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Five Things To Know About Strategic Direction

Often seen in conversations as a word so overused it has become meaningless, or at least shallow and vague, the word strategy is frequently avoided, with some preferring to use the term, “How we are going to achieve [insert aim]?” instead.

But let’s bring it back into fashion, at least a little because people often complain that there can be a lack of strategy.

Strategy can become reduced to an action plan. When asked, “What is your strategy?” leaders sometimes reach for an action plan with the misconception that an action plan equals strategy. It could be said that the great strategic thinkers of the past and present might be a little offended by the reduction of strategy to an action plan. After all, strategy is planning, and strategy is action, but it is far more than an action plan.

“Rowing harder doesn’t help if the boat is going in the wrong direction” – Kenichi Ohmae

Defining and Creating Strategic Direction

If we were to define strategy in an organisational sense it would be something like the following.

“The adaptive leadership and management of systems, both internal and external, to achieve an inspirational purpose.” – Ian White

When considering why strategic director fails, it’s worth reading Forbes’ outline of why strategy fails and their list of twenty reasons, which include not having a strategy and poor leadership.

The Top Five Things Leaders Need To Know About Strategic Direction

There are some good points in Forbes' outline to consider. However, as we explore the top five things every leader needs to know about strategic direction, we will focus on creating strategy.

1. The Big Picture

How does the big picture look? To be able to have a ‘helicopter view’ and map your systems is a critical exercise in creating strategy.

How do the different aspects of your organisational system interact? What is the impact of change or strategy on one part of your system across the whole system? How do the different aspects of your overall strategy affect each part of your system? How will it ripple across your system? Which parts of your system will need more or less attention?

When considering external systems that also often interact, which of our external stakeholders influence our strategy? What is our relationship like with these stakeholders and what are their expectations? What have we communicated to them?

If you would like to read more about systems thinking, this article is a good place to start.

A good strategy sees the bigger picture and understands the overlapping and interconnected parts and the effects of each on the strategy.

2. The Detailed Picture

The reason why leaders and strategies often fail is that our view and perception of the organisation are different from reality.

How much do we understand how the organisation works, and how much do we know exactly what is going on? This can be a very challenging question to hear, and most leaders would be insulted to think that anyone would question their knowledge and understanding of their business.

But, as humans, we are easily deluded, and for this reason, we must seek out, as Jim Collins puts it in his book, “Good to Great”: The brutal truth.

Go out and ask, in each part of your organisation, “What is it I need to know that you think I am ignoring, don’t know, or I am too far removed to see?” Or, “Where are we going wrong? What are we not getting right?”

The devil is in the detail, and if we make decisions based on what we think is the reality but which is not, we make poor decisions and create a poor strategy.

3. The Values Dilemma

Of the top five things every leader needs to know about strategic direction, being true to our values is perhaps the most challenging. Though this may sound straightforward, strategy across the whole system often creates ethical dilemmas.

One such example could be a re-organisation as part of a new strategy. In this case, decisions may very well be for the greater good, benefit the majority and be the pragmatic thing to do. If we were to hold values of respect and also innovation, these may well be at odds in this scenario as some individuals, who lose out, may feel that their views and situation have not been respected.

Without a doubt, maintaining credibility and staying true to our values, as well as demonstrating ethical and human behaviour, are essential to great leadership and great strategy. If our colleagues lose trust, the best strategy in the world is not going to work.

In these situations, leaders need to be courageous and speak the truth. When values are in conflict and when it is not possible to be transparent and importantly, we should deeply and genuinely take time to listen.

This article on ethical dilemmas from Indeed makes for an interesting read.

4. Be Courageous

If you are not slightly scared by your purpose, dreams, goals, or strategy, then you are probably not being courageous enough. Being courageous usually goes hand in hand with inspiration and purpose.

People are inspired when they work to be a part of something more than themselves in ways that align with our values and the meaning of life. Our strategy has to promote meaning rather than mere activity and dull outcomes.

As Maslow’s hierarchy of needs shows, we can fulfil our self-esteem through personal achievement, which is good, but we cannot achieve self-actualisation without connecting to our meaning and purpose to grow.

Reach for something that means something.

5. Be Adaptive

Part of our definition of strategy is having adaptive leadership and management. Systems are not a constant, meaning our leadership of systems has to be adaptive as we move with the changing landscape.

It is important to stick with a strategy long enough to know what works and to be able to evaluate the impact of our interventions but not at the expense of adapting to the changing situation. How do we need to adapt? What do we know now that we didn’t know last month? How do we need to change? What have I invested in that I am now too wedded to and need to let go of?

Our interview with Kosta Christofi from Reed in Partnership delves into adaptability in a quickly changing system and gives some insight into adapting our strategy.


As we have considered the top five things every leader needs to know about strategic direction, we have touched on the big picture, the detailed picture, the values dilemma, being courageous, and being adaptive.

If you would like to explore these areas in more depth, contact us to discover how we can take care of your strategic leadership needs.


“Why strategy fails” by Forbes

“General Systems Thinking” by Environment and Ecology

“Good to Great” by Jim Collins

“8 Ethical issues in Business” by Indeed

“Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs” by Simple Psychology


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