Do You Have the Mind of a Strategic Leader? 

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By Art Kleiner, Jeffrey Schwartz, and Josie Thomson

If you want to lead your organization toward long-range goals, prepare for these challenges.

The goal of many enterprises today – business, government, and not-for-profit – is to be strategic. This means being undaunted in the face of complexity and disruption: able to handle complex, “wicked problems” for which there is no obvious solution. And strategic organizations need strategic leaders: people who can foster that quality not just in themselves, but in those who work with them. 

How, then, can you build the capacity for strategic leadership in yourself and your enterprise, and how can you recognize it when you have it? Neuroscience and organizational research suggest that there is a developmental path for this. In fact, there are challenges that come along, throughout your career, that give you practice, and help you embed the right habits of thought in your mind (and then in your brain). 

This happens through a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity: when you think a certain way, the neurons “wire together,” making it easier to think that way in the future. What if you could rewire your own brain to make it easier to make long-range choices? In effect, that’s what self-directed neuroplasticity does. If you continually refocus your attention on long-term goals, it becomes easier and easier to practice that form of leadership. Eventually, it becomes second nature to you. 

In our book The Wise Advocate: The Inner Voice of Strategic Leadership, we identify two patterns of mental activity that tend to be invoked in business decisions. One of them is transactional: the Low Ground, as we call it, comes into play when you make deals, solve immediate problems, or deal with immediate crises by “getting them off your desk.” But if you want to make valuable long-range decisions, you also need time on the High Ground: a pattern of mental activity associated with the “executive center” of your brain (where you govern impulse and emotion and think about complex, multifaceted ideas) as well as the “deliberative self-referencing center,” where relatively sophisticated thoughts about yourself or other people tend to be located. 

The High Ground pattern involves regular practice in applied mindfulness and mentalizing. It attunes you to the Wise Advocate inside your mind. This is a familiar but often-ignored inner voice, known to philosophers and writers throughout history. It can provide a loving, nurturing, and forthright perspective: helping you see yourself more dispassionately, as an outsider would, but still caring deeply about your well-being and the well-being of your enterprise and its stakeholders. Here are seven of the challenges you're likely to encounter along the way:

1. Mastering impulse and emotion

One of the first lessons of professional life is to break free of impulses and emotions. They are valuable, but they can’t rule your decisions if you wish to be a strategic leader. Managing them is a primary activity of what neuroscientists call the executive function of the brain. Associated with the lateral prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that is distinctively human, it enables goal-directed and complex thinking: planning, deferring gratification, dealing with ambiguous issues, and looking at things from multiple perspectives, all for the sake of accomplishing (“executing”) difficult and multifaceted tasks. Cognitive neuroscientist Adele Diamond, who studies executive function, says that proficiency can be improved at any age, with deliberate practice and perseverance.

You don’t do this by suppressing your impulsive thoughts, feelings, or sensations. Instead, you recognize them for what they are: knee-jerk impulses. You appreciate the aspects of them that give you creativity and energy, and you use this mindful awareness to cultivate an open, appreciative, personality: acting engaged without acting out. 

2. Thinking about what other people are thinking

In most professional jobs, you’re assigned too much work to possibly finish it all. You have to learn to “mentalize” – to think not just think about what your bosses want, but about what they’re thinking. If you face customers, you also have to mentalize about them: to rely not on market research, but on a deeper understanding of how they respond to you and your products and services. 

Mentalizing (which is sometimes called having a “theory of mind”) is the act of reflecting on what other people are thinking and what they are likely to do. This is difficult to master, and while it’s associated with empathy, it’s also directly aligned with strategic thinking. The world is made up of many people, and their thoughts guide their actions – which in turn shape your business’ constraints. If you can mentalize, you become far more adept at looking upstream, to solve tomorrow’s problems as well as today’s.

3. Becoming habitually self-aware

Mindfulness is well-known as a vehicle for well-being. As you focus your attention deliberately, for example on your breath, you strengthen your mental capacity for managing stress, deceptive messages, and other challenges. Even more beneficial is the awareness you gain of your own mental activity. You more easily recognize your thoughts as messages from the brain, that may well be deceptive. It’s a mistake to treat those messages as accurate about reality, simply because you think them.

Applying mindfulness in your workplace allows you to become more aware of the pattern of thoughts, conversations, and culture that make up the organizational experience. You learn, for example, which aspects of your organization you’re equipped for, what you need to improve to succeed, and how your thoughts and biases may be holding you back. Habitual self-observation is thus a core prerequisite for strategic leadership. Throughout your time as a strategic leader, you’ll have to help other people move past their comfort zone. You can’t do that unless you are prepared, through applied mindfulness, to move past your own.

4. Integrating integrity with pragmatism

Every day, business people must make decisions in which short-term expedience clashes with long-term success. Maybe you have to decide whether to launch a product that is questionable in some way, but where customers are demanding those features; or you are trying to figure out whether to speak out about a problem; or you have to decide how to reprimand someone who has stepped over a line but is still a good contributor. 

There is no manual to guide you; every situation is different. But they all call for wise expedience: practice in taking both the practical needs of the moment and the potential issues of the future into account. You need not just mentalizing, but all aspects of empathy; not just pragmatism, but long-range thinking. Even then, your solution probably won’t be fully satisfactory: for many situations in today’s world, there is no true “win-win” solution. Nobel Prize-winning economist and management professor Herbert A. Simon used the word “satisficing” to describe these decisions. They’re not quite compromises. They’re efforts to find the best possible solution in a world where there is no great answer. 

Strategic leaders often find themselves called upon to make these decisions. And unfortunately, the old saying seems to apply: “Good judgment comes with experience, and experience comes with bad judgment.” But with a form of mindfulness in which you cultivate your inner Wise Advocate, you have a starting point to build on. It never becomes easy, but it generally becomes feasible.  

5. Managing the side effects of success

One of the interesting aspects of rising in the hierarchy is that it discourages some of the mental habits that make you a more strategic leader. For example, research on mentalizing suggests that it is more common among individuals who perceive themselves as having lower status. The administrative assistant mentalizes about the boss; the boss doesn’t mentalize nearly as much about the administrative assistant. 

Mentalizing is often uncomfortable. People who rise to positions of authority thus tend to mentalize less, because they don’t have to – and thus, they gradually diminish their own capacity for strategic leadership. 

To get past this problem, successful strategic leaders often force themselves to regularly think about what other people are thinking. They might establish open-plan offices or schedule themselves to regularly meet for in-depth conversations about what people are thinking and why. If they do it in a sincere way, they become known as “servant leaders” – and such leaders are often prone to say that they don’t do this for the reward. They do it because of the capacity for new thinking that it engenders. 

6. Expanding your aspirations

One irony of many business failures is that they start as efforts to make the world a better place. The Juul e-cigarette, now linked to teenage vaping addiction and a public health crisis, started as a quest for a safer alternative to conventional tobacco. The Volkswagen emissions scandal began as an effort to create low-carbon-emissions vehicles without sacrificing price or performance. 

Companies and government agencies often voice noble aspirations. But to truly bring a grand ambition to life requires a way of thinking that is very difficult to achieve. It requires High Ground-style mental discipline to attune yourself to potential mishaps and pitfalls, and – even more importantly – to define your opportunity in a way that leads to genuine long-term success. You will have to turn away from temptations, including the desire to satisfy impatient shareholders. And you’ll need a strong dose of humility, recognizing how a grand dream can falter if the leaders congratulate themselves (or are congratulated) too early. 

Rules and regulations in themselves won’t fully keep you from overreaching. To truly realize a grand dream, you need an internal guide, and that can only be built up through practice as a strategic leader. 

7. Building a legacy

As you reach the later stages of your career, your executive function and habit centers tend to become more tightly linked.  Planning, goal-directed behavior, cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control, and a Wise Advocate perspective on your own actions are now embedded in your habitual routines. They have become what neuroscientists call salient: Your attention is continually drawn to them. You have developed the good habit of being consistent in mindfulness, mentalizing and consulting your inner Wise Advocate.

You are now a model of strategic leadership for others. They probably don’t need sharp-edged direction from you at this stage of their careers. Rather, they need more profound counsel: help in seeing themselves as others might see them. And they need opportunities to learn and grow. 

Together, these seven stages create a developmental path relevant for leaders trying to accomplish something significant. One way to tell if you have the mind of a strategic leader is that others, associated with you and coming up after you, have similar ways of thinking. 

Art Kleiner, who is speaking at the Strategic Management Forum Undaunted conference March 9 in London, is a writer, editor and organizational expert in New York. Jeffrey Schwartz is a research psychiatrist at UCLA and the originator of the concept of self-directed neuroplasticity. Josie Thomson is an award-winning executive coach based in Brisbane, Australia, who has pioneered the use of neuroscience principles in working with business leaders around the globe. They are coauthors of The Wise Advocate: The Inner Voice of Strategic Leadership. 

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