Leadership as a Strategy

Editor's Note: This post by Daniel Doucette is so good, I had to have it trump my own inconsequential offering for this week.

Still in my taking-stock state of mind from 2013, I think back to the many conversations over those twelve months in which I was a participant in a discussion about leadership. It’s not uncommon for managers in organizations both large and small, for-profit and not-for-profit, to identify leadership and leadership development as worthy of attention. Yet it is my experience that more often than not these conversations are relatively formless, typically inconclusive, or filled with unspecified and unspoken assumptions. And so we talk and talk about leadership, feeling self-congratulatory for giving due consideration to the priority of strengthening leadership. But, then what? To what end all this talk?

Some people tend to view leadership as a relative lofty ideal. Others take a more practical approach and consider leadership to be a set of skills. What if organizations approached leadership as something in between; not as an abstract concept on one hand, or as a skill on the other hand? What is we approached leadership as an operating strategy? How does that change the conversations we have about leadership?

By approaching leadership as a strategy for how our people perform their work, we would apply a certain analytical discipline to our conversations on leadership. We would assess how to frame leadership in an operational context, identifying the preferred qualities with which leadership should be exercised. As a result, leadership, and more specifically the standards of practice for leadership, become integral to the organization’s operating strategy. Leadership is neither a lofty concept nor a checklist of skills, but instead an operational tool to guide, influence and enhance the quality of the efforts of staff at all levels.

We may consider following five steps in order to define and implement leadership as an operating strategy:

  1. Establish the intention: Enlist key stakeholders, influencers and decision-makers in your organization to agree on the value of normative standards for leadership practices as a means to promote certain principles and encourage desired behaviors.
  2. Settle on a definition: Either adopt or develop a definition of the term “practice of leadership” that is meaningful and compelling for your organization given its particular context.
  3. State your principles: Engage in an internal dialogue aimed at articulating a few core principles for the practice of leadership to highlight your organization’s fundamental beliefs and assumptions.
  4. Identify critical practices: Specify certain essential protocols, techniques or tools that together provide a framework of preferred methods for how leadership is exercised.
  5. Specify leverage points: Identify particular opportunities within organizational routines for explicitly applying your established leadership principles and practices in order to reinforce desired behaviors that drive results.

For each organization, the process of completing steps 1 through 5 will look different. Factors such as the culture (including style of decision-making), structure, and degree of urgency will shape the approaches to dialogue and debate that are necessary to pursue the steps as broadly outline here. Yet while no one process can appropriately be prescribed, it is certainly so that a common result of this process–for any organization–will be a document with carefully constructed statements of principle and practice.

The real value of adopting leadership as an operating strategy does not rest, however, in any resulting documentation itself. The real value lies in the experience of the conversations and debates necessary to arrive at a common understanding about what matters for your particular organization. The real value lies in the active and disciplined application of your leadership principles and practices to everyday activities: how you communicate, make decision, weigh risks, set priorities, maintain relationships, plan, and maintain accountability in keeping with your identified leadership principles and practices. By acting on leadership as a strategy, you are taking a decision to bring about a transformational shift in the quality with which the people throughout your organization perform.
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