Strategic Thinking and Leadership: Are You Leaving Out What’s Most Important?

Susan S Freeman Blog

strategic

As an executive coach and consultant to entrepreneurial Founders, CEO’s and their teams, one of the most vexing challenges I often observe with clients is a perceived lack of time for strategic thinking.

According to an article by Dorie Clark in the Harvard Business Review, “In one survey of 10,000 senior leaders, 97% of them said that being strategic was the leadership behavior most important to their organization’s success. And yet in another study, a full 96% of the leaders surveyed said they lacked the time for strategic thinking. Of course, we’re all oppressed with meetings and overwhelmed with emails (an average of 126 per day, according to a Radicati Group analysis).”

When we do Leadership Circle 360 assessments within our client organizations, we know that “Purposeful and Visionary” are one of the highest correlates (.85) with overall leadership effectiveness, so clients know how critical this is for them as a competency.

The author asks the question: “What could account for such a massive misalignment between their stated goals and their actions?”

Barriers identified include “pressure to work long hours, which is often perceived as generating more loyalty and productivity.  Yet, “tethering yourself to your desk may help you power through more emails, but it’s rarely a recipe for innovative strategic thinking. In fact, research reveals that productivity decreases for those who work more than 50 hours per week. What seems to really power creative thinking, according to a Stanford University study, is activities such as taking a short walk, especially outside. But that behavior may well be penalized in a corporate milieu that prizes face time.”

Another barrier to strategic thinking may be internal.

At least in the United States, research shows, busyness is a sign of social status. As Silvia Bellezza of Columbia Business School and her colleagues put it, “By telling others that we are busy and working all the time, we are implicitly suggesting that we are sought after.”

So in the face of both external and internal pressures, what can leaders do to increase strategic thinking? I have discovered that simply creating space is most helpful.  I often invite leaders to create spaciousness through activities that shift their brains from the “usual” to “unstructured.”  Encourage walks, and especially walking meetings, in which innovative thinking is more likely than when sedentary.

The author also recommends the following:

  • Writing down all you have to do, so you” aren’t constantly interrupted by the feeling that you forgot something;
  • Creating a log of how you spend every half hour over the course of a month can be helpful. The main benefit would be to see if there are “tasks you could combine, defer, or outsource to help buy you an extra two hours per week — more than enough to step outside the daily hurly-burly and enter into the flow state of considering big-picture strategy.”
  • The final and most compelling part of the exploration is to notice how we equate “busy” with “important” in our culture. What if we could adopt another mindset that “is more conducive to deep strategic thinking. One alternative view, espoused by Derek Sivers, an entrepreneur and author, is that “busy is what happens when you’re at the mercy of someone else’s schedule.”

Consider shifting your mindset “from a marker of status to a mark of servitude.”  You can be busy, and yet still focus on taking charge of what matters most.

In order to create time for strategic thinking, it’s helpful to become aware of what gets in the way—seen and unseen barriers.  By doing so, you can become intentional and create the space for this critical function into your leadership.

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