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How To Assess Leaders For Strategic Aptitude

 -  3/18/11

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Traditional models of leadership tend to emphasize individualism and top-down command. Picture the classic image of Gen. George Patton leading Allied forces into World War II: a solitary visionary atop a white horse, pointing ahead with his outstretched finger. This heroic model served us well when the world was reasonably predictable. The current business environment demands something new. As uncertainty increases, humility, shared decision making and flexibility are even more crucial than the ability to rally the troops. Strategic thinking, however, may be the single most critical leadership capability needed in today’s organizations.

When pressed, however, CLOs struggle to articulate what being strategic means. Let’s use the following definition for strategic aptitude: leaders who succeed in today’s uncertain terrain due to their ability to anticipate, think critically, interpret, decide, align and learn.

Anticipate: Most leaders focus on what’s directly ahead. Leaders who anticipate look for game-changing information at the periphery, search beyond current boundaries and build wide networks to help them scan the horizon.

Think critically: Conventional wisdom is tempting, but woe to the leader who swallows every myth and opinion at face value. Critical thinkers question everything. They tend to reframe problems to understand root causes, challenge current beliefs and mindsets, and uncover hypocrisy, manipulation and bias.

Interpret: Ambiguity is unsettling. Faced with it, many leaders rush to judgment. The strategic leader holds steady, synthesizing information from many sources before developing a viewpoint. Savvy sense makers seek to understand patterns from multiple data points, engage others to weigh, filter and develop insights, question prevailing assumptions and test multiple hypotheses.

Decide: Many leaders fall prey to analysis paralysis. Strategic leaders use process and discipline to arrive at a good enough position. They tend to carefully frame the decision and approach, balance speed, rigor, quality and agility, and take courageous stands even with incomplete information.

Align: Perfect consensus is rare. A strategic leader must foster open dialogue and engage key stakeholders, especially when views diverge. An alignment-focused leader can understand what is hidden, ensure tough issues surface to pinpoint misalignment, and assess risk tolerance and follow-through support.

Learn: Strategic leaders embrace and encourage feedback, viewing success and failure as sources of critical insight. Learning leaders encourage and exemplify transparent, rigorous debriefs, stay agile and course-correct quickly if off track, and celebrate success and the right kind of failures.

The assessment instruments most CLOs use evaluate style, personality and emotional intelligence. They lack a robust approach to bridge the critical leadership gap around strategic acumen. A strategic aptitude (SA) assessment can pinpoint traits that comprise strategic agility and identify precise development priorities.

SA assessment can help organizations undergo powerful, self-reinforcing transformations. Leaders can build capability and confidence. Armed with tools such as scenario planning, critical thinking and peripheral vision, they can tackle the challenges of an increasingly uncertain world.

CLOs can lead the charge to enhance the strategic aptitude of their organizations, even amid the ongoing challenges of upheaval and global turmoil. Learning leaders must make use of every tool at their disposal to adapt and succeed. They must embrace navigational tools such as strategic aptitude assessments, build a finely trained crew and learn how to change course midstream.

Steve Krupp is CEO of Decision Strategies International Inc. (DSI). Samantha Howland is a partner and Paul J.H. Schoemaker is founder and chairman. They can be reached at