Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Strategic leadership

As a result of fast changing nature of business, economy and technology change at large has become inevitable. Sooner or later each company has to go through change. Those who make change their way of working find it easier to succeed. It might be seen as a supplement to total quality management in form of continuous improvement - only this time, it is to keep up with the information age economy instead of improving quality at will. With the continuous change in progress ambiguity often accompanies change. To manage them both successfully, strategic leadership is seen as a resurrection of dying leadership. Instead of falling to the problems and failing, forming a strategic leadership ensures the survival of the company in line with the change that is being implemented (Phillips & Hunt 1992). A person leading an organization’s overall tasks is one of the key persons to have strategic leadership; this is something that differentiates a strategic leader from a traditional leader at most aspects and might include major projects or even total restructuring of the organization (Phillips & Hunt 1992). Strategic leadership is meant to affect the organizational conduct in general as well as effectiveness of the major tasks (Phillips & Hunt 1992). The ‘buzzwords’ from the mainstream do not generally give the core understanding of what strategic leadership really means or aspires (Keller 2003), the basic incentive for a strategic leadership is to set a good course for the immediate future and to successfully deal with the on coming hurdles on par with ‘strategic planning’ which takes into consideration, the long term ambitions and strategies (Keller 2003). Whether it is military leadership or a business organization, effective strategic leadership can avoid instability and uncertainty with the organization’s new priorities and takes the organization from its fight for survival to the strive for a greater success in terms of achieving the set targets (Phillips & Hunt 1992; Keller 2003). As a matter of practical implementation, strategic leadership is required to have certain qualities and skills which go in line with the leaders’ behaviour to achieve the targets.

Skills, qualities and behaviours

A strategic leader in essence has a lot of inherited pressure to deal with. The need for strategic leadership assumes crisis at many stages. In such circumstances, only those can successfully lead who have the ability to judge correctly and make educated guesses and decisions without any bias (Keller 2003). In most situations a strategic leader’s behaviour directly decides the outcome. With such influence on the overall results, a strategic leader that introspectively deals with the situation would lead the organization through the situation, not only learning from the process as a whole but also possibly correcting the organization’s mistakes retrospectively. Successful organization of the staff by interactive sessions and regular staff meetings to ensure that the staff is keeping up with the change and working as a team along with the leader’s facilitation and encouragement to implement the strategy in addition to planning out their own day to day strategies is a critical factor to accomplish the set targets (Keller 2003). Although based on leadership behaviour and skills, the leader can make use of certain tools and stock strategies - the leader’s ability to implement and apply such strategies can further be counted as a leadership quality. SWOT (Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis, for example, can determine what strategy the leader needs to implement in each scenario. The leader’s skill with the analysis will further determine how well he can place the situation in contrast with his leadership behaviour and qualities in order to rightly deal with it. This implies that strategic leadership is not just qualities and skills per se, but also the ability to recognize and appreciate the situation and its critical aspects (Keller 2003).

On contrast with managerial and visionary leadership styles, strategic leadership does not delve into day to day addendums or long term vision (Rowe & Nejad 2009). By having combined values of both these styles and lesser obsessions with vision or trivialities, the strategic leadership has more focus on more important issues that are affecting the circumstances with respect to near future; the ad hoc affairs when dealt with insight and capacity and focus on risk taking abilities in critical situations can turn the crises into an opportunity (Rowe & Nejad 2009). This makes strategic leadership more cognitive, perspicuous and ratiocinative as compared to the traditional styles in much graver circumstances (Rowe & Nejad 2009). The skills and qualities of a strategic leader on par with traditional leaders are often the same as the focus of analysis. This means, the skills that are needed to get through the market competition or a critical situation the organization is dealing with, should be congruent to the skills of the strategic leadership dealing with it. This does not mean that a specific, strict set of skills are needed - more subjectivity only helps attain greater insight - however, a simultaneous application of visionary and managerial leadership that involves delegation of power and voluntary decision making by the staff makes the discretion a tool to surmount the risks involved (Rowe & Nejad 2009).

One of the main aspirations of strategic leadership is to provide a unidirectional approach at all leadership levels. This fills in the gaps and provides continuity that removes the possibility of uncertainty at any level (Flowers 2004). Some ancillary skills of a strategic leader that would adequately poise a strategic leadership to assimilate the facts or predicaments that impede progress include consensus building, good understanding of globalization, innovative thinking, effective communication, negotiation skills and an insight for analysis of ambiguous situations (Flowers 2004). This also embraces the fact that the strategic leadership does not control information - rather shares it, does not conclude discussions - opens it, does not protect its turf - provides flexibility in negotiations and directly takes into consideration all implications in an educated way (Flowers 2004). Once able of such influence, the leadership can be seen fit for a range of organizations from military and political to business and education (Flowers 2004). A good strategic leader is not only interested in continuous improvement of the organization but also in the continuous improvement in the effectiveness of the leadership itself. By not ignoring any operational opportunities and skill acquisition opportunities for each leadership level as well as the staff, an environment of safety, deeper thought, ownership and focus will be actualized with optimized priorities (Flowers 2004; Miloff & Zachary 2012). The haphazardness and uncertainty that create chaos are removed by improved leadership skills. A strategic leader’s presence endures entrepreneurialism to set basis for risk taking and innovation with high energy levels in the staff and the managers (Miloff & Zachary 2012). Strategic leaders might be self learned or mentored, but the common personal development and recognition of risk management hand in hand with innovation makes the basis for breakthrough progress for the organization at each level (Miloff & Zachary 2012). Research on the topic has further divided leadership skills into ‘soft skills’ and ‘hard skills’ (Thomson 2009); the first set mainly comprises interactions with humans, communication, negotiation and collaboration while the latter is technical in nature and deal with activities like finance, budgeting and the long term strategic planning (Thomson 2009). In the turbulence of today’s economy, strategic leaders’ critical ability to maintain transparency while managing volatile market conditions as well as managing resources and satisfy stakeholders is of essence (Thomson 2009).

A CEO as a strategic leader is better defined as an entrepreneur than as a steward (Hargrove 2001); the aim is not to just bring equilibrium to the organization but also take risks. The modern advancements like internet and a connected economy do not threaten adequately equipped strategic leaders, rather they take it as an opportunity and take a plunge into the open door that invites the company to success (Hargrove 2001). In a connected economy of uncertainty and interdependence, managing the organization strategically is enables rapid deployment of corporate techniques to balance the worker motivation and business environment to ensure productivity (Hargrove 2001; Georgantzas & Acar 1995). The examples of those who have successfully managed organizations of different prospect; business and political alike, have known to have purposeful ideological concepts and management approaches that are not just theoretical but also support realistic and practical implications (Storey 2004).

Critical evaluation of an individual strategic thinker and leader: A case study

Operating at different levels and environments, strategic leaderships have a unique perspective; where some lead or even create nations, others have had the opportunity to take their businesses to exceedingly exalted levels. Most strategic leaders have also found in common the fact of leading by example. One of the leading examples of strategic management is Steve Jobs, the CEO and co-founder of Apple Inc. Founded in April 1976, the company was born at a stage where paradigms were shifting. Change of paradigm generally brings chaos and ambiguity at its peak (Taneja et. al 2013). With respect to management of a company, especially one that has just been created in a new field, the change of paradigm might be seen as a disruption against business development (Taneja et. al 2013). To understand how to survive in a dynamic environment with such challenges and increasing globalization, such challenges pose inadvertent difficulty towards delineation of the cause and effect as well as effectiveness of the management itself (Taneja et. al 2013).

Steve Jobs’s idea of strategic management can be glanced at by the surmise of his saying, “To turn really interesting ideas and fledgling technologies into a company that can continue to innovate for years requires a lot of disciplines.” (Thompson & Martin 2010). Looking at the inventory of required skills and qualities developed above, this comes in line with the fact that a strategic thinker and leader has to have the ability to survive change by learning. Steve Jobs’s idea of turning innovations into reality by involving the relevant disciplines brings in the need to effectively employ technocracy at leadership levels. Steve Jobs was responsible for providing special leadership skills to the company making it able to identify and nurture innovations that were well meant for the targeted market (Hitt et. al 2010). In a time of harsh economic environment and chaos with hundreds of companies around the world downsizing to stay ahead in competition or merely to survive the crushing market forces, Steve Jobs took the strategic spear head of Apple Inc and further increased the shareholder wealth (Finkle & Mallin 2010). While firing many employees, the company’s basis on strategic thinking served it to overcome the challenges presented by the economy. The innovation based approach of the company’s CEO, Steve Jobs, took it against the flow of the river. While the companies over the world decreased their spending, Apple made its policies to increase its funding (Finkle & Mallin 2010). The strategic oversight of the CEO provided the company the focus on product oriented research and development. This enabled to the company to come out much ahead of its competitors on the other side of the recession (Finkle & Mallin 2010). The cutting edge products developed by Apple Inc in the time of recession did not pull it down with the market influence. The strategic influence was rightly aligned with company’s ambitions. The product oriented innovation rejuvenated the company (Finkle & Mallin 2010). After his departure from the company Steve Jobs did not stop using his skills, he went on to create two more companies during which Apple’s transition through three CEOs and a drop to $ 2 a share further implied how Steve Jobs’s irreplaceable strategic thinking was the key to the company’s success (Finkle & Mallin 2010). His ability to take risks by not stopping the company spending during the recession and the entrepreneurship with respect to research and development against the current was the critical leadership quality that had pushed the company forward.

Steve Jobs’s approach towards business was not considered as mere business aggression, rather the ratiocinative approach of systematic improvement - a key strategic quality and behaviour - exemplified the company both in the advertisements and in the company’s brand personality in general (Finkle & Mallin 2010). On the negative side, the strategic leadership is not meant to control rather to empower, Jobs’s obsession with detail and control towards dictation of decision making - which were also thought to be his assets - were a critical setback in terms of strategic leadership (Finkle & Mallin 2010). This made him tangentially slant towards being an operational leader. Evaluating his return to the company his new concepts and strategic foresight put these setbacks in a dim light. His outsourcing of parts to other companies, another form of risk in a volatile market, reduced the costs significantly. As a result the company could engorge profits all along. The company, Apple, now has a ‘personal stamp’ of its co-founder, Steve Jobs (Gobble 2012). The extent to which the innovation and leadership skills were put into the company by Steve Jobs were unmatched. The strategic thinking put behind the company radically innovating in different fields and leaping ahead were a source of the company’s ability to be the market leader in technology (Gobble 2012). The company’s shift to user experience from product development further increased the chances of success. This change was clearly a strategic move which did not focus much on day to day details as well as long term missions. The simultaneous application of both routine and long term approach to balance the on coming products to create the best user experience attracted customers in groups of market segments at large (Gobble 2012). It might be said by some that user oriented innovation was no more the way to go and the design oriented approach was better, but the radical implementation of the approach by Apple under Steve Jobs proved the opposite (Finkle & Mallin 2010; Gobble 2012). Moving on to the international markets where the customer base was more ambiguous than ever due to the cultural diversity and complexity (Taneja et. al 2013), Steve Jobs recognition that he never understood the customer was another key quality that enabled him to unveil the truth and appreciate the consequences (Gobble 2012). Instead he chose to learn what the customer was trying to acquire (Gobble 2012), this enabled him to strategically develop products that were in fact what customers wanted but could not, at large, explain (Gobble 2012).


In order to achieve economic success in a cut throat competition and a market with crushing forces, core strategic competencies of a firm are a definite requirement (Birkner & Birkner 2001). These competences are only as good as the top leadership. Having, or forming, strategic leadership for a business aims to bypass the setbacks of operational and visionary leadership that tend to operate in a narrow vision and a steward like fashion respectively. The basic aim of a company to reach the mission is not really achieved by strongly guarding the reputation rather by taking calculated risks under focused strategic decisions to beat the competitors and the market forces simultaneously (Taneja et. al 2013). Acquiring the right kind of leadership that avails the opportunities using the qualities and strategic skills, continuously learning as leadership per se and as the company as a whole, the preset targets are just a start for the business or the organization. The competitive advantage that strategic thinking and leadership gains an organization is worth the risks that are taken and the effort that is spent on forming or acquiring such leadership if not inherited (Birkner & Birkner 2001). It can be concluded in the light of the inventory of qualities, skills and behaviors and the case study of Steve Jobs as an individual strategic leader, that feeling too comfortable with the flow of the river might save the company’s name and reputation, but will likely have the company fall like a tree in the forest unnoticed - taking risks on the other hand with strategic oversight is a sure way of leaping ahead (Birkner & Birkner 2001).


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