Strategic leadership: The difference between good and great leaders

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Organisations constantly face complex challenges that require bold, decisive, and forward-thinking leadership. The ability to effectively navigate these challenges, make difficult decisions under pressure, and drive sustainable, long-term success is what separates thriving organisations from those that struggle. This is where the concept of strategic leadership comes into play.

But what exactly is strategic leadership? Why is it so crucial for organisations to cultivate strategic leaders within their ranks? And perhaps most importantly, what specific skills and qualities do individuals need to become effective strategic leaders? These are the key questions we will explore.

What is strategic leadership?

Strategic leadership is the ability to create and execute a vision for an organisation that aligns with its values, purpose, and goals. It involves setting a clear direction, making tough decisions, and inspiring others to work towards a common objective. Strategic leaders can see the big picture, anticipate trends, and position their organisations for long-term success.

Why is strategic leadership important?

Change is constant, and competition is fierce. Organisations need leaders who can adapt to new challenges, make smart decisions, and guide their teams through uncertainty. Strategic leadership is important because it:

  1. Provides a clear direction and purpose for the organisation
  2. Enables quick and effective decision-making
  3. Fosters innovation and creativity
  4. Builds strong, adaptable teams
  5. Drives long-term success and growth

Without strategic leadership, organisations can become stagnant, lose their competitive edge, and fail to achieve their goals.

The top 5 strategic leadership skills

So, what does it take to become a strategic leader? Here are the top 5 skills you need:

1. Vision

Vision is a crucial quality for a strategic leader. It involves looking beyond the present and envisioning a better future for the organisation. A strategic leader can paint a clear and compelling picture of where they want their company to go and convey this vision in a way that motivates others to get on board.

Developing a compelling vision requires a comprehensive understanding of the business, as well as a sharp perception of future possibilities. Strategic leaders must be able to identify emerging opportunities and threats and then devise a plan for navigating these challenges and coming out ahead. They must also be able to think creatively and envision new products, services, or business models that can disrupt the industry and bring value to customers in unconventional ways.

A clear vision is just the first step towards success for strategic leaders. It is also important to execute that vision effectively. Without a clear and inspiring vision, even the most skilled leader might find it challenging to achieve long-term success.

Developing a strong vision requires time, effort, and the willingness to take risks and think big. By creating a shared sense of purpose and direction, strategic leaders can motivate their teams to achieve great things and take their organisations to new heights. This can lead to a lasting legacy that goes beyond financial success and creates a positive impact on the world.

2. Decision-making

Leaders often face tough choices that can have significant consequences for their organisations. The ability to make informed decisions in the face of uncertainty and pressure is what sets great leaders apart from mediocre ones.

Strategic decision-making involves gathering and analysing data from multiple sources, evaluating the potential risks and benefits of different options, and selecting the course of action that best aligns with the organisation's goals and values. This requires analytical thinking, intuition, and seeing the big picture.

One of the biggest challenges of strategic decision-making is dealing with uncertainty. Leaders frequently have to make decisions based on incomplete or ambiguous information, and there's always a risk that unforeseen circumstances could disrupt even the best-laid plans. That's why gathering and analysing data is so crucial. By seeking out information from a range of sources, both inside and outside the organisation, leaders can gain a more comprehensive understanding of the situation and make better-informed decisions.

Another critical aspect of strategic decision-making is weighing the pros and cons of different options. This involves examining not only the short-term benefits but also the long-term implications of each choice. It also means considering the potential risks and unintended consequences and developing contingency plans to mitigate them.

Not every decision made by a strategic leader can be a success. There will always be risks and uncertainties involved, and even the best leaders may sometimes make mistakes. However, it is important to take those mistakes as an opportunity to learn, adapt quickly, and keep moving forward.

It takes time, practice, and a willingness to embrace discomfort and uncertainty to develop strong decision-making skills. But the juice is worth the squeeze. By making well-informed, strategic decisions that align with the organisation's goals and values, leaders can drive long-term success and create lasting value for customers and stakeholders.

3. Adaptability

Being able to quickly and effectively respond to new challenges, opportunities, and shifting market conditions separates successful organisations from those that fall behind.

Adaptability requires an openness to new ideas, a willingness to take risks, and the ability to pivot quickly when necessary. It necessitates a mindset of constant learning, experimentation, and growth, the humility to acknowledge when something isn't working and the courage to make a change.

One of the key aspects of adaptability is anticipating and preparing for change before it happens. This involves staying attuned to the latest trends and developments in your industry, as well as the broader social, economic, and technological forces that are shaping the world around you. It also involves being proactive in seeking out new opportunities and thinking creatively about how to capitalise on them.

Another important element of adaptability is taking calculated risks. Playing it safe is often the riskiest strategy of all. Leaders who are afraid to try new things or challenge the status quo risk being left behind by more agile and innovative competitors. Of course, this doesn't mean taking reckless or impulsive risks, but rather carefully weighing the potential benefits and drawbacks of different options and making informed decisions based on data.

Perhaps the most important aspect of adaptability is the ability to pivot quickly when necessary. Even the best-laid plans can go awry in the face of unexpected challenges or shifts in the market. Leaders who can recognise when a change in direction is needed and then execute that change quickly and decisively are the ones who will come out ahead in the long run.

Adapting to change is not always an easy task, and it requires a certain level of risk tolerance and a willingness to embrace uncertainty. Leaders who are too rigid in their thinking or too invested in the status quo may struggle to keep up with the pace of change. However, those who can cultivate a mindset of adaptability and agility will reap the rewards.

4. Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence involves the ability to identify, comprehend, and manage not only one's own emotions but also the emotions of others. Leaders with high emotional intelligence can establish strong relationships, communicate effectively, and foster a positive workplace culture that inspires and motivates others.

One of the essential aspects of emotional intelligence is self-awareness. This means having a clear understanding of one's strengths, weaknesses, values, and emotions and how they affect one's behaviour and decision-making. Leaders who are self-aware can regulate their emotions, stay composed under pressure, and make logical, unbiased decisions even in stressful or uncertain situations.

Another component of emotional intelligence is empathy, which is the ability to comprehend and share the emotions of others. Empathetic leaders can empathise with their team members, listen actively to their concerns and ideas, and respond in a way that displays understanding and support. This helps build trust, promote open communication, and create a sense of psychological safety that allows team members to take risks and innovate without fear.

Effective communication is another critical part of emotional intelligence. Leaders with high emotional intelligence can adapt their communication style to the needs and preferences of their audience, whether it means being direct and assertive in certain circumstances or more nurturing and supportive in others. They are also proficient at reading nonverbal cues and adjusting their approach accordingly, which can help prevent misunderstandings and conflicts before they occur.

Perhaps most importantly, emotionally intelligent leaders can inspire and motivate their teams to achieve great things. They accomplish this by creating a shared vision and purpose that aligns with the organisation's values and goals, and by recognising and rewarding individual team members' contributions. They also lead by example, modelling the behaviours and attitudes they want to see in others and creating a culture of respect, collaboration, and continuous learning.

Developing emotional intelligence is a challenging task that requires consistent practice and self-reflection. Leaders who lack natural empathy or self-awareness may need to work harder to acquire these skills, but the benefits they can reap are immense. By establishing robust connections, communicating effectively, and inspiring and motivating their teams, emotionally intelligent leaders can drive long-term success and create a positive impact that transcends the boundaries of their organisation.

5. Systems thinking

Systems thinking involves the ability to comprehend the bigger picture and understand how different parts of an organisation or system interact and impact each other, instead of just focusing on individual tasks or projects in isolation.

Systems thinking involves recognising that organisations are complex, dynamic systems that consist of numerous different parts that are constantly interacting and influencing each other. These include people, processes, technologies, resources, and external factors such as market conditions or regulatory environments. Leaders who can think in terms of systems are better equipped to identify patterns and trends, anticipate unintended consequences, and make decisions that optimise the entire organisation's performance.

One of the key benefits of systems thinking is that it enables leaders to identify and address the root causes of problems rather than just treating the symptoms. For instance, if a company is experiencing high levels of employee turnover, a leader who thinks in terms of systems may look beyond just the immediate causes, such as low compensation or poor management, and consider how factors such as company culture, hiring practices, or even the broader industry landscape might be contributing to the problem. By taking a holistic view and considering the interconnections between different parts of the system, leaders can develop more effective and sustainable solutions.

Systems thinking also empowers leaders to anticipate and prepare for future challenges and opportunities. By comprehending how different parts of the organisation are likely to evolve and interact over time, leaders can make more informed decisions about where to allocate resources, how to optimise processes, and how to position the organisation for long-term success. 

Developing systems thinking skills can be a challenging task that requires creativity, curiosity, and a willingness to challenge assumptions. Leaders who are used to focusing on individual tasks or projects may need to work harder to take a step back and see the bigger picture, but the potential benefits are huge. By understanding how various parts of the organisation interact and influence one another, and by making decisions that optimise the performance of the entire system, strategic leaders can drive long-term success and have a positive impact that extends far beyond their own individual contributions.

Strategic leadership examples

Vision: Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, the co-founder and former CEO of Apple, is regarded as one of the best examples of a strategic leader with a powerful vision. He was known for his ability to envision and create products that not only functioned better but also had a profound impact on people's lives and the world around them. "Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower," Jobs famously said, and he lived by this principle throughout his career.

Under Jobs' leadership, Apple revolutionised various industries, from personal computers to mobile phones, digital music, and beyond. He had a unique talent for recognising the potential of new technologies and imagining how they could be used to create beautiful and functional products. Jobs was a master at expressing his vision in a way that inspired and motivated others to join him on the journey.

When Jobs launched the iPhone in 2007, he didn't merely talk about its technical specifications or features. Instead, he focused on how it would change the way people communicate, work, and live. He demonstrated how the device would put the internet's power in people's pockets and connect them to a world of information and possibilities. And he did it all with a sense of passion and conviction that was infectious.

Decision-making: Jeff Bezos

Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, is renowned for his strategic decision-making skills. He is known for his long-term thinking and willingness to take bold bets on the future, even if it involves short-term risks or challenges.

One of the key elements of Bezos' decision-making framework is the "regret minimisation framework." This involves considering the potential outcomes of a decision not only in the present moment but also 10 or even 20 years down the road. Bezos asks himself if he would regret not doing something in X years. If the answer is yes, then he knows it's a decision worth making.

When Amazon first started experimenting with e-books and e-readers in the early 2000s, many in the publishing industry were sceptical. They believed people would always prefer physical books and that digital reading was just a fad. However, Bezos saw the long-term potential of e-books and made a big bet on the Kindle, even though it meant disrupting Amazon's core business of selling physical books.

The decision paid off in a big way. Today, e-books and e-readers are a significant part of Amazon's business, and the company has become a leader in the digital publishing industry. By taking a long-term view and being willing to make bold bets on the future, Bezos positioned Amazon for success in a rapidly changing market.

Adaptability: Reed Hastings

Reed Hastings - co-founder, executive chairman and former CEO of Netflix - is an excellent example of a leader who has shown impressive adaptability over the years. When Netflix first launched in 1997, it used to rent DVDs through the mail. This was a novel concept that revolutionised the traditional video rental industry by allowing customers to access a vast collection of movies and TV shows from the comfort of their homes.

However, as streaming technology started to emerge in the mid-2000s, Hastings realised that the market was changing and that DVD rentals were likely to become obsolete. Instead of sticking to its existing business model, he made the daring decision to switch to streaming video, even though it meant sacrificing the company’s DVD rental business in the short term.

The transition was not without its challenges. Netflix had to invest heavily in new technology and infrastructure, negotiate complex licensing deals with content creators, and convince customers to embrace a new way of consuming media. But the company's willingness to adapt and take risks paid off significantly. Today, Netflix is the world's leading streaming video service, with a market capitalisation of over $260 billion, and over 200 million subscribers in more than 190 countries.

Emotional intelligence: Satya Nadella 

Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, is a great example of a leader who exemplifies the power of emotional intelligence. When Nadella took over as CEO in 2014, Microsoft was struggling to keep up with the fast-paced changes in the technology industry. It had developed a reputation for being overly competitive and isolated. Nadella recognised that the company needed a cultural transformation to remain relevant and succeed in the long term.

At the heart of Nadella's approach was a focus on empathy and collaboration. He encouraged his team to put themselves in their customers' shoes and think about how they could use technology to solve real-world problems and make a positive impact on society. He also worked to break down silos within the company and foster an open and inclusive culture where everyone's ideas and contributions were valued.

Under Nadella's leadership, Microsoft has undergone a remarkable turnaround. Microsoft has regained its position as a leader in the technology industry, and currently has a market capitalisation of over $3 trillion, making it the world’s most valuable company. It has also become known for its commitment to social responsibility and sustainability, with initiatives focused on reducing carbon emissions, promoting digital skills education, and advancing accessibility and inclusion.


Strategic leadership is a critical skill set for anyone looking to drive long-term success in their organisation. By developing a clear vision, making tough decisions, adapting to change, building strong relationships, and thinking in terms of systems, strategic leaders can navigate the complexities of the modern business world and achieve their goals. While it takes time and effort to develop these skills, the payoff is well worth it – for both the individual leader and the organisation as a whole.

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Jeremy Yancey

Head of Content, Tability

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