Selecting the Best Type of Leadership to Drive Strategy

June 3, 2015

leadership drives strategy

Driving transformational change takes a combination of strategy and leadership. Strategy is necessary to ensure that the organization is going in the right direction. Leadership is necessary to translate the strategy into action.

As organizations and industries become more complex, strategic leadership also increasingly includes leading in a way that is best suited to a given context. Different types of leadership are appropriate for different circumstances. The best leaders adapt, applying a self-aware and intentional approach tailored to the situation.

In our new book, Leading with Strategic Thinking, we review a study of over three hundred individuals to understand what the most effective leaders do. Our analysis reveals several types of strategic leadership, each uniquely suited to a particular context. Sometimes strategic leadership involves leading through vision, navigating situations where the goal is clear but the path forward is still evolving. At other times, a situation requires more structure in order to make both the destination and the path forward clear. In these situations, effective leaders use a more directive style of leadership, applying a combination of formal structure and process to drive results. Comparing these two types of leadership illustrates the choices that strategic leaders face when determining the best way to drive results.

To drive results through structure and process, directive leaders focus on five things:

  1. They set direction, using process to ensure a rigorous evaluation of the situation, alternatives, and the best available way forward.
  2. They establish governance, defining roles, processes, and forums to 
manage strategy execution.
  3. They motivate others, inspiring teams and aligning incentives to get 
the expected contribution of individuals and groups.
  4. They monitor performance, using well-defined controls to maintain an understanding of progress and gain insight on potential risks.
  5. They intervene and adjust, overriding standard procedures when 
they see a need to prevent issues or repair damage.

In our experience, directive leadership is often misunderstood. The best leaders don’t simply tell their team what to do. Instead, they focus on creating an environment where objectives are clear and team members have what they need to play their respective role on the team.

In contrast, when the desired outcome is clear but the path forward is less obvious, strategic leaders apply a different approach more focused on articulating and driving vision:

  1. They monitor trends, with an eye toward disruption and an orientation to opportunities to gain leverage and challenge the status quo.
  2. They develop insight, forming and refining a worldview that anticipates opportunities to address problems in new ways.
  3. They design solutions, proposing ideas strategically aligned to address a changing environment in ways that differ from prevailing wisdom.
  4. They iterate, moving rapidly through stages of evolution and adapting their vision to accommodate new information or environmental change.
  5. They enroll others, using a variety of means and methods to advance 
their agenda and enlist others to share their view and lend needed support.

Visionary leaders use these key actions to advance strategy, focusing relatively less on formal structure and focusing more on actions that navigate an emerging landscape to bring the vision to reality.

The best leaders are conscious of when and how to apply these types of leadership. They apply directive leadership when results require structure to move forward, and they apply visionary leadership when the outcome is more clear than the necessary process. The most strategic leaders know how to read the situation and apply these options that best suit the organizational context and their overall intent.

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Different situations call for different types of leadership. Gain a full arsenal of leadership tools with these AMA resources and seminars:

About The Author

Aaron K. Olson is Chief Talent Officer at Aon plc, a global firm specializing in risk management and human resources. He is the co-author of the book Leading with Strategic Thinking and teaches graduate courses in the MSLOC program at Northwestern University. B. Keith Simerson, Ed.D. provides consultation, executive coaching and leadership development in the areas of strategy formulation and execution. He is the co-author of Leading with Strategic Thinking and four additional books including Strategic Planning: A Practical Guide. He teaches graduate courses in the MSLOC program at Northwestern University.

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