[March 31, 2020] It’s not easy to think like a strategic leader. To do so is not common. Strategic thinking is learned, is complex and often counterintuitive, and forces us to move out of the comfort of tactics. In this three-part series, I’ll be laying out a foundation on strategic lessons from great minds of the past. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t see these lessons being applied by successful leaders across the world. It’s time we all got in on the act.
Strategy, as either an art or science, is rarely taught properly. I’ve participated in many “strategic development” military seminars, civilian discussion groups, and university classes. What they all have in common is that nearly all of them, surprisingly, do not teach strategy. Most often, these attempts to develop strategic thinking are stuck at the advanced level of tactics and never move into true strategy. There is no need to go into why this occurs since I’ll leave that up to the reader to decide.
In the past here at theLeaderMaker.com, I wrote about strategy and those articles give a good background (see a few here, here, and here). I recommend reading them when you get the opportunity. The article titled “Great Strategic Blunders” is most enlightening. The theme of each of these articles is that strategic wisdom is developed through relevant experience and a proper formal education.
What follows are a number of the most important grand strategic lessons one can have and use. I give examples, as well as the name of one of the great minds that employed this specific strategy. Here they are, in no particular order:
- Don’t get Surprised: The job of a strategist is to know where you are and where you’re going. As such, seeing the big picture and obstacles is crucial. As we know, things don’t always go according to plan so be ready for what’s coming your way. S. Army General Matthew Ridgway distinguished himself as a strategic thinker in both WWII and the Korean War. A sign on his desk read, “The only inexcusable offense in a commanding officer is to be surprised.” This is similar to the Boy Scout motto “be prepared.” A leader knows the kinds of problems in planning for a major event but they should also be familiar with what may happen to throw the plan out of sync. There is never an excuse for a leader to get surprised by the enemy or competitor.
- Focus on the “What,” not the “How:” S. Army General George Patton once said “Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their ingenuity.” Patton had a knack for succeeding when others failed. Strategic leaders keep their eye on the ball if they plan to hit it. Such leaders never forget their goal. They constantly remind themselves what they are trying to accomplish. By keeping their eye on the ball, all things will come to them. As a young Army Lieutenant, I had a commander who told me to keep my mind focused on the mission because I certainly was not doing it (in his opinion). I worked hard not to get distracted by how my troops were carrying out the mission but more on what the mission was about in relation to our goals.
The next two parts of this series will not all fall together but I plan to have them out this week.