Building Competencies for Strategic Thinking

My attention was recently brought to an article written by Paul J.H. Shoemaker that was published a while back in Inc. Magazine entitled, “6 Habits of True Strategic Thinkers“.  Dr. Shoemaker is the founder and Chief Executive of Decision Strategies International, a multi-national strategy firm.  As a former executive strategist who achieved consistent success in both corporate and startup settings, I found this article to be the most concise and spot-on list of the attributes that contribute to adaptive, strategic thinking I’ve ever read.

As I began reading the article, it was readily apparent Dr. Shoemaker was describing the habits and orientation of Transformational Leadership as well.  This isn’t a coincidence.  Transformational Leadership is the visionary, highly inclusive and strategic leadership necessary for successfully navigating the ambiguity and rapidly changing landscape in today’s complex business world.  The habits identified in the article are, in my opinion and extensive experience, immutable.  But how does one go about embracing a shift in perspective to cultivate the competencies necessary to ensure these habits are engrained and embodied congruently?  I’d like to take the habits one-by-one and explore how one might go about developing this modality of thought and perspective in developing both today’s and tomorrow’s leaders.

Anticipate ~ The risk of myopic vision, of being so focused on what’s directly in front of us, keeps us from seeing what may be occurring on the periphery of our awareness.  You’ll quickly catch the theme here; awareness, both of one’s authentic self and an awareness and sensitivity to the needs of others.  Dr. Shoemaker recommends peering to the periphery in search of game changing information.  He also recommends the creation of broad networks to expand your scanning range.  This speaks directly to elevating diversity and inclusion initiatives to the strategic level.  It also speaks for the need for a degree of open mindedness I call spherical thinking.  Of taking divergent thinking, a key phase of the distinctly non-linear creativity process, to a three dimensional level.  The other thing I’d add here is to follow your intuition first, then validate it with your research.  It’s always worked for me.

Think Critically ~ I know this sounds obvious, but it goes beyond challenging the conventional wisdom, industry dogma, and value assumptions of others.  It means challenging your own perspectives and beliefs in order to uncover any hidden biases or blind spots.  To do this requires a journey inward to what Carl Jung called the Shadow of our unconscious mind.  Again, it is our ability to discern between how our mindsets, beliefs and cultural orientation have been conditioned versus what truly is at play…at the crux of the matter.  Research from the field of Applied Behavioral Economics demonstrates we’re not as rational in our economic decision making as we once liked to believe.  Thinking critically also means feeling critically.  Emotions matter in business.  Seventy percent of economic decision making is emotionally based…even in B-to-B transactions!

Interpret ~ Here Shoemaker advises the leader to hold steady during times of ambiguity and not jump to a short-sighted conclusion just to alleviate insecurities.  Seek patterns from wide sources of information and research.  We do this to this day, often finding valuable insights for program development in unanticipated places (i.e. we discovered excellent materials for cultivating creativity in business from research that was intended for a program we’re developing for parents with children with autism).  He goes on to encourage the concurrent testing of multiple hypotheses.  I couldn’t agree more.  An approach I helped develop some years back, called Dynamic Parallel Targeting®, facilitates this very approach.

Encourage others to divergently explore as well and most of all, encourage lively debate!  This rarely happens in organizations that are governed by transactional leadership.  Why?  You got it…it’s about authentic self-awareness.  When we cannot differentiate how we’ve been conditioned to associate our identity with our job title, rather than knowing who we are, as well as what we do, we can have a tendency to take things personally when our professional perspectives and ideas are exchanged.  It’s why nobody wants to challenge the boss and tell the emperor he’s not wearing any clothes.  It is disengaging, and thus destroys creative thinking.  On the other hand, if you encourage people’s core emotions, of their desire for seeking, inclusion, purposefulness and acknowledgement you’ll get open, creative debate and discourse.

Decide ~ Dr. Shoemaker resonates the lessons of a favorite strategist and transformational leader I’ve long admired…Winston Churchill.  Simply put, and to paraphrase Winston, don’t let the better be the enemy of the good.  Make a decision, even under imperfect circumstances.  My military training resonates with this message as well.  Break down your options and plan for contingencies, but you’ve got to take accountability, trust in your gut and decide.  Trusting intuition, even knowing how to attune and listen for it, are skills that can be taught.  It takes a quiet mind to hear this clearly.

It also reminds me on an anecdote I read about Gen. George Patton’s thoughts on picking a leader from young officers.  Patton would issue an ambiguous order, say, to dig a ditch here, and leave.  He would then go to a spot where he could observe the young men without being seen.  Inevitably, the men would quickly toss down their shovels and begin debating what Patton wanted from them.  How deep?  How long?  Why?  Eventually, one of the men would just say, to hell with it, pick up a shovel and start digging.  That was Patton’s next leader.

Align ~ Dr. Shoemaker states, “A strategic leader must foster open dialogue, build trust and engage key stakeholders, especially when views diverge.”  He goes on to discuss the soft skills necessary to build trust to this level.  This speaks directly to the social awareness and relationship management competencies that are present in emotionally intelligent leaders.  It’s about how we connect, engage and motivate others congruently, with positive intention, and support.  Remember, engagement is a pre-requisite to the diverse, creative thinking needed today.  And an open dialogue is an inclusive dialogue.

Learn ~ The good doctor recommends being honest with yourself and learn from both your wins and losses.  This is key to our entire approach to Transformational Leadership development as well.  Coach, mentor, teach and continue to stretch those neural networks in our prefrontal cortex!  Learning, and what we’ve observed from the feedback from our experiential learning workshops, introduces the novelty necessary to spark spherical thought.  It opens us up, first to our selves; and only then to others.  It sparks the emotional and cognitive agility leaders require for success going forward.

Again, I just thought this was a great article and I wanted to share it with you.  I sincerely hope you take Dr. Shoemaker’s observations to heart.  I hope my thoughts are worthy of some reflection as well.  Cultivating these skills is a journey, not a destination.  Yet the journey is the accelerant, in and of itself.

Dynamic Parallel Targeting® is a registered trade mark of SalesForce4Hire®, LLC.

© 2012, Terry Murray.

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Filed under Leadership Development, Strategic Planning

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