Center for Simplified Strategic Planning

CSSP discusses what it takes to be a leader, how strong leadership can help companies achieve the goals in their strategic planning process and how leadership can be learned.

It's True - Lead and They Will Follow

Leadership has sometimes been described as taking people to a place that they would not normally go to on their own. Once a sound strategic planning process has determined what that place should be it is the leader's prime and fundamental responsibility to assure that the full resources of the organization are effectively brought to bear to achieve that destination.

An effective planning process will systematically examine the company's situation, its assumptions about the future and its current and required competencies. It will then bring the management team to consensus on a future course and direction for the firm. The output should be a vision: a realistic, credible, attractive future for the organization. An effective planning process will also be participative in nature. A team of people will provide input from different functional and personality perspectives and their participation will create the buy-in necessary for successful implementation. But at the end of the day it is the organization's leader who has to be the chief steward of the vision. It is he or she who has to be obsessed with the desired outcome.


Believing in the vision, regardless of how passionately is not enough. A leader must be able to communicate the vision frequently and effectively. They need to be capable of articulating it in different ways to different constituencies. Great communication is the ability to take something complicated and making it simple. A comparison between ex-Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan is appropriate. Many believe that Carter was one of the most intelligent and best-informed Presidents. Yet he is not thought to have been an effective leader because he was not skillful in communicating his vision. Reagan, on the other hand, while generally uninvolved in the details was considered to be a most inspiring leader due to his mastery at conveying vision in a way people could understand.

A leader can never assume that the vision is fully understood by all. They need to be almost "missionary" in style as they continually and consistently "preach the gospel" of the company's future. Doing so will allow them to change the perception of people as to what is important for them and the organization.


A leader's persistent repetition and consistency is what ultimately creates a fully aligned culture. Calvin Coolidge expressed the importance of persistence:

"Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with great talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."

Leaders need to be unshaken in their belief that what they are doing is the right thing to do. This requires a certain degree of mental toughness. Being "tough" is many times misinterpreted. Being tough is not about the fact that you can terminate people during bad times, make budget cutbacks or win a negotiation. It is not about punishing people. Dwight D. Eisenhower said: "You do not lead by hitting people over the head - that's assault not leadership."

Being tough is standing true to your beliefs regardless of challenges and setbacks or when others doubt you or your ability to succeed. This type of "toughness" is called commitment and good leaders must have it. True "toughness" is going over the hill without knowing what is on the other side. It is about staying the course through adversity. Whatever course you decide on there is always someone to tell you are wrong. There will always be difficulties that come up that will tempt you to doubt yourself and believe the critics are right. It takes tremendous courage to map out a course and direction and see it through.

Commitment through words alone is not enough. People in any organization are "professional boss watchers". They will ultimately mimic the behaviors of Leaders in those organizations. As they observe you as the leader, they will be acutely aware of:

  • How you make and honor your commitments
  • What you say in formal and especially informal settings
  • What you express interest in and ask questions about
  • Where you go and with whom you spend time
  • How and when you act/ who you consult with
  • How you organize your staff and physical surroundings

Along with passion and enthusiasm the leader must show commitment by their actions. Commitment is visibly shown by your calendar. For example, creating a total quality culture might be a critical part of your vision. If so, then you should be an active participant in some of the quality team meetings. You should be seen improving your own education on quality by attending classes. You should be seen spending some of your own valuable time traveling to customers and suppliers to discuss quality. A good "gut check" to see how you are showing commitment is to review your calendar and see if the time you spend is consistent with the most critical elements of your vision.


"What people say, what people do and what people say they do are entirely different things." -Margaret Mead

A leader must be on top of things. A leader must be an expert in the details of how the vision is being implemented. This does not mean that they should micro manage. It means knowing enough to ask great and specific questions of people. It involves the skill to do this in a way that lets people know you are on top of things and you take an interest in what they are doing but you are not infringing on their responsibilities or implying that you feel they are incapable.

Being an expert in the details also means knowing enough to hone your intuitive sense so that when you have to play "King Solomon" in deciding on a final choice among many alternatives, you can do it effectively. The leader must hold people accountable yet give them the appropriate authority. Being knowledgeable is critical in effectively doing this. Leadership is a transaction between leaders and followers. Both have to effectively coexist. Leaders must pay attention as well as capture it.

While leadership is about the motivation and inspiration of people, a leader still has to invoke many of the same skills that make for an effective manager. Among these are a strong sense of focus and personal discipline and skills in delegation and creating a high degree of accountability. While the leader can and should immerse themselves in the path toward their organization\'s future, it is obvious that success cannot come without the well orchestrated efforts of the entire organization. This coordinated effort is at the very heart of management\'s mission and the leader needs to hold people accountable for its effective implementation.

Deploying Yourself

A strong leader will be acutely aware of their own skills inventory and will display a visible commitment to self-development. The effective leader will:

  1. Recognize their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses
  2. Nurture additional skills through formal self improvement
  3. Understand the fit between their strengths and weaknesses and the organization\'s needs

The effective leader will become a role model in fostering a learning organization by encouraging and rewarding professional development. Their primary focus will be on people rather than systems or structure.

Leadership Learned

One of the greatest myths in management education is that leaders are born and not made. While specific characteristics of some leaders such as charisma might be considered part of a person\'s personality, most of the capacities and competencies of leadership can in fact be learned. The following summarizes some of the most critical skills and attributes that you can learn:

  1. Developing professional expertise
  2. Sharpening your communications skills
  3. Cultivating enthusiasm
  4. Keeping an open mind
  5. Paying attention to accomplishment
  6. Being accessible
  7. Being respectful of your staff

This is not to say that the learning process is an easy one. Developing or enhancing leadership abilities is hard work. It takes discipline and focus. The reward, however, is greater success for yourself and your organization.

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