Strategic leaders depend on a series of abilities in order to make sense of the operational environment, define a way forward and ultimately compel others to follow. But the leader’s ability to deliver a strategy depends on a paramount quality without which there would be no first step in the strategic journey: courage.
Courage is defined as “the ability and willingness to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation”(1). Courage is circumstantial and thus has many faces. There is the courage to attack and the courage to defend, the courage to lead and the courage to follow, the courage to accept and the courage to deny, the courage to act and the courage to reflect. There is operational courage and strategic courage. Strategic courage is different from operational courage mainly in its required persistence. Strategic leaders have the natural inclination to take the long view, and consider the long term big picture often necessary for the survival of the organization. But implementing such a view takes time and exposes the leader to a series of intermediate risks. And taking on strategic challenges often seem to be superseded by more immediate requirements. This situation offers two paradoxes: one between immediate individual safety and larger organizational well being, and another between strategic needs versus the tactical (daily) requirements in the organization.
The individual versus the organization: The inherent risk of taking the long view can have a depressing effect on the development of the strategic thinker. However, the ability to think bravely is key to the long-term competitive advantage of an organization. And considering the long view is often essential to the survival of the organization. A Harvard Business Review article by Paul J.H. Shoemaker, Samantha Howlan and Steven Krupp names strategic leadership as the essential skill of management (2). They identify six skills six skills that enable leaders to think strategically and navigate the unknown effectively: the abilities to anticipate, challenge, interpret, decide, align, and learn. I think leaders must also be able to focus on the critical issues and think bravely through potential solutions.
The tactical versus the strategic: Strategic results differ from tactical and operational ones in time needed for results, magnitude of change, and consequences from the choices elected. They require persistence and reflexion. But the modern world is constantly bombarding today’s leaders with a barrage of trivial choices. Such issues dilute a leader’s focus on the bigger picture. And without focus, strategic implementation becomes victim to the immediate. When this happens, deadlines are missed, desired effects are not realized, and ultimate destination is lost. Scope creep sets in and the micromanagers and nay sayers win. Exhausted by such effects, leaders often start avoiding hard choice strategies with definite timelines and explicit tradeoffs. In turn, strategies become loose statements such as: “Industry leader in X” or ” most effective and efficient organization of its kind”. While aspirational goals are great guiding stars, they do not explicitly demand timeline discipline and metrics. Without such parameters, there is no strategic implementation.
How can leaders combat the time, effort and focus pressure and drive strategies along with needed tradeoffs? How can they break the two paradoxes they face? They can begin by recognizing and embracing the many faces of strategic courage. Here are a few:
The courage to take the long view: there will always be the temptation and reward of the immediate gain that does not support the long view.
The courage to make tradeoffs: according the Michael Porter of Harvard Business School, you do not have a real strategy until you said no to something.
The courage to seek insight before power: seeking understanding may take longer, but it will enhance your knowledge and increase your network in the long run.
The courage to accept outside criticism: learning and improvement are impossible without feedback but acceptance of criticism can be seen by others as vulnerability. It’s OK – accept it.
The courage to love your people and put your organization’s needs before your own: This should be the ultimate guiding star for your decisions.