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When Being Strategic Is a Weakness

During a recent visit to a client company, I spent time with two different leaders whose initiatives weren’t progressing satisfactorily.

The first leader was chatty and made sweeping motivational statements. Her team was deeply committed, but their work had been dragging along at a slow pace, never meeting their growth targets. The second leader, who was less outgoing, was spearheading a new project that drew participants from various areas of the organization. The members of his ad hoc group were theoretically committed to the idea of the new project, but most of them were really protecting their own interests and departments rather than participating actively.

These leaders had run other projects successfully, had funding and support from the top, and could draw expertise from other groups almost without being questioned. So what wasn’t working?

Strategic Alliances: Not

When I met with these leaders to explore how they could accomplish their goals, what most struck me was that they didn’t just explain their work or the variety of challenges they faced. Instead, they each emphasized how strategic they were, and how others — particularly those who weren’t cooperating fully — were not.

To hear these leaders talk, you would think that “strategic” meant smart, qualified, and deserving of success. They both attributed their problems to other people’s lacks. And each used “strategic” to explain that they knew what they were doing.

Because they were so convinced of their own rightness, they didn’t seem to consider it their responsibility to persuade others to behave in ways that would generate the results they needed. In fact, it wasn’t clear if they even knew how to generate the results they needed.

Strategic. Planning. There’s a Big Difference.

What they did know was that they had a plan of action in mind, and a clear idea of how things — and people — should work. And they firmly believed that merely having ideas — rather than relying on someone else to make decisions — made their leadership, by definition, strategic.

I couldn’t help thinking of the scene in The Princess Bride when Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya challenges Wallace Shawn as Vizzini: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

My judgment? These folks were tactical, with conviction. Neither of them appeared to hold any kind of long-term or big-picture context. Neither of them took into account what the company needs to accomplish. They both focused on their projects as if they were the most important things happening in the company, rather than particular sets of activities that needed to be integrated into the company’s other initiatives.

A Strategic Defense or the Defense of Real Strategy?

Interestingly, most people who truly are strategic don’t describe themselves that way. They just think their thoughts and do their work, integrating their efforts into the larger picture, keeping both the future and their impact on others in mind.

Unfortunately, it’s become such a status prerequisite to be considered strategic that some people assume that strategic competence is conferred with their titles, whether or not their behavior justifies it. They get too caught up in their own PR instead of focusing on what’s going on around them or how to work well with other people and events.

You don’t have to be naturally strategic to lead well. Depending on your role, you may not even need to be strategic to be successful. But it helps to know the difference between being strategic and having opinions about what to do next — and to understand the match between your real strengths and the part you’re actually expected to play.

Onward and upward,


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