Have you ever heard a colleague announce, “I’m a strategic thinker!” or defend their methods or process by claiming, “But I’m being strategic!”?
Maybe I’m dealing with too small a sample of leaders at a variety of levels, but I’ve never seen anyone become more successful, gain more respect, or get promoted more quickly just because they say they’re strategic. Yet I often hear people insist that they’re strategic, sometimes forcefully, when what’s really going on is that they’re feeling overlooked or not getting the cooperation they want from others.
Who Is a Truly Strategic Person?
We usually think of strategy as having higher status than implementation. That’s because people tend to assume that you have to have a big idea before you can go to work on it. And certainly there are almost 10 times as many books (at least on Amazon) published about strategy than there are about implementation.
But people who truly are strategic don’t announce it. They’re too busy asking lots of questions like “What’s going on here?” and “What is it we’re trying to accomplish?” They intentionally consider factors that are not under their control, and continually question their own assumptions. They always want to know what would make things better. They wonder “Are we working on the right things?” and “What’s the best way to do it?”
Strategic people’s impulses are qualitative, and they’re generally open to new information and input from others, even if they haven’t asked for it. They propose alternative structures and conclusions before whittling their way back to a single approach. And since they try to account for what’s likely to go wrong, they have a Plan B, C, and even Q if necessary.
Truly strategic people don’t think of strategy as a tool of force. It’s a way to establish context and think about what’s important, so that they can line up their plans and tactics and explain how everything will work.
Watch Out! Strategy Coming Through!
Most people who say they’re strategic announce it as a defense against not being taken seriously or as a gambit to forestall noncompliance. Their questions establish tasks and requirements; they seem to focus more on “Why aren’t you doing X?” and “When will you give me Y?” and “Who is going to handle Z?” — all just tactics, positioned as absolutes.
What the people who claim to be using strategy really are saying is: “I have a plan that I want us to follow, and I want it followed a certain way.” They’ve thought about how the various parts go together, and they’ve decided what they need from whom and how they want others to behave. Often, they’re only open to input that dovetails with what they want, confirms their opinions, or helps them get the answer they need.
It’s almost as if they think ”strategic” is a more authoritative word for “planning” — or that it’s a way of describing thinking, as if having or coming up with a strategy is really just a highly businesslike way of saying you know what to do, and everyone should listen to you. Self-proclaimed strategic people use the label of strategy as a cudgel to get what they want or need from other people.
Are You Thinking Strategy or Teeing Up Tactics?
It’s hard to get much done if we don’t have sound strategy as well as careful implementation. But there’s no inherent virtue in being strategic or any inherent downside to being tactical. The value of either one depends on what the situation calls for. Most good leaders and managers can do both, even if they’re stronger in one than in the other.
But if you notice that you’ve developed a habit of telling people you’re strategic, stop and reflect. Ask yourself if you’re concerned that you’re not being paid enough attention, or if you feel that you don’t have the clout you should. And then consult a colleague or friend who has been more successful at charting a course through challenging organizational seas. Perhaps they’ll help you figure out a strategy for being more credible and more persuasive. You’ll get more done, and you’ll feel better, too.