While there are those people with the role of “follower,” most professional people in the modern world either perceive themselves as leaders or aspire to become one. But what is leadership, and what is strategic leadership? Can it be learned, or are we at the mercy of our genetic makeup?
Searching the web to uncover the meaning of leadership can lead to confusion rather than enlightenment.
You’ll find such pearls of wisdom as the action of leading a group of people or an organization, or the state or position of being a leader.
What is Leadership?
The best definition came from an article on Forbes.com by contributor Kevin Kruse:
Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.
To dissect that definition, turn not to the great leaders of history, but our personal experiences as children. In playing fields all over the world, children play a game called “Follow the Leader.”
Have you ever followed the leader?
In the game, children line up behind a designated leader and mimic the actions of the leader.
If you had the chance to study the influence process in a playgroup, you would find one child influencing the group.
That child is not the one at the head of the line in the game, but the one who suggested the game itself be played.
That child has no hierarchical authority over the other children. No one appointed the child as a leader.
Children in playgroups everywhere typically gravitate toward one individual for direction. Why do they choose to follow?
A child becomes the accepted leader of the group through his or her social influence. At the core of that influence is perhaps the most critical component of real leadership – vision.
If you have been meandering about the web in search of insights into leadership, the concept of vision should be familiar to you.
Vision is a mental picture of a future state.
The child leader paints vivid pictures of things to do and places to go. It might be a trip to a neighborhood park tomorrow or a game of tag today.
Based on the childhood experiences, another definition of leadership arrives….
To lead is to show the way to a place in a manner that makes others go along for the ride because they want to, not because they have to.
Is this true in the adult world? One only has to ponder the oft-repeated description of the essential difference between management and leadership.
Employees do what managers tell them to do because they have to. Employees do what leaders ask them to do because they want to.
Besides vision, there is another characteristic common to all leaders, be they, children or adults. While some call that ingredient charisma, the term magnetism is better applied.
Regardless of what you call it, true leaders have an aura that attracts followers even in instances where the vision may be moderately cloudy instead of crystal clear. There is something about them that draws others to them.
Can magnetism or charisma be learned, or do our genes once again handcuff us? What about the vision? How does one create a view that is meaningful, realistic, and attainable? Where do you begin?
Are leaders born or made?
While some claim “leaders are born, not made,” there are specific steps to transform people from followers into leaders; from professional technicians into leaders; and from managers into leaders.
While worthy of a more in-depth discussion, there are two points to begin further exploration.
The first is that a sound vision of the future, more often than not, begins with a sense of dissatisfaction with things as they are.
The second is that followers are attracted to leaders they perceive as one of them. In truth, there is often a substantial gap between leaders and followers in many ways – income, educational status, and personal backgrounds come to mind.
The more a leader can do to close that gap, the more he or she becomes closer to being “one of them.” Think of the great military leaders of history.
Visiting the front lines during battle is a common practice of great military leaders; one which goes a long way towards minimizing the leader-follower gap.
To return to the original question – can leadership be learned; the answer is yes.
What is Strategic Leadership?
Some specialists say that you can be born with some traits of leadership. But it’s after you develop, adapt, and learn new skills further on when you make your leadership skills turn into strategic leadership. It’s also when you customize it to specific situations, environment, goals, and strategy.
Strategic leadership is the process of using tactics to communicate and influence a vision for an organization and its people to reach the goals.
As to the question, how can this be done, return once more to childhood experiences? Children learn much by simply watching others. If you are interested in developing strategic leadership skills, an excellent place to begin would be observing what great leaders do.
Lessons from Great Leaders
The Civil War General Robert E. Lee is considered to be one of the greatest military leaders of all time. Historians tell us his troops would have followed him anywhere.
Believers in the contemporary “Law of Attraction,” which states that like attracts like might find this puzzling.
In almost every way, Lee was markedly different than his front-line soldiers – education, experience, cultural background, and social status.
Despite these differences, Lee had the kind of personal magnetism, or charisma, which only exists in the dreams of far too many supposed leaders in all walks of contemporary life.
So what was his secret?
We think the answer rests in a singularly notable event in his storied career. It was the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864 when the fortunes of the Confederate cause were spiraling lower and lower.
Lee reportedly began to gallop forward with the apparent intent of leading the charge. Soldiers surrounding him began to chant, “Lee, To the Rear,” and reluctantly, he turned back amidst the cheers of his troops.
Those kinds of actions serve to close the gap between the lofty credentials of a leader like Robert E. Lee and the common men who followed him. In essence, Lee and other great military leaders throughout history who were not reluctant to go to the front caused their men to see them as “one of us.”
What is the lesson for us in the modern world?
Leadership is a well-studied topic, and even if you do a cursory perusal of the literature, you will reveal in almost every “cookbook” list of the ingredients of leadership – trust.
Social psychologists tell us we humans tend to trust people who are similar to us in some dimension. Let us turn to some contemporary leaders to drive home the point.
Strategic Leadership Lessons: Sam Walton
Although some view Walmart with skepticism, there is much to be learned from this company’s early years, under the leadership of its founder, Sam Walton.
In November of 1980, Walton sent a personal letter to his managers with his thoughts on the management of people. We found the following paragraph to be particularly illuminating:
“As ‘managers of people’ we need to put ourselves in others’ shoes. We should try to understand their needs, desires, and strivings from their point of view. Only then will we be able to motivate associates by appealing to their drive to become better individuals and more productive associates.”
Strategic Leadership Lesson #1: Treat Your Employees as Partners
First, notice Walton’s choice of the word “associate” to describe his employees. In his eyes, front-line employees were not merely workers, but rather partners in the business enterprise.
At that time, Walton had a profit-sharing system in place to encourage his “associates” to feel and act like owners of the business.
Strategic Leadership Lesson #2: Put Yourself in Other Shoes
Second, notice his warning to his managers to “walk a mile in the shoes” of their associates. When employee “associates” see leaders who seek to understand the front-line worker’s point of view, what do you suppose that does to the leader/follower level of trust?
Walton adopted other practices designed to minimize the leader/follower gap. In a world where executive leaders enshrine themselves in lofty penthouse offices, richly furnished, Walton’s offices were modest at best with plain desks and chairs.
Walton’s managers did not travel first class, nor did they stay in the best hotels, practices followed by Walton himself. There was no corporate jet, and Walton’s choice for a company car was his beloved red pick-up truck.
Today Walmart remains the top retailer in the world with second place occupied by a company founded by another great contemporary leader. The company is Costco Wholesale and the founder and now retired CEO is Jim Sinegal.
Strategic Leadership Lessons: Jim Sinegal
Strategic Leadership Lesson #3: Listen
In today’s world, there are plenty of “leaders” who proudly claim their door is always open, but who surround themselves with a phalanx of handlers to protect them from interruptions.
Not so, Jim Sinegal, whose office was in one of the Costco headquarters hallways, without even a glass wall to separate him from those who wanted to stop by for a chat.
Even as his company grew, Jim Sinegal roamed his stores talking to both employees and customers alike, seeking their feedback on company operations.
There is more to earning trust than working to minimize the leader/follower gap. Keeping yourself consistent will help you along the way.
Strategic Leadership Lesson #4: Stand by Your Convictions
Great leaders dare to stand by their convictions. Jim Sinegal roundly rejected the criticism he received from Wall Street financial analysts for failing to control employee costs.
Sinegal responded it was good business. Was he right?
Strategic Leadership Lessons: Lee Iacocca
Some of the young among you may be wondering just who is Lee Iacocca. He first caught the nation’s attention as an executive at Ford Motor Company responsible for the introduction of a car that was to become iconic – the Mustang.
His strategic leadership skills became more apparent when he took over the struggling Chrysler Corporation in the late 1970s and returned that company to profitability. Iacocca’s achievements were enough to merit consideration as a candidate for President of the United States in the early 1980’s.
In 2008 he authored a book entitled “Where Have All the Leaders Gone?” In the first chapter Iacocca outlines his 9 C’s – essential ingredients for great leaders. Here they are:
- Show Curiosity
- Be Creative
- Be a person of Character
- Have Courage
- Have Conviction
- Have Charisma
- Be Competent
- Have Common Sense
Iacocca’s thoughts on strategic leadership are as relevant today as they were during his illustrious career. Let’s highlight how he explained each of these leadership qualities.
Strategic Leadership Lesson #5: Show Curiosity
A standard definition of curiosity is the desire to learn or know about anything. Iacocca indeed emphasized the need for leaders to read extensively and explore the world around them.
But he went further. His notion of curiosity included the idea of leaders actively seeking ideas different than their own.
Curiosity in Iacocca’s world involved listening to people outside of what he called the “Yes Sir, crowd in his or her inner circle.”
Strategic Leadership Lesson #6: Be Creative
Creativity is the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships.
Iacocca views creativity as thinking outside the box in search of new ways of doing things. He sees creativity as essential to the ability to manage change, another requirement for exceptional leadership.
The need to adapt to change is even more important in contemporary times, given the exponential change in the digital world.
Strategic Leadership Lesson #7: Communicate
Communicate is to share or exchange information, news, or ideas; which is another strategic leadership quality where Iacocca goes beyond the traditional. In his world, the quality of the information exchanged is paramount.
Some leaders share ideas they think people want to hear. Iacocca strongly believes leaders need to share things people need to understand, no matter how painful. In short, he is an advocate of the kind of truth-telling characterized by the phrase straight-talk.
Strategic Leadership Lesson #8: Be a Person of Character
Character is the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.
For Iacocca, the kind of character great leaders need to exhibit is not only the ability to discriminate between what is the right thing to do and what would be the wrong thing to do, but also the courage actually to do the right thing.
Strategic Leadership Lesson #9: Have Courage
Courage is the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, or pain without fear.
Here is yet another example where Iacocca’s viewpoint goes beyond the norm. For him, courage is the willingness to sit down and talk to others and then take a position that might well be unpopular, but it is the right thing to do.
Strategic Leadership Lesson #10: Have Your Conviction and Get Things Done
Leaders need to create their own convictions to develop strategic leadership in the right way.
But what is a conviction? Conviction is a firmly held belief or opinion. But keeping a point of view or opinion is not enough for Iacocca. Leaders need the passion, or as he puts it, the “fire in the belly” that pushes them to translate a conviction into action.
Great leaders are driven to get things done.
Strategic Leadership Lesson #11: Have Charisma
Charisma is a compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others, which we can see as the willingness of people to follow a leader.
For Iacocca, the charm has nothing to do with it. It is a matter of trust that inspires people.
Strategic Leadership Lesson #12: Be Competent
Competence is the capacity to do something successfully or efficiently.
Iacocca again goes beyond the efficiency of leaders to include in his definition of competence, the ability of great leaders to surround themselves with people who also can do things efficiently.
Strategic Leadership Lesson #13: Have a Common Sense
Common sense is sound practical judgment that is independent of specialized knowledge or training.
Iacocca was a trained engineer. Also, yet for him, great leaders need the ability to reason in the real world as much if not more than they need extensive formal education or training.
Iacocca’s laundry list of the characteristics of great leaders has a thread that makes it stand above most of the other strategic leadership recipes you can find.
That thread is in every one of Iacocca’s nine C’s. It is related to the ability of great leaders to step out of themselves to involve other people and ideas in the world around them.
Strategic Leadership Lessons: Steve Jobs
The lives of history’s most revered leaders are often fruitful sources for anyone looking to develop strategic leadership. That approach can be clouded by the way the word “leader” is used. The driving force behind the massive success of the Apple Corporation – the legendary Steve Jobs – provides an example.
In terms of his business accomplishments, it is hard to argue that Jobs was not one of the greatest leaders of all time. Under his stewardship, the Apple Corporation, formerly known as Apple Computer, has grown to the largest company in the world by market capitalization.
Apple is a publicly-traded company, and market capitalization measures the worth of a company by the values of the shares owned by the public. Apple is now worth twice the valuation of what was once the largest company on the planet, Exxon Mobil.
Having said that we need to point out that the term “leader” is assigned to anyone and everyone that heads a corporation or even a sizable semi-autonomous division within.
Indeed, throughout the world, people placed in hierarchical positions of authority over others are referred to as leaders. In far too many cases, some of these so-called leaders are anything but.
If you have already been searching the Internet for characteristics of great leaders, you know a common thread is how the leader treats the members of his or her team.
- Leaders, we are told, remain calm and steadfast in the face of crisis.
- Leaders need to maintain a positive working atmosphere.
- Leaders need to treat those who follow them with respect.
- Leaders need to provide candid performance feedback to allow followers to grow and improve.
- Leaders need to recognize the achievements and accomplishments of their followers.
- Leaders need to take responsibility for their own failures.
Since his passing, the legacy of Steve Jobs has come under intense scrutiny as academics, authors, and even filmmakers sought to cast light on how Jobs did what he did. If you have delved into what many have to say you know he violated many of the precepts great leaders generally follow.
The Dark Side of Steve Jobs
Although Steve Jobs was brilliant, some of his leadership traits were far from a great example to other leaders.
- His temper was legendary, with frequent tirades aimed at his followers.
- He was known to blame others for his own mistakes.
- He did not provide performance feedback, formal or informal.
- He reportedly took credit for the accomplishments and ideas of others.
This is hardly the picture of the warm and supportive leader most of us aspire to be. So how did he do what he did?
Many of the bullet lists highlighting the ten or seven or five characteristics of great leaders fail to include what we consider an essential element of all great leaders – vision.
Strategic Leadership Lesson #14: Vision
Jobs had a vision of an interconnected world on the go. He moved the Internet from our desktops into our pockets. What’s more, he was incredibly passionate about that vision, and that passion translated to his followers.
Yes, he may have been challenging to work with. However, Job’s pursuit of excellence and his insight were enough to keep his followers on board. Think about that for a minute. Silicon Valley is full of technology companies that would eagerly welcome any disgruntled Apple employee.
Job’s success is clear evidence most of his employees were inspired enough to stay along for the ride. In short, based on his vision, passion, and pursuit of excellence, Steve Jobs was a great leader, in our view.
He was once asked about his sources of vision. What was the secret of his creativity? His response was that vision is a product of broad experience. Here are his own words on the subject:
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”
Strategic Leadership Lessons: Mark Zuckerberg
Similar to Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg always had a strong Vision as well, which has been reinforced and well-known to all his employees:
“Our mission is to make the world more open and connected. We do this by giving people the power to share whatever they want and be connected to whoever they want, no matter where they are.”
Mark Zuckerberg is arguably the most successful of the modern world’s many hi-tech entrepreneurs. Because the Zuckerberg’s around us create highly successful companies, many of assuming they must be employing effective strategic leadership.
Today Zuckerberg is acknowledged as an exemplary leader, but in the early days of Facebook, one of his executive team members found his leadership to be “not working for him.”
The well-documented story about Facebook says the world recognized the potential of the company, but Zuckerberg found himself besieged, not only with accolades but with suitors looking to buy his creation.
Zuckerberg withdrew from contact with his employees to the point of disappearing. Employee morale suffered amidst the lack of communication about the future of the company, most notably about a possible sale.
To deliver her critique of his strategic leadership, Facebook recruiter Robin Reed had to track down Zuckerberg in a dinner at 2:30 in the morning. It was there she delivered her forthright critique beginning with her frustrations and those of his employees.
Then she offered her cure, telling Zuckerberg,
“You’d better take CEO lessons, or this isn’t going to work out for you.”
There are many traits shared by great leaders, the most difficult of which may be the ability to admit you are wrong. Some call it Humility.
Strategic Leadership Lesson #15: Humility
Humility means you are willing to face up to the fact you do not have all the answers. Therefore, you are eager to listen to feedback from others without feeling personally attacked. Also, it means you are capable of adapting to changing circumstances, revamping your strategic leadership if needed.
Zuckerberg responded to this middle of the night critique with quick action. He began regular meetings not only with his executive team but also with all employees.
He sought out advice and counsel from some of the world’s best leaders, including Steve Jobs and Warren Buffett. The rest, as they say, is history.
Zuckerberg has evolved into a great leader, exhibiting numerous characteristics of a strategic leader. Another critical trait and maybe one of the most common to leaders is the passion for what they do.
Strategic Leadership Lesson #16: Passion
Some entrepreneurs lose the Passion they once had for their creations when success comes to pass. Indeed, the business pages are full of stories of successful start-up companies being gobbled up by larger competitors.
For some, the goal appears to be “build it, and then take the money and run.”
Not so Mark Zuckerberg. He remains passionate about his creation and is committed to the pursuit of his vision. He pushes himself and his employees for excellence in developing their products.
Another hallmark of Zuckerberg’s strategic leadership is Risk-Taking. In his own words:
“The biggest risk is not taking any risk. In a world that’s changing quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.”
Strategic Leadership Lesson #17: Teamwork
Teamwork is another of the leadership behavior Zuckerberg has learned to benefit Facebook. Being seen as part of the team is not always an easy task for leaders of large organizations.
The business of Facebook is coding programs, and despite his schedule, Zuckerberg works on coding a little every day.
The company he has built has a relatively “flat” organizational structure with employees grouped into project teams around areas of interest. Employees are valued based on their contribution to the continued improvement of Facebook’s product, not on impressive resumes or past experiences.
Strategic Leadership Lesson #18: Accountability
Accountability invariably ranks high on lists of effective strategic leadership. It is the willingness to accept responsibility for your actions. In the past days, when Facebook employees wondered about the future of their company, it was probably easy for Mark Zuckerberg to blame the environment around him for his failure.
He could have said the fault lay in the pressures from those who seek to acquire the company. Instead, this is what he said:
“It may not make you comfortable to hear me saying this, but I’m sort of learning on the job here. Almost any mistake you can make in running a company, I’ve probably made.”
Strategic Leadership Lessons: Richard Branson
If you want to improve our life and business through truly strategic leadership, you need to do things differently.
As mentioned before, one of the best ways to develop yourself is by learning from thriving people. The lessons are already everywhere around us.
The successful entrepreneurs of today are purpose-driven, super productive, pleased, and passionate about what they do.
They do big things with their lives and create products or services with which they help people and contribute to the world. One such person is Richard Branson.
The guy that’s most famous for Virgin Group, and who is always smiling no matter what. But there’s so much behind all that.
Not many people know that he’s responsible for around 400 companies, and he is one of the wealthiest people on the planet. He cares about his employees and customers to the point where he spends time with them whenever he can and is now working on making space tourism possible.
Definitely not the average way of thinking and living, right? He knows the right way to be productive, to reach for the stars (literally), and to have fun while doing all that. So here are some things you can learn from Richard Branson to improve your strategic leadership.
Strategic Leadership Lesson #19: Get Out There
He’s the best when it comes to personal branding. We all know his face, he’s always smiling, speaking to people, taking pictures with other famous entrepreneurs, visiting places, reaching out to influencers, and much more.
He’s created one of the most respected brands in the world.
And he’s the proud and friendly face behind it. As he admits, in the beginning, it was all about business, now it’s all about the brand. His work is his legacy.
He has achieved that by the power of diversification – he takes over small parts of big markets. His philosophy also includes always getting your face and name out there so that people can recognize you. So what can you do to improve your brand today?
Strategic Leadership Lesson #20: Be Open to Opportunities
He’s all about the new, different and better. He says that
“Business opportunities are like buses, there’s always another one coming.”
And we’re all surrounded by tens of them every day.
But it’s our job to notice them, to be open to them, and to do something about at least one now and then. Without taking action, no opportunity or idea can become a reality.
Strategic Leadership Lesson #21: Don’t Do it Only for the Money
Richard knows that happiness can’t be found in external sources. And too many people have lost in life because of that constant desire to find joy in material objects, destinations, other people, or else.
“Ridiculous yachts, private planes, and big limousines won’t make people enjoy life more.”
To be truly happy, you need to be present, grateful for what you already have and at the same time, work on what you believe in.
If you start your business with only the money in mind, instead of helping people, solving a problem, or being passionate about your field, you’re destined to fail.
Strategic Leadership Lesson #22: Have Fun
Life is a journey, after all. And if you can’t enjoy the current situation – whether you consider yourself successful or not – you won’t be able to feel good when you reach your next goal either.
“My general attitude to life is to enjoy every minute of every day. I never do anything with a feeling of, ‘Oh God, I’ve got to do this today.”
Richard Branson never stops having fun. He enjoys the moment, finds time for the things that matter, and doesn’t start a new business unless he cares about it. So that’s what he does differently in his daily life and career. And, from what we see, it works.
His work is proof that you can create significant and beautiful things while you work on what you’re passionate about and have fun at the same time. And if he can do it, so can you. What else can we learn about Richard Branson?
Strategic Leadership Lessons: Great Men in History
The great men in history and of today have worked hard to develop the right mindset, build successful habits, and do what no one else was willing to do.
Although not all of them are famous, we still feel the impact their work had on the people they inspired, and thus on the whole world. They are great leaders, and you can improve your traits of strategic leadership with them.
They not only do big things but also bring out the best in those who follow them and often create a whole movement.
They know how to touch people, to motivate them to take action and guide them on the way up. And they practice this type of leadership wherever they go, not just at work. The good news is that we can all be a little more like them. Here are eight habits great leaders share.
Strategic Leadership Lesson #23: Care
Such people are passionate about what they do. It’s a deep desire they have, that’s why they choose to connect only with those who have the same.
They often identify a problem and do everything possible to find a solution and thus make people’s life better and easier. They care, and that’s why they achieve their goals.
Strategic Leadership Lesson #24: Don’t Wait For Thing To Happen
Leaders know that waiting for the perfect time to take action is a mistake. There’s no better time than now. They get rid of all excuses and take the initiative while trying to do their best.
Strategic Leadership Lesson #25: Be a Role Model
Their actions speak for themselves. That’s why they often inspire generations and keep their spirits alive.
You can also be a role model; that’s your chance to contribute to the world. Start doing good deeds today, help people without expecting anything in return, and go after your goals no matter what.
Strategic Leadership Lesson #26: Adapt
The world is changing fast. And if you react slowly, or try to avoid change, you won’t get far. Great leaders know that. They’ve learned how to adapt to change, take fast decisions, and work with what they have.
Strategic Leadership Lesson #27: Don’t Believe in Luck
Such passionate individuals are famous for their determination and willingness to take responsibility for whatever life throws at them.
That’s why they don’t blame others, don’t think life is unfair, don’t come up with excuses or rely on luck. Instead, they make a plan on how to reach their goals and take action daily.
Strategic Leadership Lesson #28: Be Grateful
Gratitude helps you see the things you already have and thus realize you have so many reasons to be happy. We all live in abundance, and we just need to know it.
Leadership requires positivity and thankfulness too. And leaders focus on the good in their lives; they are satisfied even if nothing changes. But at the same time never stop working on what they believe in.
Strategic Leadership Lesson #29: Face Your Fears
The average person lives in a comfort zone and often stays there for the rest of his life. But there’s no happiness or success in it. And real life is outside of it. Leaders do their best to break free from it at an early age.
The best way to do that is to confront what you’re afraid of. However, do it without thinking or overanalyzing, but by merely facing your fears and thus dealing with them. That builds character, which will later be essential for achieving your goals in life and guiding others.
Strategic Leadership Lesson #30: Don’t Let Failure Stop You
Failure may be quite the barrier on your way to success if you let it. But we all make mistakes. It’s a big part of our personal growth.
Some people, however, relive their failures, see them as defeats rather than a learning experience. And that’s why they don’t move forward.
Leaders know that failures are a great thing as they show them what not to do next time. It’s a priceless experience. And once you’ve made a mistake, you should take the lesson, let it stay in the past, and try something else.
Such are the main traits and habits of the great men who create, inspire, and guide others. Decide which one you’ll focus on first and start working on it right away. What other characteristics of a leader can you think of?
To differentiate between a true leader and someone with executive or managerial authority over others, we have only to look at why those purported “followers” follow the leader.
Authentic strategic leadership does not have to be hierarchical. Followers, or employees in a structured environment, do what true leaders ask because they want to. In contrast, employees do what executives and managers tell them to do because they have to. On the other hand, they do what great leaders ask them to do because they want to.
Great strategic leaders have unique traits and skills that have been either inherited or developed.
One of the most efficient ways of learning these skills is through observation and analysis of great leaders’ characteristics and accomplishments. In this article, you could have different generations that coincidentally (or not) have developed similar and potent leadership skills.