Bad Things Can Happen When There Is A Shortage of Strategic Thinking

To avoid being blindsided, make Strategic Thinking core competency. 

In the heady days of my early career, I had string of successes. Unfortunately, this gave me an exaggerated sense of my capabilities:  “I am the smartest person in the room!” 

This illusion came to a screeching halt when a major economic downturn arrived. Suddenly, some of my greatest successes unraveled and turned into monumental failures. After the shock wore off, I began to ponder: “If I’m so smart, how did I end up in THIS situation?” 

The answer was simple. I was lacking something important Strategic Thinking. I was not looking ahead. I had never stepped back to consider worst-case scenarios and how to prepare for them. An obvious question  “What will I do if there is an economic downturn?” never entered my mind. 

Shame on me. I was a Boy Scout. Our motto was “Be Prepared” and I was woefully unprepared. Why? Because I did not see the Big Picture.


“You can observe a lot just by watching.” — Yogi Bera

Imagine trying to watch a baseball game through a knothole in a fence.

A ball flies by your knothole. You have no idea what it means. It’s not until you climb up and see the Big Picture ─ the whole playing field ─ that you get a sense of what is really happening. You see the scoreboard. You know which inning it is, who is on base, who is in the batting box, and who has the momentum. The state of play is clear. 

The same thing is true in the world at large for Strategic Thinking. You can’t make sense of things with a narrow Knothole View. You need to watch the game with a wide angle lens.

This is the secret to a prescient strategic perspective CONTEXT understanding the circumstances surrounding events and pieces of information. Context helps you evaluate the implications and make informed decisions. 

Make sure you see the Big Picture in your Strategic Thinking. What is happening around you today in your organization, in your industry, and in the wider world? When you know the answers, you’ll be better equipped to evaluate the individual pieces of information as they arrive. 

Cumulative Effects: The Dime or Dollar Choice

A few years ago, I heard an amusing story about a six-year-old girl whose teenage brother thought she was a dimwit. Every time he gave her a choice between a shiny new dime and an old, crumpled dollar, she chose the dime.

The brother found this so hilarious that whenever his friends were around, he entertained them by offering his younger sister the dime-or-dollar choice. He did this over and over, month after month.

 One day the girl’s father saw what was happening. He took his young daughter aside and said, “Angel, don’t you understand that the dollar is worth ten times as much as the dime.”

She smiled sweetly and replied, “Of course I do, Daddy. But if I ever take that old, crumpled dollar, he’ll stop giving me the dimes.”

The little girl knew that her teenage brother believed she was dumb. Not true. Her behavior was brilliant because she was practicing strategic patience. She knew that playing dumb over time would be profitable. She would end up with a lot of dimes!

In this example, a smart young strategist demonstrated one of the key characteristics of strategic thinking: consider the cumulative effects of your pattern of actions over the long-term.

Focusing On the ‘Here and Now’ Is Not Strategic Thinking

The capacity to think and plan long-term—Strategic Thinking—has always been a core competency for successful leadership. But it is a rare competency because our whole lives the importance of thinking tactically about the ‘here and now’ dominates. 

Cross the street without paying attention, or you risk getting hit by a car. Learn the assigned set of facts, or you might fail the test. Tackle the guy carrying the ball, or your team could lose the football game.

When you arrive in the business world, the focus on the ‘here and now’ intensifies. Career success depends on how well you perform your tasks — preparing financials on time, or making monthly sales quotas, or meeting customer expectations. In short, Tactical Thinking is a perquisite for success.

But Tactical Thinking alone is not enough when you become a leader. The capacity to think and plan long-term — Strategic Thinking — is and always has always been a core competency for leadership success.

One of the chapters of The Leadership Challenge, a classic that has sold more than two million copies worldwide, is titled “Forward-Looking Is a Leadership Prerequisite.”

One of the authors, my friend Jim Kouzes, told me that after surveying thousands of people on ideal leadership qualities, he and his co-author, Barry Posner, have found that the ability to look forward is second only to honesty as the most admired trait. It has continued to be rated this way for over 30 years.

Today, in a warp speed world where circumstances can shift in the twinkling of an electronic eye, ‘Looking Forward’ is not an option. It is a leadership imperative because change is not only incredibly fast, but it is also VUCA—Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous.

  • Volatile – Conditions are fluid and fluctuate to extremes.
  • Uncertain – Facts are in flux. What is known is not definite, and much remains unknown.
  • Complex – Change has many different, but interconnected parts because it happening simultaneously in different sectors, in various forms, and at varying rates.
  • Ambiguous – When so many things are interconnected, there is cause-and- effect confusion. Discernment is difficult.

New circumstances require new approaches.  In my eBook, How to Think Strategically in a Warp Speed World, I describe the GEO approach, one that is frequent, fast-cycle and multi-dimensional.

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