This article is the first in a series on “Strategic Leadership,” where we explore the qualities of effective business leaders and how to hone our own leadership skills.
The age-old debate over whether leaders are born, not made (or vice versa) often paints a black and white picture about what it means to be a leader—either you are one, or you’re not. As with most things, the truth has many shades of gray and plenty of nuance. In the business world, anyone can technically be a leader in name and title. It’s how effective a leader you are that is more important.
What differentiates effective leaders is not necessarily their philosophy of leadership or innate personality, but rather their internal “action logic,” defined by consultant David Rooke and professor William R. Torbert as how individuals interpret their surroundings and react when their power or safety is challenged. Although many remain unaware of their own action logic throughout their careers, those that do make an effort to understand their own thought processes can improve their ability to lead.
After studying thousands of managers and professionals over the course of 25 years, Rooke and Torbert have broken down leadership styles into seven general categories based on the action logic theory: Opportunist, Diplomat, Expert, Achiever, Individualist, Strategist, and Alchemist. In general, each category has its distinct characteristics and strengths and weaknesses, as defined in this article and in the chart below.
The sliding scale of leadership
Approximately 17% of leaders make up the least effective of the leadership styles, Opportunist and Diplomat, both of which tend to result in dysfunctional management (Opportunists) or organizations that strongly avoid conflict until the point of self-destruction (Diplomat).
In contrast, the majority of managers (around 68%) fall within the Expert and Achiever categories, usually resulting in completely functional and even successful departments or organizations that can reliably deliver on short and mid-term objectives, although often find themselves stuck in rut when it comes to thinking outside of the box.
Innovation begins to happen with Individualists, which make up approximately 10% of leaders. These are the rule breakers that are not only able to identify the gaps between strategy and performance within a business, but able to find unique ways to bridge those gaps (sometimes by stepping on a few toes or irritating other colleagues along the way).
Transformational leadership starts to happen at the Strategist and Alchemist level, but only 5% of leaders fall into these two categories. What sets these leaders apart from the others is their ability to see the big picture—not just how other individuals work, but how the organization operates as a whole. Strategists are not only adept at setting an overall vision for a company or business, but are also better able to deal with conflict and handling people’s resistance to change. Likewise, they are also skilled at understanding the outside forces that affect their organization and using that information as part of their overall business strategy.
Alchemists, making up only 1% of leaders, take it one step further and are able to renew or reinvent themselves and their organizations in historically significant ways. These are the rare individuals that have the capacity to lead societal change.
The evolution of a leader to a Strategist and beyond
No matter where you as a business leader fall on the action logic scale, the capacity for self-transformation is always there. Many leaders are able to grow from Experts to Individualists to Strategists and beyond. The key is in honing the essential personal, interpersonal, and analytic skills that will get you there:
Challenging assumptions. Great strategists are good at navigating the balance between idealistic and realistic. Ambitious goals are important to set, but must be tempered by a hefty dose of practicality. Doing so requires breaking down the logic of commonly held assumptions. You want 50% growth in profit for the coming year? An Achiever might set that goal and get flustered when sales don’t meet expectations. A Strategist will ask if the goal was reasonable in the first place: Did the number simply derive from last year’s sales? Was there an unexpected bump in sales from some outside activity that distorted the previous year’s performance? Have we scaled our internal organization properly to be able to meet our numbers?
Interpreting people as well as data. As leaders, Experts often rely on hard data and their own expertise to rationalize their ideas, but often face resistance when getting buy-in from the rest of the team. This often stems from a lack of emotional intelligence and lack of respect for those they feel have less expertise than they do. Strategists also rely on hard data to drive strategy, but use empathy and communication to get their ideas across and create a better harmony within the organization. They are able to acknowledge negative emotions in others (e.g. anticipation, apprehension, aggressiveness) and respond accordingly without letting emotions affect their own decision making.
Anticipating and adapting to outside forces. Strategists never assume that their business operates within a vacuum; they have a keen awareness of the trends and transformations that are affecting their industry and market, and they adjust their strategy to adapt accordingly. Strategists are not only constantly talking to their customers, suppliers, and partners to understand their challenges, but they are also taking an objective look at their competition to examine why they are succeeding or not.
Embracing and learning from mistakes. When companies shame or punish mistakes, this can lead to a culture of fear within an organization, where individuals will go to great lengths to hide or bury their mistakes rather than owning up to them. Strategists understand that mistakes are a natural part of the innovation process and will work to create a team culture that is not afraid to admit to mistakes and learn from them, especially those made by the management.
Aligning diverse views with vision. Setting a vision is easy enough, getting an entire organization to follow through on it is the ultimate challenge. A Strategist is always a great communicator, skilled in clearly articulating the goals of the company, but also in engaging with teams and individuals to get their feedback and buy in. The Strategist doesn’t outright reject ideas, but rather finds a way to align everyone’s collective experiences to the core vision.
Strategic leaders, strategic organizations
Leadership styles are not just confined to individuals, they can apply to entire teams as well. Rooke and Torbert found that the most effective teams are those with a Strategist culture, in which the group sees business challenges as opportunities for growth and learning. Developing a Strategist team will naturally require at least a few Strategist leaders to lead the way. Those willing to put in the work and develop the essential strategist skills will eventually see their organizations evolve in a truly transformational way.