How Strategic Leaders “See” Differently
For strategic leaders, “seeing,” is about not only visual acuity but visual agility as well.
By Mike Hoban
Leaders who are purposefully strategic not only listen differently, but they also see differently. At first that might seem to be a metaphorical stretch, but we think it’s a practical distinction which describes leaders who transition from an operational to a strategic mindset and skill set.
Consider even the everyday language we use when we think about or talk about effective leaders who we consider to be “strategic.” They look for patterns and relationships. They see threats and opportunities. They focus on priorities. They see the big picture. And of course, they have some degree of a vision, a desired future state. The eyes have it…
Obviously, those are not practices that are exclusive to strategic leaders. Even the word “supervision” has Latin roots meaning to “oversee” or “look over.” But for strategic leaders, “seeing,” in the many ways that we’ll suggest here, represents a greater admixture in their leadership recipe for success. It is about not only visual acuity but visual agility as well. They are equally comfortable sitting in the balcony or in the front row of the theater.
The options for "seeing"
When we go to a theater performance there are advantages to sitting in the balcony, even if they are the cheap seats. The balcony affords us a view of the entire stage. We see all of the scenic context. We can note the interplay of movement between all of the players on the stage. We have an appreciation for the nuances of the lighting and of the music, which highlight mood and drama.
Yet, there are also benefits to sitting in the front row. All the detail becomes very clear—the facial expressions; the textures of the costumes; the three-dimensional qualities of the set. Even the footsteps of the actors moving across the stage can be discerned. Everything is right there and right in front of us even though it is difficult to see the entire stage at once and some things in the background might not be very apparent.
Effective strategic leaders are visually agile, then, in that they know for any given situation they might need to move from the balcony to the front row and then perhaps halfway back and then return to the balcony. Attention to detail is an important management quality—especially for operational leaders and becoming a more strategic leader doesn’t mean abandoning that competency. It simply means exercising that leadership muscle differently.
Leaders moving from operational to more strategic roles don’t have to be on top of all the details on all issues (even if that were humanly possible) but it does mean having the ability and the insight to know when to dig deep. It means ensuring there are other leaders at the table who do have all of the detail and who sit regularly in the “front row” seats.
It's about vision
The satirist author Jonathan Swift of Gulliver’s Travels is purported to have said, “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.” Although Swift was a master of poetic device, his statement doesn’t suggest that visioning is the stuff of mystics. Rather it is that ability of leaders to create a vivid picture in their minds of a preferred future and—this is of critical importance—to be able to describe that future in explicit enough terms to draw others to it so that they also can “see” it.
Let’s be clear—visioning is not the product of some rare, genetic gift. We do this all the time. Most of us can anticipate an exciting upcoming vacation to a place we have not been before, and we form a picture of the place or event in our mind’s eye. Ditto for when we are expecting a new baby or building a new house. But the strategic thinker pulls in many more variables into his or her vision, with a combination of possibilities and probabilities, facts and hunches, optimism and pessimism, and strategies and structures.
Leaders moving from operational to strategic roles should note that being an effective strategic leader means being able to work with other leaders to put into place a roadmap and set of enablers for achieving that vision. As Thomas Edison remarked, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” At all levels of the organization, leaders and associates alike should ideally not just understand the vision, they should be able to link their daily activities to that vision.
Understanding the "why"
You might be familiar with the allegory that allegedly took place in ancient Roman times where a wandering citizen came across a group of men in a clearing, swinging crude picks and sledgehammers, breaking up big piles of rocks. He asked one of the men what he was doing, and the sledge-wielding man looked at him and said, “What does it look like? I’m busting rocks.” Or the Latin equivalent, of course. Another man nearby on the crew was going about his sledgehammering with a greater sense of enthusiasm and so the wanderer asked him what he was doing. “Can’t you see—I’m helping to build a cathedral.”
Both men were engaged in the same work but the first only saw it as a task with apparently no understanding off the “why,” which the second laborer clearly understood. He understood the vision and the part he was playing in helping to make that vision a reality. And that is what good strategic leaders do—they not only have a vison themselves, but they are able to instill a sense of higher purpose in others by enrolling them in that vision. Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream” and dreams are like visions—they are vivid products of the mind’s eye.
Yogi Berra, a marvelous maven of malaprops, once said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” Strategic leaders do more than just watch.
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Mike Hoban is a senior consultant for DDI who works with executives in many different industries. He lives right off Lake Michigan and takes way too many pictures of lake sunsets.
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