Developing the mind of the strategic leader

Developing the Mind of the Strategic Leader

Six important strategic leadership characteristics and how to develop them.

Until thought is linked with purpose, there is no intelligent accomplishment. – James Allen 1

Leadership has never been so competitive.

What separates good leaders from great ones?

It all goes back to their thinking.

Much has been made of execution 2,3, and rightly so since no success can be achieved without executing well.

But there can be no executing well without planning well, and there can be no planning well without thinking well.

That’s where it all begins.

For leaders to be effective and strategic, they must do the hard work of thinking.

This article seeks to help leaders sharpen their strategic capacities by providing six pathways to excellent thinking.

1. Think Prophetically

Woman sitting on the dock at sunset, thinking deep.

Author Annabel Beerel makes the provocative case that strategic leaders need to think prophetically. 4

In saying this, she makes an analogy between the modern leader and the biblical prophets who were “gifted with profound moral insights and exceptional powers of expression, chosen by God to ascertain and communicate his will; prophets raise awareness, inform, admonish and call to account. Translated into business terms, this means a reawakening or revisiting the commitment to integrity, honesty and service, to customers, staff, shareholders and
the environment.” 5

This is to say the leader needs to think deeply about the values of the organization, what are they passionate about, what value do they add or bring, and most importantly why does the organization exist.

Thinking through these questions is crucial to pinpointing the purpose of the company. Once ascertained, priorities and programs can be initiated which reflect the mandate of the organization as Ackermann and Eden articulate. 6

This means the leader as prophet is tasked with locating the “north star” of the company, where to head and how to get there. They must act as the compass of the organization.

The leader as a prophet also acts to confront the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of an organization.

As Beerel states,

The modern day prophet, as in the past, is concerned with actions and consequences, proactive to their occurrence. 7

In this role the business prophet acts as a quality control manager, seeking to insure the quality of the organization’s goods and services are up to par. They are there to uphold a standard and to enforce it.

Additionally, as the leader thinks prophetically, they are “charged with holding the complexity of tensions in balance, of understanding the important and relevant questions, and revealing trade-offs associated with pursuing various courses of action.” 8

This means the leader must act with wisdom and sound judgment.

They must be able to weigh all the influencing variables that affect their organization and come to a clear sense of what to do or not to do.

All said, the prophetic leader is one that can think broadly, deeply and nimbly.

2. Think Empathetically

Photo of 4 people on the beach, each holding out their hands to spell "LOVE".

David Pollitt, editor of Human Resource Management and International Digest states leaders need “empathy with their people. They need to understand what energizes and motivates an entire organization while, at the same time, understanding the uncertainty and fear that decisions might generate in some parts of the organization.” 9

Leadership implies followership. Leaders must be cognizant and aware of their stakeholders and those affected by their decisions.

As Ackermann and Eden write,

Stakeholders are those who have a stake in the future success or failure of the organization — those who can deliberately ‘make’, ‘break’ or ‘shake’ the success of any strategic action; those who have the power to affect what happens. 10

By thinking empathetically, the leader does well to minimize potential turmoil among subordinates while maximizing buy-in. This is being appropriately aware of the bases of power at work, and represents the proper way to engage in “stakeholder management.” 11

Additionally, empathetic thinking enhances the leader’s persuasiveness and communicative ability as they incorporate and embed the audience’s feelings and potential reactions into their statements. 12

This is crucial to building momentum and enthusiasm for any newly announced initiatives that requires change.

3. Think Humbly

Three women sitting by flowers, all smiling and having a humble conversation.

Part of a leader’s strength is their weakness.

While it is their responsibility to know much and be well advised before decisions, they need to also be self-aware of what they do not know. They need to be humble enough to admit others may know more, and that outside input is needed.

Hughes and Beatty argue leaders must embrace a learning process in which they give themselves to a continuous cycle of assessment, understanding, journeying, and checking their efforts; 13 all which requires a posture of humility.

Maxwell writes part of how a leader improves their thinking is to “expose oneself to good thinkers. If you want to be a sharp thinker, be around sharp people.” 14

Adopting this practice requires leaders to esteem and respect others who may be better thinkers. This requires an open and humble attitude.

4. Think Comprehensively

Thinking deep

A broad thinker who can assess a circumstance from many angles enhances their authority to lead strategically.

Blind spots become minimized while seeing the full picture is maximized.

Hughes and Beatty call out five skills that are foundational to thinking comprehensively, what they call the “artful nature of strategic thinking.” 15

  • Strategic thinking requires synthesis as well as analysis.
  • Strategic thinking is nonlinear as well as linear.
  • Strategic thinking is visual as well as verbal.
  • Strategic thinking is implicit as well as explicit.
  • Strategic thinking engages the heart as well as the head.

These five points illuminate the full range of left-brain, right-brain activity that is essential to thinking well about complex, layered scenarios.

In essence, it’s learning to think in “3D.”

Additionally, Hughes and Beatty identity five areas in which the above faculties are applied: 16

  • Scanning.
  • Visioning.
  • Reframing.
  • Making common sense.
  • Systems thinking.

Scanning is the ability to look out and see the landscape or the “horizons” facing the company, and the organization’s capacity to face the future. This involves internal as well as external evaluations.

One well-known assessment that represents scanning is the SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunity, Threats). 17

Visioning represents a view of what the organization can do and become. 18

In many ways, the ability to cast vision and paint a picture of an exciting future is the leader’s most potent weapon.

Victor Hugo said,

An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an invasion of ideas. 19

Benjamin Disraeli stated,

Nurture great thoughts, for you will never go higher than your thoughts. 20

Vision represents not just the capacity of a company to achieve something but the potential to do things never imagined.

Visioning creates the momentum and enthusiasm an organization needs to go all out.

As Jack Welsh says,

The hero is the one with ideas. 21

Reframing is the ability to re-contextualize or restate a problem or situation.

It involves seeing things in a different light or defining things in a different way.

For example, Starbucks began as a typical coffee shop until CEO Howard Schulz made a trip to Italy in 1983 where he was taken aback by the plethora of espresso bars all around the country.

In pondering this Schulz realized people were not just looking for coffee, but an experience – a gathering place. 22

At that moment, Starbucks was reborn. Instead of being just a retailer of coffee, it was on its
way to becoming the “third place” between work and home. 23

Schulz’s ability to reframe his company’s mission turned Starbucks into a global brand.

Making common sense is about making the complex more simple and articulating the rationale behind things. It is helping people see the value and purpose of fast-changing business environments. 24

It is about helping people stay grounded.

In this sense, this competency is about being “Comforter-in-Chief” or “Chief Shepherd.”

Systems thinking is the ability to understand how a decision impacts an organization up and down the chain. 25

It sees ramifications and implications of a decision and weighs the costs of executing on a new idea.

Strategic thinkers don’t think in a vacuum or behind closed doors but place themselves in the real world of their compatriots across departmental lines.

These skills and competencies are essential for a leader to think comprehensively, which in turn helps the leader to make intelligent strategic choices.

5. Think Creatively

Thinking in a creative way.

In many situations, problems and difficulties represent a prompt for the leader to think creatively.

In SWOT language, it would be how to convert a threat into an opportunity.

Professor Stan Abraham of Cal Poly Pomona refers to this as an opportunity to “stretch one’s strategic thinking,” 26 for which he provides five ways to practice this:

  • Be successfully different.
  • Emulate entrepreneurs.
  • Find new opportunities.
  • Be future-oriented.
  • Be collaborative.

Being successfully different is about how to differentiate your company from another.

Abraham states,

Differentiating is a means of playing a different game or playing the same game differently, one that hopefully only your company can win. 27

Failure and setbacks help leaders to think differently about how to achieve success, which then fires the imagination to think about how to operate and execute in new ways.

Emulating entrepreneurs refers to adopting their “can-do” attitude. Entrepreneurs have a certain positivity and resilience that makes them push ahead and pop back up after a defeat. 28

Abraham describes the mindset of the entrepreneur in this way:

The one irrefutable difference between them and everyone else is their ability to see opportunity everywhere they look. They have an innate ability to scan the world for opportunities and look beyond the conventional. 29

This idea of “looking beyond the conventional” is the idea of thinking creatively and out of the box.

As Taco Bell likes to say,

Think outside the bun!

Finding new opportunities is related to implementing creativity sessions in a systematic way. 30

The purpose of doing this is to stay ahead of the curve instead of waiting for circumstances to hit could the company that could diminish revenues. Why not look at the present for new opportunities that could mitigate future downturns.

Future orientation or scenario planning is a research-based discipline to forecast what circumstances an organization may face on the horizons. 30

The foresight to utilize creative thinking as a hedge against future negative circumstances is a strategic move in and of itself.

While no one can accurately predict the future, the key value of this approach is to build awareness for future situations and to build potential contingency or operational plans.

For example, the microprocessor chip has doubled in its capacity roughly every 24 months in accordance with Moore’s Law. 31

Technology companies making products that rely on such chips — from smartphones to computers to fighter jets — can then project out how products may be developed based on such timelines.

Being able to think creatively about the future provides an important competitive advantage.

Collaboration between two organizations, whether in the form of a joint venture, cross-licensing agreement or shared resources, 32 can make strategic sense.

Sometimes two are better than one.

As well, collaboration between a company and their customers can also be of great value.

The advent of social media has greatly opened up this channel.

For instance, American Idol uses nationwide text voting to decide the winner, instead of relying on a traditional panel of judges.

Such engagement represents creative new strategies that raise brand awareness and curry stronger bonds with the customer.

These kinds of collaborations never existed before, but creative thinking capitalized on these new digital technologies and social media tools to make this happen.

The creative mind is a problem-solving mind, willing to look outside existing paradigms and practices to fix situations and open new areas of opportunity.

Without creative thinking, strategic leadership can easily stagnate and prove ineffective.

6. Think Clearly

Thinking clearly

Much of the hard work of thinking well is cutting through the noise to identify and distill down what is truly at the core of things.

Why are we doing this? What is the purpose of that?

Leaders must engage in bottom-line thinking.

Maxwell says,

Think of the bottom line as the end, the take away, the desired result. 34

When the mission is clear, priorities also become clear; managers know what to do and what not to do.

Not only is there positive affirmation of how to deploy “energy, cash, effort and emotion,” 35 but there is clarity in what not to deploy.

The idea of strategic neglect or purposeful elimination becomes a powerful tool in the hands of leaders, helping them to set, cancel or redirect resources when it doesn’t align with the organization’s overall mission.

The work of thinking clearly takes sustained focus and discipline.

Hughes and Beatty write,

Managers have to devise ways of tricking themselves into regularly thinking about the important rather than the urgent. 36

Harry Overstreet states,

The immature mind hops from one thing to another; the mature mind seeks to follow through. 37

The corollary to this is immature leaders hop from one thing to another, while the mature strategic leader will follow through until high definition clarity is reached.

When this happens, the potential of an organization can be unleashed because “humans are purposeful and employ choice in attempting to realize their goals.” 38

In other words, the clear mandate of a leader releases the people in an organization to be synchronized to the larger goal.


Do something great

From these six ways of thinking it can be seen how the thought life of a leader is the wellspring of a company.

It’s what will set them apart from other leaders.

The thoughts of the leader act as the plumb line for the organization.

Yes, planning is important. Yes, execution is important. But thinking well is at the foundation of it all.

When thought is linked with purpose, there is intelligent accomplishment. 39

About the Author:

Dr. Rich Kao is a Senior Pastor of Five Stones Church in Vancouver, BC. He is a church planter, entrepreneur, scientist, and author.


1. Maxwell, J. (2003). Thinking for a Change. New York, NY: Warner Business Books, p.125.

2. Bossidy, L. & Charan, R. (2002). Execution – The Discipline of Getting Things Done. New York, NY: Crown Business.

3. Charan, R. (2007). Know-How. New York, NY: Crown Business.

4. Beerel, A. (1997) “The strategic planner as prophet and leader: a case study concerning a leading seminary illustrates the new planning skills required”, Leadership & Organization Development Journal, Vol. 18 Iss: 3 pp. 136 -144.

5. Ibid., p.136.

6. Ackermann, F., & Eden, C. (2011). Making Strategy: Mapping out Strategic Success. London, England: Sage Publications, Chapter 3.

7. Beerel, p. 136

8. Ibid.

9. Pollitt, D. (2005). “Curtis Fine Papers aligns strategy and leadership style with business priorities: Three pillars of development for top executives”, Human Resource Management International Digest, Vol. 13 Iss: 6 p. 34.

10. Ackermann, F., & Eden, C. (2011), p. 231.

11. Ibid., p. 237.

12. Pollitt, p.34.

13. Hughes, R.L., & Beatty, K.C. (2005). Becoming a Strategic Leader . San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, p. 20.

14. Maxwell, pp. 50-51.

15. Hughes and Beatty, p. 45.

16. Ibid., p. 53.

17. Ibid., pp. 54-55.

18. Ibid., p. 56.

19. Maxwell, p. 13.

20. Ibid., p. 3.

21. Ibid., p. 12.

22. Hughes and Beatty, p. 63.

23. Dollinger, M. (2008, June 11). Starbucks, “The Third Place”, and Creating the Ultimate Customer Experience. Fast Company. Retrieved from http://

24. Hughes and Beatty, p. 67.

25. Ibid., pp. 72-74.

26. Abraham, S. (2005). “Stretching strategic thinking”, Strategy & Leadership, Vol. 33 Iss: 5 p. 5.

27. Ibid., p. 6.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid., p. 7.

27. Ibid., p. 6.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid., p. 7.

31. Intel (2013). Moore’s Law and Intel Innovation. Retrieved from http://

32. Abraham, p. 9.

33. CSP Daily News (2013, January 30). Fans Will Chose Storyline of Coke’s Super Bowl Ad. Retrieved from http://

34. Maxwell, p. 242.

35. Ackermann and Eden, p. 5.

36. Ackermann and Eden, p. 8.

37. Maxwell, p. 83.

38. Ackermann and Eden, p. 111.

39. Maxwell, p. 125.

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