This article originally appeared as a Council Post on Forbes here.
Albert Einstein is often credited with saying, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”
For leaders today, that five minutes packs in even more activities — communicate and create buy-in from key players, then assemble a capable team that will implement the actions decisively and effectively. In a bid to save time, some leaders jump straight to action without fully understanding the context, but a weak, flimsy, poorly constructed solution based on lopsided facts and warped logic almost never goes down well.
From technology disruption to climate change issues to the unwelcome COVID-19 crisis, leaders are now faced with a monumental task of transforming even more complex systems. And the clock is ticking.
If business leadership is a mathematical problem, the rules of engagement have changed. Corporate executives need to embark on a journey to re-understand business challenges and formulate solutions that can work in this new normal. And they must do so with agility.
Businesses require a strategy — a leadership strategy that secures a ready supply of capable leaders — should they wish to survive these tumultuous times. Armed with the right skills, capabilities and mindsets, these agile leaders can ensure that both the short- and long-term business needs are met.
The task of navigating complexities is one that all leaders need to undertake, and it requires people who can handle the cognitive complexity and draw on multiple frames of reference or intelligence at the same time as part of systems leadership.
The Traits of a Master Strategist
In my work as an executive coach, I often support leaders in becoming master strategists by challenging their thinking so they may formulate the best solutions (or assemble a team to do so), communicate with charisma and implement to perfection. We seldom arrive at well-designed solutions unless there is thorough contextual understanding, deep subject-matter-expertise, and clarity of thought. Over the years, I have observed that some corporate professionals do better than others in this area.
These are the traits that I have found are common among those who can call themselves “master strategists”:
1. They ask questions that elevate the quality of discussions and thinking.
2. Key stakeholders often welcome their opinions.
3. They are great storytellers, able to engage and inspire a wide range of audiences, draw them in and involve them in a compelling vision.
Some ask if strategic thinkers are born or developed. Everyone sits somewhere on the spectrum of strategic thinking so instead of asking “Do I have it?” leaders would benefit more if they instead ask, “How do I get better at it?” To remain low on the spectrum of strategic thinking is unthinkable. A leader may have excellent communication skills and the resolve to follow through with bold actions, but the lack of substance — strategy — can be their downfall.
How To Become A Master Strategist?
Here’s the good news: With deliberate and consistent actions, leaders can quickly level up their cognitive abilities and be well on their way to becoming master strategists. Here are three actions that can help you.
1. Incorporate structured reflection into your daily routine.
In his book Sometimes You Win—Sometimes You Learn, leadership guru Dr. John C. Maxwell wrote, “Experience isn’t the best teacher, evaluated experience is.”
There are many learnings leaders can glean from daily experiences, but not having the discipline for regular reflection can mean you will miss them. Structured reflection helps you maximize your learning and experience, be it through daily readings, observations, or interactions. Reflecting in a structured way helps you analyse facts and processes and translate them into future hypotheses and actions. Reflection is a very powerful tool for continuous improvement. I recommend Kolb’s Learning Cycle and Gibb’s Reflective Cycle for this purpose. Both are very easy to implement and offer robust frameworks.
2. Think unconventionally, not automatically.
Thinking is such an automatic process that we often take it for granted. When we ask someone to think, what do we really mean? Given the world has changed so much and things we learn in formal education are often obsolete even before we graduate, we need to unlearn, relearn, and repeat.
Fortunately, there are many powerful thinking frameworks out there. You can tap into visible thinking routines or thinking frameworks to understand problems thoroughly. Paul’s Wheel of Reasoning is a useful critical thinking framework that I have seen work wonders for my clients many times.
3. Understand the needs of others.
Master strategists are great storytellers. In every compelling vision, there’s a part that everyone can play — they can see themselves in your story, hence the strong commitment. The question master strategists must address when communicating with others is, “What’s in it for me? Why should I care about this?”
You could begin by examining your audiences’ motivation, love language, mental models, strengths and more. Keep a lookout for what is important to them, and you will find a way to create the best story that onboards others.
The world as we know it now is different. The speed of digitalization has increased in the last few months in this new world created by the pandemic. As a leader, you must stay persistently curious and keep stretching your mind to learn, unlearn and relearn so that you may create the best master strategy.
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