Our last leadership article looked at the three characteristics of a strategic leader. Those being: charismatic, visionary and transformative. How are these characteristics developed though? And how does a strategic leader know when to use each one? Not all individuals are born great leaders, capable of influencing the masses with their words and actions. So how do individuals learn to become strategic leaders. When undertaking a critical review of the strategic leadership literature, Boal & Hoojiberg (2000), noticed three reoccurring elements of their behaviour: Absorptive capacity, adaptive capacity and managerial wisdom.
One of the biggest themes within leadership is how leaders push themselves. John Maxwell said that the hardest person he has ever had to lead was himself. Last month we noted how setting goals and achieving them was one way to improve how others perceive you as a leader. Learning is a foundation of leadership, and that’s exactly what Boal & Hoojiberg (2000) noticed. One thing that separated strategic leaders from others was their ability to learn. Not just in organisational fields, but also, in all aspects of life. Whether that’s by learning a new language or running a marathon, they constantly set themself new challenges, which will cause them to improve.
The second thing they noticed is already a well-documented phenomenon, not just in management. Charles Darwin’s (1859) seminal book “On the Origin of Species”, coined the term survival of the fittest. That’s exactly what strategic leaders are: individuals who have reached the pinnacle of the field, they are the apex predators of the business world. However, survival of the fittest does not refer to the strongest or the fastest, but to those with the highest capacity for change, or, those with the largest adaptive capacity.
Strategic leaders have the ability to adapt ingrained within them. However, not all leaders do. Companies that make the fortune 500 are some of the most powerful organisations in the world, with a wealth of resources at their disposal. When comparing the original list, with that of today, there are only 54 companies on both. This is only goes to show that even if you have everything you need to survive but fail to adapt to your changing environment, you’ll be a goner.
The last aspect they found was managerial wisdom: the act of knowing what to do and when to it. This seems rather paradoxical and a tad aloof, “they’re successful because they know what to do”, which doesn’t really explain how it’s developed and suggests that it could be down to pure luck. Knowing the right decision to make and when to make it, takes most leaders a lifetime of trial and error to achieve. However, the old maxim, “the harder I work, the luckier I get” is very applicable in this setting. The more you practice a skill, the better you become at it and the more experience you get in a variety of situations can really help.
Although experience is one definite way to learn the best behaviours, it’s not the only way. Take, for example, the Prussian statesman Otto Von Bismark, who stated, “only a fool learns from his mistakes. A wise man learns from the mistakes of others”. Which takes us back to Boal & Hoojiberg’s first observation of absorptive capacity, the ability to learn. If history repeats itself, and only moves in cycles, by reading and studying examples of environmental changes or business successes and failures we can learn when and what is the right course of action to take.
So, to develop the three characteristics of a strategic leader; visionary, charisma and transformational abilities, a leader needs to be constantly learning, from a wide variety of sources. They also have to be adaptable, changing their behaviour to suit the current needs of their situation. At times being a visionary, in some moments being influential or at others being a coach. Only through learning and experience will you discover when the right time to use each is.