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Updated 24 Sep 2020

6 Strategic leadership types in business you can learn from

How can you lead in a way that sets up your business for future success, while still meeting current demands? You should leverage one or more of these six strategic leadership types. 

Nicole Crampton, 23 June 2017  Share  0 comments  Print

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To become a strategic leader is challenging, but in doing so, you will ultimately put your business in a more solid and advantageous position.

There are six different types of strategic leadership styles that you can try to incorporate into the way you run your business. Your goal, however, should be to incorporate all six in your decision-making processes, in how you run your company and in how you think about the world your business operates in.

Becoming a strategic leader won’t come easy. Less than 10% of leaders exhibit strategic skills, according to Forbes. This number is low enough that by incorporating these leadership styles within yourself and your top executives you could use it to gain a competitive advantage over the rest of your industry.

Learning and utilising strategic skills aren’t only used in times of growth. “During tough times, when resources are tight, it’s vital that you ensure those resources are focused in the right areas,” says Katherine Beatty, director of global portfolio management at the Centre for Creative Leadership.

Adding strategic leadership elements into your business can help you stay ahead of the curve no matter how your venture or the economy is doing.

Related: 6 Leadership styles you need to be the ultimate leader

The real reason you need to incorporate these six strategic leadership types

Leaders deal with pressure to make short-term profits and show the board, shareholders and investors immediate wins. By focusing on operational leadership, you can still lead with reduced focus; an executive says: “We’re running fast in many different directions.”

In addition, leaders who focus on the quick wins and short-term may find themselves paralysed or unfamiliar with far reaching, complex challenges. This scenario is becoming increasingly apparent, according Forbes.

Ask yourself, how can you lead in a way that positions your business for the future while still meeting current demands? You will need to employ different leadership skills.

“Strategic leadership requires us to think, act and influence others in ways that promote the enduring success of your organisation,” says Beatty.

Six strategic leadership types

Research by Wharton Business School and its consulting firm, assessing more than 20 000 executives to date, has identified six strategic leadership skills. When these skills are mastered and used in collaboration with one another they can allow you to think strategically, and navigate the unknown effectively.

Here are the six leadership types in business you can learn from and six successful entrepreneurs who already employ at least one:

1. Anticipate

A large percentage of organisations and leaders aren’t able to detect threats or opportunities on the periphery of their business. For example, Molson Coors Brewing Company didn’t see a growing consumer craving for low-carb beers. Another example; Lego management missed the electronic revolution in toys and gaming.

In contrast, strategic leaders are relentlessly vigilant. This helps them hone their abilities to anticipate, by scanning the environment for signals of change, according to Harvard Business Review’s report. 

Gil Oved and Ran Neu-Ner

Gil -Oved -and -Ran -Neu -Ner

The two entrepreneurs behind The Creative Counsel use this technique not only in their offering to clients, but also in their everyday operations. “When we present, clients ask for one concept. We give them three. That’s the way we approach everything. We literally want to leave our competitors so far behind we can’t even see them,” says Oved and Neu-Ner.

To ensure they’re plugged in to the threats and opportunities on the periphery of their business, these two entrepreneurs keep watchful eyes on their suppliers, partners and staff. “Suppliers, partners, staff – we proactively assist and find ways to grow people and their businesses,” says Oved and Neu-Ner.

They cultivate a good relationship with their suppliers to keep the channel of communication open. “We pay very quickly. We don’t generally ask for credit terms. We know that if we get them their cash quickly, it makes a huge difference to their business,” they say.

Improve your ability to anticipate

Know what’s happening in the rest of your supply chain. Keep the channels of communication open between your business and your customers, suppliers and partners, according to the Harvard Business Review’s report. This will help you to understand their challenges.

You’ll need to know your competitors position, how they’ll react and if they have anything up their sleeve. Conduct market research and business simulations to understand competitors’ perspectives, gauge their likely reactions to new initiatives or products, and predict potential disruptive offerings, states HBR.

You should use scenario planning to help you prepare for the unexpected. Another technique would be to analyse your fast-growing rivals. Take a closer look at their actions to ensure you aren’t missing out on something profitable.

Related: Developing leadership ability

2. Challenge

Strategic thinking business leaders challenge the status quo. These individuals don’t just challenge their industries, but also their own and others’ assumptions and encourage divergent points of view says HBR. This allows you to see beyond what others are saying and consider alternative ways of achieving success.

By using this leadership style, you can generate fresh solutions to stale problems and improve your strategic decision making processes. Harvard Business Reviews report helped a business leader implement the Challenge strategic leadership style; he now has even assigned a colleague to play devil’s advocate. This is to ensure there is always more than one point of view and ideas for solutions.

Marnus Broodryk

Marnus -Broodryk

Marnus Broodryk is a self-made millionaire, which he achieved by the age of 24. He worked his way through his studies, which put him in the perfect position to launch The Beancounter, an accounting practice that would help SMEs build bigger, more sustainable and profitable businesses.

Broodryk’s vision for his business was simple. He wanted to take the boring out of accounting. Challenging the status quo by offering business owners real information from their financial data that would assist them assess what was working, which products/services were earning more, and where there were opportunities for growth or cost saving.

Improve your capacity to challenge

To increase your capabilities of challenging the status quo, focus your attention on the root cause of a challenge rather than just its symptoms. Sakichi Toyoda, Toyota Industries’ founder developed a technique called the Five Why’s to get to the root of the challenge. For example, “Product returns increased 5% this month.” “Why?” “Because the product intermittently malfunctions.” “Why?” and so on.

Another way you can incorporate this strategic leadership style is ask a diverse group if long-standing assumptions about an aspect of your business still hold true. HBR says encourage debate by holding meetings where open dialogue and conflict are welcome.

Consider, asking people who aren’t directly affected by a decision who may have a good perspective on the repercussions. This can help you gain the advantage of multiple perspectives and alternative directions.

3. Interpret

If you’ve challenged the status quo in the right way, you’ll end up with complex and conflicting information. HBR says instead of reflexively seeing or hearing what you expect, you should synthesise all the input you have. This strategic leadership style helps you to interpret what you’ve uncovered and lead your business forward in the best possible direction.

Being able to interpret will help you recognise patterns, push through ambiguity, and seek new insights. Former president of Finland, JK Paasikivi says: “Wisdom begins by recognising the facts and rethinking, them to expose their hidden implications.”

Peter Mountford

Peter -Mountford

Peter Mountford, CEO of Super Group Holdings is a clear user of the interpret leadership style. When Mountford was asked to come back to Super Group Holdings in 2009, it was to help the holding company regroup and become profitable again. He developed a turnaround strategy by using and interpreting all the data he had available to him.

“In a nutshell, you need to reduce costs, increase cash flow and improve your focus. We placed significant emphasis on cash generation and the need to get our balance sheet back to where it should be. At that stage, Super Group’s asset value was largely held across 16 lending banks,” explains Mountford.

From this they came up with a strategy to turn the holding company around and become profitable once again. “We needed to re-establish ownership of the underlying net assets of the business, which meant we needed to start making a profit. We spent three years focused on regenerating our three core business pillars, highlighting the importance of cash generation,” he says. Now, because of Mountford’s strategic business leadership style he was able to interpret what the business should do and where it should progress to, and it’s expecting a R30 billion turnover in 2017.

Improve your instincts to interpret

To improve your instincts when it comes to interpreting data, practice makes perfect. Harvard Business Review reports that when analysing large amounts of data, list at least three possible explanations for what you’re observing, and invite perspectives from stakeholders, or executives. This will help you to see all the possibilities, as well as understand where the data came from.

You need to be able to see both the smallest detail and the big picture. You should also actively look for missing information and evidence that disconfirms your hypothesis, to ensure you’re on the right track, says HBR.

Related: What leadership style are you and will it get results?

4. Decide

In challenging times, the decision makers need to make the tough calls with incomplete information, in a short period of time. HBR reports but these strategic thinkers insist on multiple options from the get-go and won’t find themselves in a premature, simplistic go/no-go scenario. These business leaders follow a disciplined process that balances rigor with speed, takes the trade-offs involved into account, as well as considers both short and long-term goals.

Ultimately you will need the courage of your convictions, informed by a robust decision process.

Vusi Thembekwayo

Vusi -thembekwayo

Vusi Thembekwayo, founder of Motiv8 Advisory and serial entrepreneur utilises multiple strategic leadership styles. But, to make fundamental decisions that will guarantee him success, he uses the decide strategic leadership style.

“They stumble on an idea and try to get going as quickly as possible. They start with A and jump directly to Z, which harms their chances of success. A great idea does not guarantee success. You need to develop that idea carefully and systematically,” explains Thembekwayo.

Improve your dexterity to decide

Ensure you have multiple options for every decision you make. This will help you make the best decision. The HBR says reframe your binary decisions by explicitly asking your team, “What other options do we have?”

Keep your team in the loop on where you are in your decision process. Are you still looking for divergent ideas and debate, or have you moved on toward closure and choice? Otherwise you could be coming to a final decision and someone throws a spanner, you forgot you already considered, in the works, starting the process all over again.

If the risks are high for the decision, consider implementing a pilot programme or experiment instead of making a leap, and make staged commitments.

5. Align

To be a successful business leader, you’ll need to be adept at finding common ground between those with disparate views and agendas. To make this strategic leadership style a success, you need to be proactive with your communications, trust-building and engagement.

If your colleagues/stakeholders/investors don’t understand your decisions, they aren’t going to back you whether the decision was right or not. Keep them in the loop; help them to understand why you’ve decided to do something and how you plan on implementing it. This will allow you to experience greater collaboration, and you’ll come to see that your colleagues are strategic partners rather than obstacles.

Richard Branson

Richard -Branson

The more you can help your team navigate each other and learn to deal with each other, the more successful your business will become. “Communication makes the world go round. It facilitates human connections, and allows us to learn, grow and progress,” says Branson.

Effective communication is more than just being able to speak, to make it in the entrepreneurial world, you need to “listen more than you talk,” he says. “If you aren't listening, you are missing out.”

Improve your adeptness to align

Communicate with your team to avoid the two most common complaints in businesses: “No one ever asked me” and “no one ever told me.”

Keep an eye on your critical internal and external stakeholders. Map their positions on your initiative and pinpoint any misaligned interests. You should also look out for hidden agendas and coalitions, advises Harvard Business Review. Using structured and facilitated conversations will help you to expose areas of misunderstanding or resistance.

Reward or recognise colleagues who support team alignment and help keep everyone on the same page.

Related: Nonkululeko Gobodo on leadership that brings change

6. Learn

A common trait among entrepreneurs is the fact that they are constantly learning, reading and exposing themselves to new concepts and ideas. You can use this strategic leadership style to promote a culture of inquiry, and search for the lessons in both successful and unsuccessful outcomes.

These successful business leaders study failures in an open, constructive way to find the hidden lessons. If you don’t promote a culture of learning from mistakes, your executives will go to great lengths to cover up their mistakes, which won’t help the progression of your business. Implement this strategic business leadership style to shift your company culture towards more shared learning and bolder innovation.

Nicholas Bell

Nicholas -Bell

Nicholas Bell, founder of Decision Inc. uses all of the strategic leadership styles in his business. To learn from obstacles, challenges and mistakes and move his business forward, he uses the learn strategic business leadership style.

“I don’t ever want a challenge to slow me down,” he says. “You can let a setback derail you, or you can use it as an opportunity to learn and carry the business forward. I believe it’s important to dissect everything — even opinions and advice I don’t initially agree with,” says Bell.

“Mentors have taught me that it’s important to be adaptable and that nothing in business is hard or fast. We’re constantly faced with new sources of data needed to grow our business, and I’ve learnt that the only real question is whether you’re willing to use that data to drive the business forward,” he says. 

Improve your love of learning

To improve your learning culture within your business, you’ll need to implement after-action reviews, document lessons-learned after major decisions or milestones, and broadly communicate the resulting insights. This will help your team to stay on the same page while ensuring that none of them repeats the same mistake again.

Cultivate a culture in which your staff are encouraged to inquire, and mistakes are viewed as learning opportunities.

To become a strategic leader, you should implement all six of these strategic leadership types, which will lead to a more solid, successful business. They can help you open up pathways of communication, understand and learn from mistakes and information, anticipate what your industry is going to do next and build a culture of inquiry. The more strategic leadership types you implement into your business, the more it will thrive and succeed.

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Nicole Crampton

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