Understanding How Leaders Think

September 6, 2016 | By | Reply More

how leaders think

Textbooks on strategic planning describe actions taken in the marketplace by competing companies to gain competitive advantage. Major types of strategies are cataloged and given various names by different authors. Often these strategies and tactics are so bold and innovative that they “change the rules of the game.” Leaders are increasingly being advised to seek that objective in planning and executing their strategies.

Underlying strategic plans and initiatives is a mindset that guides leadership thinking. It can be thought of as being composed of principles or guides. Most of them have been in existence since ancient times. They are illustrated in the lives and writings of Alexander, Sun Tzu, Caesar, Machiavelli, Napoleon, and so on.

The ways of thinking that underlie strategy formulation are seldom addressed in business textbooks. I haven’t found that much light is shed on them though today’s strategic innovators are still held in high regard.

But principles, or at least guides, can be reverse engineered by careful review of business case studies also. I have assembled some of these from such sources as well as reflections arising from my consulting engagements with organizational leaders. Their presentation here is skeletal for convenience sake, and I have not made a great effort to put them into a sequence. However, taken as a whole, they offer a useful checklist and food for thought as to how leaders think.

How leaders think: the Strategic Mindset in leadership

  • Has a clear sense of desired outcomes before acting. Develops a plan capable of delivering outcomes that will add significant value to a state of affairs
  • Scopes outwards to capture the larger context, to see how the pieces fit together
  • Is adaptive to realities and flexible in choice of tactics. Recognizes that once action begins the “game board” is fluid, offering both new threats and new opportunities
  • Where possible, tries to achieve multiple objectives through singular actions
  • Plans a couple of steps ahead. It is said that Napoleon could conceive of seven steps ahead, each one with its potential counteractions by opponents
  • Anticipates opponent’s actions and mentally rehearses next responses should those contingencies arise
  • Has the discipline to remain composed when the unexpected occurs
  • Tries to capitalize on crises or change, turn them to advantage
  • Stays future-focused Invents both sequential and parallel actions to accomplish goals
  • Picks battles that can be won and avoids those that cannot be won. (At least not at an acceptable cost)
  • Supplements actions with those of others (allies, partners, joint ventures)
  • Patient, with a good sense of timing
  • Acts decisively when the time to act has come
  • Is able to scrap or alter plans when information indicates actions are not attaining their intended results
  • Doesn’t signal punches. (Unless in the form of a ploy)
  • Knows what can be conceded or lost and what is essential to retain, preserve, gain
  • Doesn’t bluff when the stakes are critical
  • Seeks and exploits opponent’s weaknesses, oversights and mistakes
  • Maintains forward momentum
  • Uses surprise to advantage
  • Uses speed to advantage
  • Holds resources in reserve should their need arise
  • Forms alliances with opponents of his opponents
  • Learns opponent’s strengths and weaknesses Is aggressive in pursuing goals and ready to move on to the next
  • Taps diverse points of view in planning
  • Assures that everyone knows their role and is equipped with the resources to contribute
  • Maintains a state of readiness.
  • Stays alert and ready
  • Uses “what if” speculation to stretch thinking in the direction of opportunities and possibilities
  • Has a good sense of what may be possible to achieve in the prevailing state of “politics.” The art of what’s possible
  • Makes use of trial balloons. Feigns actions to test reactions
  • Usually prefers taking the offensive

What impact does it have for the lone manager ? These are some tested aspects of thinking employed by leaders to gain and hold a strategic advantage. They can serve as a checklist when your responsibilities include thinking strategically.
>> RELATED: 7 Mistakes Made by New (and Even Some Seasoned) Business Leaders

How to Deal with Senior Management

You should also start mapping out how “your” leader, the president of the company you work for or your main client, is thinking. We found that presidents and CEOs often share common preferences when it comes to how they want to get the results of an analysis:

1- No surprise:

There are two consequences to this:

First, if the results of your analysis tend to show contradictory results or unconventional results, share those in advance. For example, if your analysis of a potential acquisition the president is pursuing shows future disaster, take the time to sit with him before unveiling results in front of his entire management committee

Secondly, make sure you can stay a step ahead and be alert to bold moves in your industry: presidents and senior management do not like to learn from a customer or their wives/husbands that their major competitors just merged. Or that the regulation in your industry just changed.

As a result, don’t wait until your weekly report gets published to share such news. Share it in person immediately.

2- Looking good:

One common feature to leaders and senior management is their ego.

We don’t mean this in a pejorative way, but often, to keep the company together, presidents need to show total confidence in their decisions.

The best Strategy Intelligence analysts or consultants are often those who become the “invisible shadow” of their presidents or clients. They are here to support them, in return get their complete confidence, but the outside world does not know exactly what they do.
>> RELATED: Four Qualities of Good Leaders
3- Action oriented:

Never present information to a senior person without showing the impact of the likely decisions and how those might be implemented. For example, the following cannot be tolerated:

  • Print directly from Web site to hand company information to president’s office
  • Hand in market reports of more than five pages in length
  • Write an analysis that does not start with a one-page executive summary
  • Finish a synthesis without asking questions about future steps and responsibilities


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Category: How to be a Leader

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