Feature: The Three Pillars of Strategic Leadership

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Godfrey Owen, Deputy Chief Executive of Brathay, talks to Air Chief Marshal Sir Brian Burridge, Commander–in-Chief of Strike Command, about whether the skills and competencies required to be an inspirational leader in the boardroom are the same as those required on the battlefield.

Throughout any individual’s career, the pressure of the job is ever present and given the nature of modern life, is likely to be a continuing facet of the workplace. Arguably, the pressure increases the higher an individual rises in an organisation. For the people at the top, the decisions they make are fundamentally linked to the success of the business – so how do these people cope?

What distinguishes true leadership is the ability to retain clarity of both thought and action under intense pressure. Contrary to popular belief, individuals do not necessarily need to be born with this trait. Rather, it can be developed along with a number of the other elements that transform people into today’s strategic leaders.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Brian Burridge, who is a Trustee of the Windsor Leadership Trust, one of the few organisations which focuses on the development of the UK’s strategic leaders explains: “In the military environment, the stakes for leaders who are making important decisions are higher than in the business environment because ultimately we are dealing with human life. Viewed from the outside, people see the military and business environments as being very different, but when examined more closely, there are some striking similarities.”

Highest level
But what do we mean by strategic leadership? Strategic leadership means leading the whole organisation at the highest level and is certainly not just about focusing on the parts we find interesting or easy. As such, strategic leaders are more directly influenced by the external environment. The ability to ‘read’ that environment, devise an appropriate strategy and then put that strategy into action is a key requirement. Meeting that requirement is underpinned by four key competencies; intellect and confidence, empathy, energy and humility. These apply equally to the business world as to the world of military leadership.

Traits
Firstly, there is depth of intellect and confidence in your ability to deal with ambiguity. Leaders have to be able to look at chaos and find pathways through it. This can be similar to the patterns in a kaleidoscope and trying to make sense of them. Having recognised the pathway, strategic leaders need to produce a roadmap that can be readily communicated and understood by people at all levels within the organisation. If strategic leaders are to be effective communicators, they need empathy with their people. They need to understand what energises and motivates an entire organisation while, at the same time, understanding the uncertainty and fear that decisions might generate in some parts of the organisation.

It is important that strategic leaders possess high levels of energy and feel deeply passionate about their role if they are to keep up with the pace and continue to communicate with their people, as strategic leadership is intellectually and physically taxing. Although strategic leaders occupy the perch at the very top of the organisation, they cannot assume that they know all the answers. Therefore they need the humility to say “I don’t understand” or “does anyone have any other ideas”. Success often breeds arrogance but a strategic leader’s role is to boost the self-esteem of others for the benefit of the organisation.

Pillars
While many of the key competencies mentioned above are recognised and needed at lower levels of leadership, there are additional development requirements at the strategic leadership level. Sir Brian Burridge explains: "In my view there are three pillars of development. We should regard these pillars as being foundations on the bedrock of experience. But the key aspect is to contextualise this experience and extend its relevance across the broader horizons of strategic leadership. In this way, we can use experience and self-awareness to develop strategic judgement. This expertise in strategic judgment is, if you like, the capstone which sits on three pillars.

"The first pillar is represented by the need to develop deep technical competence in our professional discipline. This also means keeping up-to-date by, for example, reading articles in professional journals, attending seminars and maintaining a professional dialogue with colleagues. This is generally linear or left-brain thinking which most senior people find rewarding.

"The second pillar requires the development of both intellectual agility and confidence to approach problems from unexplored angles. In dealing with ambiguity and chaos, it is frequently necessary to conceptualise a problem so as to be able to see these elusive pathways through it. This activity is best done among small groups of like-minded peers thereby generating the recognition that others are also daunted by complexity. This, in turn, leads to acceptance that the risks associated with novel and creative thinking are worthwhile and results in confidence growing. This is very much right brain activity and is seen by leaders as stimulating and rewarding.

"The third pillar is an even more intangible activity. The result requires the blending of the other two pillars with wisdom, experience and intuition to match the individual leaders’ character and approach. The ancient Greeks would have termed this ‘phronoesis’. This is a very challenging form of development, which is best effected using one-to-one coaching. Skilful coaching allows the subject to draw together the threads for him or herself in the most appropriate way.

"I judge that all this is applicable to the business world. In both military and business circles, the path that strategic leaders follow to take an organisation through ambiguity and chaos has profound influence on the chances of long term success. The same is true of the strategic leader’s role in riding the organisation through shocks which would otherwise derail it."

Regardless of the business environment, in order for leaders to step up to the role of strategic leadership the three pillars need to be developed and built around experience and self-awareness. This will ensure that when making decisions under pressure, clear vision and clarity is adopted by leaders and this will ultimately set them apart from the crowd and place them on the path to becoming inspirational leaders.

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