You know the ones. They include a positive attitude, commitment, empathy, the ability to delegate, being a good listener, and so on, and so on.
The trouble is I have yet to meet an owner or senior executive with any of those skills.
Maybe my career boils down to a series of episodes from The Devil Wears Prada because the leaders and owners I have known didn't have great people skills. But they sure understood strategy. And so, the post title: Leadership: Where's Strategy?
Strategy is the Content of All Management Discussions
Strategy plays a bigger role than all of the “soft skills” combined. Strategy is the content of all management discussions. You're not going to be a leader until you understand and can explain strategy.
For purposes of this discussion, let’s define strategy as being choices of action rather than getting tied up in various academic definitions having to do with creation of competitive advantage or value creation.
The skill that all leaders must master is understanding what choices of action (strategies) their organization has made and what expectations for its implementation are created by those choices.
This is how strategy implementation is explained and pushed down throughout the organization.
In other words, great leadership is about understanding and communicating strategy (choices of action), its rationale, and the expectations for its implementation.
Gerstner and Palmisano Knew How to Talk about Strategy
I'm not sure from anything I've read that Lou Gerstner was an easy guy to work for. I know he shocked the media (and business academics) at his first press conference as CEO of the troubled tech giant, IBM, in 1993. When asked what his vision was for the company, he growled: “The last thing IBM needs right now is a vision statement.”
Nine months later, after becoming informed on IBM’s strategies, Gerstner was finally prepared to talk about his vision (i.e. long term strategy) for IBM. The lesson: becoming informed on current strategies of any company takes time. Gerstner knew strategy can't be changed unless there is a good understanding of current strategy. Otherwise, you will not be able to explain the rationale for change.
Gerstner’s successor as CEO, Sam Palmisano, put it even more succinctly: “Smarter is always the answer.”
No doubt, Mr. Palmisano was not talking about knowledge for the sake of knowledge. He was talking about his expectation that all IBMers make choices of action (strategies) consistent with his strategy and expectations for driving IBM forward.
Great Leaders Don't Suffer Fools Lightly
When I consider the leaders and successful entrepreneurs I have met and worked for, I can see they have a couple of things in common. They can talk about their business all day long and they don’t suffer fools lightly. If you aren’t feeding their insatiable appetite for facts and insight on their strategies and industry, it becomes a very short conversation. Why do you think everyone avoids riding the elevator with the boss? It's nerve-wracking.
By all means, hone your soft skills. You’ll make a more pleasant boss. But you are not going to be a great leader until you truly "get" strategy and its communication.
For more on strategy and its communication, read The Alpha Strategies: Understanding Strategy, Risk, and Values in Any Organization.