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Throughout history we will recall that in the past, the word leader conjured up visions of an almost mythical figure astride a warhorse, slaying dragons or single-handedly rallying troops to achieve victory over superior foes. These leaders projected their authority so that others would follow; they could do any task better than their followers. They achieved success through personal tenacity, brute strength, and physical boldness, sometimes at the cost of their own lives. Much of the initial work in leadership theory revolved around the idea of identifying the traits of popular political and military heroes such as Caesar, Wellington, Roosevelt and Churchill. However, the problem with the 'great man' approach was that no congruent body of traits could be identified, that much of leadership success was evidently dependent upon the particular situation.
Nevertheless, the tabloid press helps us to think of the corporate leader as the great man. For instance we often read of Bill Gates or Jack Welch as if they were primarily responsible for many years of success at Microsoft and General Electric. Although both were unarguably highly effective chief executives, what is it that drove these men and their companies to their success?
What is Strategic Thinking?
Many theorists say the ability to think strategically is the key to leadership success. While vision and results may be outputs of strategic thinking, the ability to think strategically involves much more. One definition is that of (Liedtka 1998) who stated that strategic thinking is an individual activity, but one that is supported by organizational contexts and dialogue.
Strategic thinking, to some it is about creativity and to others analytical. Mintzberg (1994) referred to it as a synthesizing process that utilizes creativity and intuition, whilst Porter (1987) stated that good strategic planning was a necessary contributor to strategic thinking. Hanford (1995), states that it requires taking a high-level, long-term view that includes reflection about the past as well as creativity regarding the future.
According to Stumpf (1989), strategic thinking involves an interrelated set of skills encompassing; motivating, controlling, planning, delegating and setting objectives. These in turn influence the leaders' ability to
â€¢ Know the business markets
â€¢ Manage subunit rivalry
â€¢ Find and overcome threats
â€¢ Stay on Strategy
â€¢ Be an entrepreneurial force
â€¢ Accommodate adversity
This supports the definition provided by (Bonn 2004). That strategic thinking is a way of solving problems that combines both rational and convergent approaches with creative and divergent thought processes. We will see later how Gates epitomized Stumpfs theory.
What is Strategic Leadership?
Strategic Leadership is more than just strategy and planning. It's about handling the human element as well as the task issues and doing so in such a way that engages people instead of alienating them.
People in organisations particularly have a number of basic needs, one of which is some idea of certainty about the future. Effective strategic leaders provide that certainty by having a clear vision and workable strategies for bringing that future into reality.
Vision is a key facet in the ability to think strategically. Research by Collins and Porras (1998) stressed the necessity for leaders to have a vision and beliefs about the desired future and outcome. This links to the views of Senge (1990) who stated that a genuine vision is "a calling rather than simply a good idea" (p.142). The ability to share this vision helps to provide a sense of direction and meaning to the decision making process (Liedtka 1998). Liedtka (1998) also recognises the need for hypothesizing. Strategic thinking has to be hypothesis driven which again links us to the need for creativity along with analysis. Hypothesis testing involves " What ifâ€¦?" (creative) followed by "Ifâ€¦then" (critical analysis). This ability to use causes and effect transcends leadership thinking to another level.
Leadership at the strategic level is about setting the direction for the organization as a whole, getting policy and strategy right and making things happen. It frequently involves organising and reorganising the way things operate in the organisation and relating the organisation to other organisations and society as a whole. Effective strategic leaders, in the words of Prof. John Adair, need to 'release the corporate spirit'.
The ability to create a vision that others can believe in and adopt as their own. Such vision is long term in its orientation. The leader uses vision to build a bridge from the present to the future of the organization.
â-ª The capacity to communicate that vision, and to translate it into practicalities.
â-ª The ability to create a climate of organisational trust. Trust acts as emotional glue that unites leaders and followers in a common purpose, and helps achieve the outcomes of thThe leader searches for patterns, connections, frameworks, or concepts that encompass all the confusing details surrounding a particular issue. As a result of this inclination, leaders tend to create simple visions or perceptions of reality, encouraging a philosophy of 'keep it simple' (KIS). Leaders use the detail to find patterns and frameworks in order to simplify the complexity.
Hickman (1992) suggests that when leaders want to enhance their effectiveness, they pursue dreams because dreams represent new visions and new possibilities. Leaders may evaluate their performance on the basis of dreams achieved. Bill Gates personal response to the vision and innovation was through his 'think weeks' (Heritage, 2006), whereby dedicated time is spent developing proposals, demonstrating the leadership buy-in that contributed to Microsoft's success. It was, however, on one of these retreats, that when pushed for time, email was scrubbed off the priority list!
Zaccaro 1996, categorised existing literature on leadership into four bodies of major theories: conceptual complexity, behavioral complexity, strategic management, and visionary/inspirational leadership. Visionary/inspirational leadership theories and models include theories of charismatic and transformationalat vision. leadership. The common theme is that leaders develop and use their vision to structure and to motivate collective action. Considerable emphasis is placed on empowerment and development of human resources, especially subordinates. These models of leadership offer a number of characteristics that enhance a leader's ability to lead, including cognitive abilities (e.g., creativity, reasoning skills, intelligence, verbal ability), self-confidence, motivation, propensity for risk, and social skills.
One definition of vision comes from Burt Nanus, a well-known expert on the subject. Nanus defines a vision as a realistic, credible, attractive future for [an] organisation. Nanus goes on to say that the right vision for an organization, one that is a realistic, credible, attractive future for that organization, can accomplish a number of things for the organization:
â€¢ It attracts commitment and energizes people
â€¢ It creates meaning in workers' lives
â€¢ It establishes a standard of excellence
â€¢ It bridges the present and the future
Another definition of vision comes from Oren Harari: "Vision should describe a set of ideals and priorities, a picture of the future, a sense of what makes the company special and unique, a core set of principles that the company stands for, and a broad set of compelling criteria that will help define organizational success." Each one of the terms places unique and special demands on the strategic leader. If you can put these elements together in an organisation, and you have a good vision to start with, you should be well on the way to achieving excellence.
Collins and Porras (1998), affirm:
"The function of a leader - the one universal requirement of effective leadership - is to catalyze a clear and shared vision of the organisation and to secure commitment to and vigorous pursuit of that vision."
It is this definition of a leader I will use to answer the question of whether Bill Gates is a strategic thinker and leader.
Over the past 30 years much has been written and spoke about Bill Gates, some good, some bad and some ugly - what is without doubt is that for over 13 years he was the richest and most powerful man in the world. All this from the basic guiding vision of "Every business and household must have a computer and must run Microsoft software"
Nanus describes visionary leadrship like this: "A vision portrays a fictitious world that cannot be observed or verified in advance and that, in fact, may never become reality" (emphasis added). However, if it is a good mental model, it shows the way to identify goals and how to plan to achieve them.
"Look at Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt: they said, This is what it's going to be. And then they did it. Big, bold changes, forcefully articulated. When you get leaders who confuse popularity with leadership,
The effectiveness of long-term vision is crucial to the long-term health of any organisation. At all levels, leaders must make trade-off decisions, generally with the use of resources. Critical trade-offs reflect a choice between current effectiveness and projected future effectiveness , whether to do more research and development on a future, qualitatively superior software system, or to buy more of the available system; whether to make the investment in current technology or wait for the next quantum step. Each decision is surrounded by risk, imposed by cost and the uncertainty of future developments. Strategic leadership is a balancing act, a thin line between maximizing present effectiveness, and maximising future effectiveness, decisions that, to some extent, are mutually exclusive. Resources expended today in the wrong direction become a loss. This is why strategic vision is crucially important to organisations.
Strategic leadership is a risky business. Strategic decisions are rarely clear-cut. There will always be uncertainties and often ambiguities. Contributing to the uncertainty is the fact that decisions must be made with some set of presumably valid assumptions in mind. However, strategic decisions may play out over long time spans: 10, 15, 20 years-or more.