What is Strategic Leadership? A Balance of Contradictions

"If everyone thinks you have a good idea, you´re too late."

- Paul Hawken

One of my favorite quotes, these words by Paul Hawken demonstrate the challenge strategic leaders face: they refuse to be late to the game and when they make bold decisions, not everyone likes them (it often gets personal) or their ideas.

Strategic leaders are frequently met with harsh skepticism because of the uncomfortable change they introduce. Darwin Smith, the legendary CEO of Kimberly Clark who led their spectacular turnaround and outperformed competitor and S&P 500 growth considerably, was initially challenged as unqualified by his own directors.

I’ve read ample articles on defining strategic leadership that outline the skills and traits required…

But there’s something missing.

The key to understanding strategic leadership is through the recognition of a contradiction - the tension between transformational vision and balanced pragmatism.

We’ll look at the nature of this tension with examples from Tesla and Amazon, a list of strategic leaders, and discuss how you can portray strategic leadership in your role.

Strategic Leadership vs. Leadership and Strategy

Let’s start by getting definitions out of the way…

You may not realize it, but strategy and leadership exist separately all the time. Becoming a strategic leader is harder than one might expect; not all leaders are strategic and not all strategists are leaders.

Leadership: My favorite definition of leadership is “empowering others to do great things.”

There is no necessity for bold strategy here, as you can certainly be a strong leader who manages day-to-day operational needs and interlocks with strategy without setting it yourself.