to create.  You’ve created some intentional practices around important reflection time and you’ve established the framework for the organization that clearly identifies its key structural components and linkages.  So now what?

  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. Identify what matters most
  7. Commission teams to run experiments to begin to answer the question to fulfill the vision

You may have noticed that I’ve reduced my original list of ten to seven and incorporated them into the “Identify what matters most” categorization.  This includes:

  • Determine what needs attention in a VUCA environment
  • Frame the strategic questions we need to answer
  • From those questions, establish a Leadership Agenda
  • From the Agenda, determine our current priority.

“The main thing is to keep the main thing

the main thing.” – Stephen Covey


Determine what needs attention in a VUCA environment

I’ve noticed a phenomenon with many leaders during the past few years.  They’re constantly responding to external or internal events, often waiting for the “crisis du jour” in order to jump into (re)action.  While this is important work, it’s not leadership.  They’ve become terrific “fire fighters” but poor strategic leaders.

Being able to navigate the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) environment is important. It’s equally important to establish direction and organizational priority in the midst of VUCA in order to be proactive in the face of the storms that turn us into master reactors.

 Frame the strategic questions we need to answer

While spending some time at the U.S. Army War College (Carlisle Barracks) during the 1990’s, Dr. Herb Barber, a faculty member, was kind enough to become a mentor to me in strategic leadership.  His criteria for determining if something was strategic or not – did it have a “textbook” answer or not? If there was no known “answer,” then the issue was strategic by definition.  If there was a standard answer or process to produce a predictable outcome, then it wasn’t strategic; it was tactical.

During this same stretch of time, I presented to an international association meeting at the University of Connecticut on developing strategic plans for smaller businesses.  While there, I had the chance to have lunch with the head of AT&T Europe.  I always like to meet interesting people and am always amazed how open they are to meeting and answering my questions.

I asked this gentleman, “What’s the most important thing you’ve ever learned?”  His answer: “The Answer Book!”  I was intrigued and somewhat puzzled and asked him what he meant.

He told me that, as a young manager in AT&T in the United Kingdom, he was always amazed at how his boss seemed to know the answers to the toughest questions and so he wanted to get his job so he could get his boss’s “answer book.”  He worked diligently and eventually got the promotion, only to find that the boss took the book with him.

This began a quest for successive promotions, in search of the “holy grail” answer book, but with each subsequent promotion, he found that each of his predecessors failed to have the basic courtesy of leaving him a copy or a map to find where it might be.

Finally, he reached the pinnacle of his career and realized – there is no answer book!

So, if strategic leadership is about answering questions that have no answer book, then framing the right questions is a critical job for the strategic leader.  But what is a strategic question?

I’ve worked with non-profits, entrepreneurs, school district and school boards, small-to-medium sized businesses, and some large, multi-nationals.  Every one of them has big, juicy questions that they’d love to have answered, but few of them are clear on what those questions are, what’s important, and what it takes to answer them.  They exist like a fog covering the organization.  For example:

  • How will we face an uncertain funding stream?
  • How will we know which line of business is the “right” one to pursue?
  • What will we do if an unexpected competitor appears with a better value proposition and offer than we do?
  • What should we do to respond to tragedy?
  • What innovations will help position us for the future?
  • How will we attract and retain the right people?
  • What are we doing that we should no longer be doing?
  • Of all that we could do, what must we do to thrive in the future?

Strategic questions are the heart of a strategic leader’s work and he or she should be keeping a journal with the questions that emerge throughout the day, week, month, and year.  If you don’t frame the questions, who will? If you don’t keep a record of them, you’ll think about them and they’ll go into the ether of your brain, never to resurface again.

From those questions, establish a Leadership Agenda

As a senior leader, it’s often difficult to remember the questions we are confronted with, but one of the traps of leadership is having too many priorities and not being able to accomplish them because of your lack of clarity around focus and the often-resulting low energy causing the leader – and the organization – to be “distracted” (think of the times there’s been a lot of activity and competing commitments based on individual agendas).

According to, an “agenda” is “a plan, organized by time, of events or things to do.”  Creating an agenda for your leadership moves you from being reactive to proactive and allows you to set intention for where you’re headed.  It also serves to align your organization and its leaders around a common direction and reduces the inevitable wasted efforts on work that’s not results-oriented or produces results not vital to the organizational mission.

To create a Leadership Agenda, consider the following steps:

  1. What are the big questions that you’re having to answer?  The strategic issues that if you were to answer them would enable you to advance towards your vision; the questions that have no textbook answers?
  2. Keep these in a journal – a handwritten journal. Some great articles will help you understand why handwriting them is preferable and more effective:
  3. Review these lists of questions and begin to identify which ones (5-7) need answered for the organization to continue to accomplish its mission and move towards its vision. Begin listing them in their order of importance.


From the Agenda, determine our current priority

“Priority” was a word that had its origin in 14th century France and originally meant, “the most important use of your time and resources.”  Then, in the early 20th century, some knuckleheads (most likely American Industrial Revolution leaders) got together and pluralized the word.  Now organizations have multiple (often competing) “priorities.”  Everything can’t be a “priority.”

I once worked with a company to help them develop their strategic plan and we went through a six-session process over three months to establish why they existed, where they were, where they wanted to be, and how they planned to get there.  We purposefully limited the goals to three because I had been part of an organization that once produced 49 goals and 150 action plans – and spent the year writing variance reports on why we weren’t getting anything accomplished.

A year later, the CEO called me and asked if I would come and do another round of planning.  Before agreeing to this additional work, I asked him what the results were on his previous plan?  How did they do at completing their plans to reach their goals?

“We didn’t get any of them accomplished,” he said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“We had a lot of priorities that popped up during the year.”

“How many?”

“Our list is currently around 150.”

“How many of those have you successfully completed?”

“None, really.”

As a strategic leader, it’s imperative that you be able to sort through all the competing “priorities” that can take you off-track, freeze your progress, or derail your best intentions.  One of my favorite coaching quotes is, “What we focus on expands.  Energy follows intention.”  You can’t continually shift your attention and expect to generate any kind of organizational momentum.

Here’s one way to consider paring your list to setting a priority:

  1. From the strategic questions, create the priority
    • What’s your priority?
    • Priority – the single, greatest use of your time and resources (this may change, sometimes frequently, depending on the business you’re in)
    • For the sake of achieving what?
  2. With all the questions and agenda items, leaders must exercise triage:
    • What must be done now?
      • Who has to do it?
      • Who else could?  (even if they can’t do it as well as that person)
    • What can wait?
    • What isn’t going to happen?
    • Who’s in your network of support who could help you think through this
  1. Remember that whenever you attack an issue:
    • Start with “why” (Simon Sinek has done some great work around this concept. Watch his TED Talk here)
    • Then go to “what
    • And finally get to “how” (the biggest mistake I see is when people go to “how” too quickly without answering the first two).
  2. Who would your “dream team” think tank be to explore this idea?  If you could invite anyone to talk about this issue, who would it be?
  3. What other big questions would you like to consider?
  4. How could you begin experimenting with “strategic thinking” time?  What’s one small experiment to try?

In my next post, we’ll finish this series by diving into these last three points and exploring some ways to create the answers to these strategic questions and address what the priority of the organization currently may be.

© Geoff Davis, 6/7/19

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