“On becoming a strategic leader….”


“Surely leadership is leadership?” “Aren’t leaders born not made?” These are questions we are regularly asked. The answer, unhelpfully, is yes and no! We believe everyone has leadership potential, some more than others, but not everyone wants to, or is willing to, put in the work required to develop as a leader.

Added on 17 January 2017 by Colin Williams,Jill Flint-Taylor

Strategic leader

We also believe there is a step-change in the requirements of a leader when a person moves to a more senior and strategic role. The strengths that enabled someone to be successful in an operational role will no longer be enough. To use the famous phrase, “what got you here, won’t get you there.” 

Any analysis of operational leadership roles will highlight a well-established set of individual strengths, characteristics and behaviors such as confidence, good organization and planning, concern for others, and a willingness to make decisions. While these continue to be important, the consequences of over-playing some of these strengths become more pronounced in a senior, strategic leadership context¹. Being very organized can, for example, stifle the creative problem solving that is essential for developing strategic solutions. This means there are some fundamental changes in approach required to operate successfully as a more strategic leader.

Adaptability is an over-arching differentiator of successful leadership at senior, strategic levels. If, for the sake of argument, there are ten new requirements of a leader when he or she moves into a more strategic role (e.g. to think more innovatively, to tolerate ambiguity, to understand patterns in data, to …), different people will find different requirements easier or more difficult to adapt to. For example, one individual may easily see patterns in data but be uncomfortable with ambiguity and rush into decisions, thereby sub-optimizing or missing opportunities, while another may have a high tolerance of ambiguity but not easily spot patterns in data.

The challenge for developing leaders is therefore twofold: increasing their adaptability (or flexibility) to operate in different contexts or situations and knowing which aspects or elements of this flexibility will be easier or more difficult for them personally.

Resilience is a second major differentiator – one that has strong connections to adaptability. Again, while this is a general theme, there are huge differences in terms of what makes different people able to respond to challenge in a resilient way – and in terms of what causes people to feel under pressure in the first place. Knowing which changes in leadership requirements an individual may find easier or harder to adapt to helps them to respond to the pressures of senior leadership in a more resilient way.

These two themes are linked in Nick Petrie’s research² into leadership development where he talks about horizontal and vertical leadership development. Horizontal development is the acquisition of new skills and knowledge (which is important of course) but vertical development is increasing the leader’s ability to function effectively in different, difficult and unfamiliar situations. This ability is developed in different ways from ‘bolt on’ knowledge.

It is clear that sitting in a classroom acquiring new knowledge will not equip leaders to operate successfully in a strategic, senior role. Our approach to leadership development (as part of the Senior Executive Program) focuses more on the difficult challenge of building on established strengths while having the courage and flexibility to move quickly into a very different mode when the moment requires.

¹ Flint-Taylor, J. (2008) ‘Too much of a good thing?  Leadership strengths as risks to well-being and performance in the team’, BPS Division of Occupational Psychology Annual Conference

² Nick Petrie, Future Trends in Leadership, Centre for Creative Leadership, North Carolina, 2014