The 6 Habits of True Strategic Thinkers

March 21st, 2012

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Please review this excellent article from Paul J. H. Schoemaker, in Inc. Magazine:

In the beginning, there was just you and your partners. You did every job. You coded, you met
with investors, you emptied the trash and phoned in the midnight pizza. Now you
have others to do all that and it’s time for you to “be strategic.”

Whatever that means.

If you find yourself resisting “being strategic,” because it sounds like a fast
track to irrelevance, or vaguely like an excuse to slack off, you’re not alone.
Every leader’s temptation is to deal with what’s directly in front, because it
always seems more urgent and concrete. Unfortunately, if you do that, you put
your company at risk. While you concentrate on steering around potholes, you’ll
miss windfall opportunities, not to mention any signals that the road you’re on
is leading off a cliff.

This is a tough job, make no mistake. “We need strategic leaders!” is a pretty constant
refrain at every company, large and small. One reason the job is so tough: no
one really understands what it entails. It’s hard to be a strategic leader if
you don’t know what strategic leaders are supposed to do.

After two decades of advising organizations large and small, my colleagues and I have formed a
clear idea of what’s required of you in this role. Adaptive strategic leaders —
the kind who thrive in today’s uncertain environment – do six things well:


Most of the focus at most companies is on what’s directly ahead. The leaders lack “peripheral
vision.” This can leave your company vulnerable to rivals who detect and act on
ambiguous signals. To anticipate well, you must:

  • Look for game-changing information at the periphery
    of your industry
  • Search beyond the current boundaries of your
  • Build wide external networks to help you scan the
    horizon better

Think Critically

“Conventional wisdom” opens you to fewer raised eyebrows and second guessing. But if you
swallow every management fad, herdlike belief, and safe opinion at face value,
your company loses all competitive advantage. Critical thinkers question
everything. To master this skill you must force yourself to:

  • Reframe problems to get to the bottom of things, in
    terms of root causes
  • Challenge current beliefs and mindsets, including
    their own
  • Uncover hypocrisy, manipulation, and bias in
    organizational decisions


Ambiguity is unsettling. Faced with it, the temptation is to reach for a fast (and
potentially wrongheaded) solution. A good strategic leader holds steady,
synthesizing information from many sources before developing a viewpoint. To
get good at this, you have to:

  • Seek patterns in multiple sources of data
  • Encourage others to do the same
  • Question prevailing assumptions and test multiple
    hypotheses simultaneously


Many leaders fall pretty to “analysis paralysis.” You have to develop processes and enforce them,
so that you arrive at a “good enough” position. To do that well, you have to:

  • Carefully frame the decision to get to the crux of
    the matter
  • Balance speed, rigor, quality and agility. Leave
    perfection to higher powers
  • Take a stand even with incomplete information and
    amid diverse views


Total consensus is rare. A strategic leader must foster open dialogue, build trust and engage key
stakeholders, especially when views diverge. To pull that off, you need to:

  • Understand what drives other people’s agendas,
    including what remains hidden
  • Bring tough issues to the surface, even when it’s
  • Assess risk tolerance and follow through to build
    the necessary support


As your company grows, honest feedback is harder and harder to come by. You have to do what you
can to keep it coming. This is crucial because success and failure–especially
failure–are valuable sources of organizational learning. Here’s what you need
to do:

  • Encourage and exemplify honest, rigorous debriefs to
    extract lessons
  • Shift course quickly if you realize you’re off track
  • Celebrate both success and (well-intentioned)
    failures that provide insight

Do you have what it takes?

Obviously, this is a daunting list of tasks, and frankly, no one is born a black belt in all these
different skills. But they can be taught and whatever gaps exist in your skill
set can be filled in.

Paul J. H.
: Founder and Chairman of Decision
Strategies Intl. Author, professor, entrepreneur and speaker. Research Director
of the Mack Center for Technological Innovation at Wharton, where he teaches
strategy and decision-making

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