Strategic leadership is learned—it does not come naturally. Therefore, educating yourself about the characteristics you want to embody will help you become a better leader. We’ve done some deep thinking around strategic leadership here at ClearPoint, and these are the top ten characteristics we believe are critical to develop.
After you read through the top characteristics key for a good leader, take this free leadership self assessment to learn your own leadership strengths and weaknesses and receive a report breaking down each of your leadership competencies (it only takes 10-15 minutes to complete!).
Without a doubt, being an effective communicator is a top attribute of a strategic leader. You may have a clear vision of what you’re trying to accomplish, but if you can’t convey it to your team or colleagues, it will be almost impossible to carry out. By developing the ability to clearly describe what you want done and relate it to your team, you will unite everyone’s efforts. More specifically, your team needs to be aligned and on-board with your strategic objectives and goals to be successful.
Communication also extends to “softer skill” practices, like having an open-door policy or holding regular one-on-one meetings with team members. Express your vision clearly and then make yourself accessible to discuss anything going on in the office.
While effectively communicating your expectations and vision is one of the top strategic leadership characteristics, it’s also important to listen to what your team has to say. “Speaking and hearing” are two sides of the same coin and the best leaders do both well.
As Mark Twain said, “Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you would have rather talked.” Listening seems deceptively simple, but it can be difficult to pause in the middle of your busy day to sit with an employee or quietly tune in from the sidelines of a strategic planning meeting. Employees need to know their concerns and ideas are being heard—this not only helps build morale, but it makes your organization better because you are getting input from the people who are on the front lines. A leader who practices the art of listening gains the knowledge needed to solve problems, improve products or services, and build a strong company culture.
Enthusiasm for your mission or project will get others excited because they can see and feel your dedication. But you must also add commitment to the mix of strategic leadership qualities, because passion doesn’t always get the job done. Commitment is the ability to stay focused on what will make you successful.
One simple way to convey your passion and commitment is to lead by example. You expect your team to work hard and produce quality results, so roll up your sleeves and join them. Team motivation significantly increases when people see their boss working alongside them, putting in the same level of effort (or more) than everyone else. When you show that hard work is being done on every level of the organization, you prove your commitment and earn the respect of your team as a leader.
Another idea that we have seen from some leaders in Balanced Scorecard organizations is to always carry a version of your strategy map. It could be pocket-size or wallet-size, or printed and put in a notebook. This will allow you to regularly ask your colleagues and employees where they fit in on the strategy and how they regularly contribute. Furthermore, this highlights a passion for your strategy, and helps with the first attribute: good communication. Soon you may find that everyone carries their own copy of the strategy map!
A positive attitude is contagious. If your team is led and surrounded by happy and positive people, they will work harder and be happier themselves. Positivity can take many forms in the workplace—from providing snacks in the communal kitchen to keeping an upbeat tone in your internal emails. Of course there should be a balance between play time and productive time, but do your best to create a positive, supportive environment during the workday.
Keep in mind that some leaders conduct strategy review meetings and only focus on the problems—i.e. the red and yellow items in their scorecard. You definitely want to be aware of issues (as no good leader has their head in the sand), but you must also take the time to recognize things that are going well with your strategy and celebrate successes.
When you’ve been working at a company for years, or simply been in the same career for a while, it’s easy to get stuck. Being a strong leader requires practicality and realism, but just as importantly it requires having an eye for innovation and the vision to execute on it. Nimbly adjusting and adapting to current business or economic environments is a valuable skill to foster.
In other words, don’t get too comfortable. If an idea or process is foreign to you, assess it and look at the benefits of implementing something new. Characteristics of a strategic leader include being open to change and “left-field” thoughts, because that is precisely what will give you a competitive advantage. By making sound decisions based on data, no vision or innovation will be too far afield.
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Remember that you may not be the most innovative person in the room—but you still need to foster innovation amongst your team. Be sure to have sessions or days where you encourage ideas about innovating around your strategy, and give some of the ideas the resources they need to be tested or expanded. If you never allow team members to innovate, they will have no examples inside of the organization to point to in order to make suggestions in the future.
Having a collaborative approach to leadership is powerful because it naturally creates transparency in your organization. If you’re connected to your team and genuinely interested in collaborating with them, they will know what you’re thinking and vice versa. Collaboration leads to trust, and your team will be more likely to support your vision. If you’re not getting buy-in on that strategic plan you’ve created, it’s not going to be effective. People want to own what they help create.
One way to improve collaboration is to create some small projects and put others in charge. Play the role of participant on the project instead of being a leader. Show your colleagues that you respect their ideas and approach. From there, you can begin implementing this with bigger projects and initiatives. Be sure to give credit where it’s due—in public—so that others can see that you appreciate their contributions.
In many ways, strategic leadership all begins with honesty. Being forthright about your successes, failures, and reasoning for choosing certain strategies and goals over others will earn the respect of your team. Following the motto of “honesty is the best policy” generates trust within your organization.
Being honest isn’t always easy, because it requires communicating both the good and the bad. It’s not about popularity, but rather about integrity. Within the space of a quarter, you may have to tell employees both that you’re over budget and need to cancel initiatives, and that you outpaced benchmarks and are leading the industry in specific metrics.
Being an honest leader also includes being publicly transparent. Municipalities, nonprofits, healthcare facilities, and other similar organizations are under the most pressure to exhibit transparency. All leaders, but particularly those beholden to regulatory compliance, should be clear about plans, progress, and results. When you’re honest and transparent, it’s easier to get everyone on the same page and earn the trust of your employees and community when trying to achieve your strategic goals.
Honesty is always the best policy, but strategic leadership often requires you to be tactful. Diplomacy is a learned skill that helps leaders effectively manage conflict using negotiation and sensitivity. It requires an unbiased, strategic approach to problem solving. As Henry Kissinger defined it, diplomacy is “the art of restraining power.”
It’s inevitable when planning and executing your strategy that you’ll deal with disagreements and competing priorities. Having different points of view ultimately strengthens your organization, but it’s a reality that can be challenging to manage in the short term. What if your strategy team disagrees on how to measure a customer objective? How can you please two department heads who both want ownership over a key initiative? Strategic leadership is being able to navigate these difficulties and turn them into win-win situations whenever possible.
Being empathetic doesn’t mean you’re the organization’s resident therapist. It means you try to understand your team’s problems by walking in their shoes and seeing things from their perspective. Practicing empathy creates meaningful connections because leaders develop an awareness of the challenges and needs of a team or department, versus sitting oblivious in an ivory tower.
Aside from the interpersonal benefits, empathy is also a practical tool. When you truly understand what it takes to execute a strategy—the skills, resources, projects, and more—you’re able to set more realistic goals and timelines. For example, a product team may need a certain amount of time to properly test the UX, or a sales team may need an updated CRM system to hit their revenue goals. Empathetic leaders gain the respect of employees and are more likely to successfully execute the organization’s strategies because they know exactly what it takes to get the job done.
Humility is one of the most respected strategic leadership qualities. Humble leaders admit their mistakes, apologize when necessary, and always share credit. This behavior makes you more “human” and relatable; it’s also simply a best practice to empower and reward others instead of acting like the smartest person in the room (even if you are!).
Practice humility not only with other people, but with your planning and processes. This means recognizing you don’t know everything and some of the best strategies have flaws. By being open to learning and leaving your ego at the door, you’re poised to help your organization adapt and improve.
To recap, effective, good strategic leaders are strong communicators, active listeners, passionate, positive, innovative, collaborative, honest, diplomatic, empathetic, and humble. By taking the steps to embody these qualities, you're already becoming a better leader and can help move your team towards success!
A final thing to consider is that strategic leadership is different for everyone. How your leadership characteristics manifest depends on the company culture and existing frameworks, as well as your individual skills. For example, effective communication channels will look very different for a manager who is working on-site daily with the team versus a remote manager checking in every so often. Adapt your strategic leadership style to fit your role, your company, and your working situation.
Part of being a good leader is the ability to get things done efficiently and effectively. To sharpen that skill, you may want to sharpen your internal reporting process. If this process runs smoothly, you can help keep your team on the right track toward strategic success!