Have you ever been told that you needed to improve your ability to lead strategically? If so, did you get any specific examples of what you needed to do differently? Or were your requests for clarification met with fuzzy corporate jargon and vague explanations?

If you’ve found yourself on the somewhat frustrating end of feedback about improving your strategic leadership skills, I’m not surprised. Strategic thinking is an idea that gets tossed around a lot, but can be difficult to actually put your arms around. In fact, many of the very people advising you to be more strategic probably have only a passing idea of what they mean.

Strategic thinking is simple enough to define.

It’s the ability to anticipate or identify a problem and envision a solution to it. These skills can be applied to an entire organization, a single department or team, or your individual life or contributions. In practice, however, many of us have a difficult time recognizing strategic thinking, assessing our own capabilities as strategic leaders and making adjustments where necessary. 

Why Strategic Leadership Matters

Strategic leaders are invaluable to organizations – at every level. In fact, one study found that a strategic leadership approach was ten times more important to your perceived effectiveness as a leader than other behaviors. Leaders who have a strong ability to think strategically simply stand out from their peers. But why is the difference so stark?

Strategic leaders are, by definition, one step ahead of the rest of the team, organization and market. They anticipate problems and opportunities before they are widely recognized by others. This ability to provides a valuable head start, not only over the competition, but over the threats in the marketplace as well. While others are stuck responding to new events after they occur, strategic leaders have predicted how they need to modify their approach. They are prepared to proactively take advantage of opportunities or prepare for challenges.

Be Proactive

By remaining proactive, strategic leaders are also able to maximize available resources. Rather than wasting time, money and other organizational assets on outdated processes and methods, they deploy resources in new ways that take into account both the desired outcome and the shifting realities. In a world where shrinking margins and increasing pressures are inescapable realities, these advantages are crucial to success. 

Strategic leaders capitalize on opportunity. They are constantly scanning their environment for trends, patterns and new facts that indicate a potential opportunity. They are ready to move into action quickly when one emerges. Rather than happening upon an opportunity by luck or waiting for an annual strategic planning session to think about it, the most strategic leaders search for opportunity at every level on an ongoing basis.

Key Behaviors of Strategic Leaders

While we may struggle to outline the exact contours of strategic thinking, most of us recognize a good strategic leader when we see one in action. These next-level contributors are known by a group of key behaviors that differentiate the from their peers, regardless of their seniority or level within their organization.

Focus on Future

First, and most importantly, strategic leaders focus on the future. Rather than being trapped in the fire drill of their more tactical duties, strategic leaders carve out time to think about what is around the next bend. They create a long-term vision for their organization, team or themselves. But they don’t stop there. They also develop the plans needed to bring their vision into being.

Challenge Status Quo

Strategic thinkers challenge the status quo. You won’t hear strategic leaders defending an approach with the old refrain “that’s the way it’s always been done.” In fact, you’re much more likely to find them asking hard questions. Why have we done it that way? How will we know it’s time to find a new approach? When we do, what are some likely options? The answers they get help them notice trends and find ways to improve on current products and procedures.

Innovative

Strategic thinkers are innovative – finding new and unique solutions to old problems in a way that produces dramatic results for their organizations or themselves. Because they are not overly tethered to the status quo and spend time intentionally thinking about the future, strategic leaders are more likely than most to find creative approaches others may have missed. This ability to carve out novel solutions and approaches is a key hallmark of strategic leadership.

Motivate

When they see a change that needs to be made, strategic leaders know how to rally the team to get it done. These leaders are excellent at motivating others. Because they can envision new opportunities and solutions, they are often a source of energy and optimism within organizations. This energy can be infectious and create a culture of innovation and excitement that reaches beyond their direct areas of influence.

In-The-Know

What equips strategic leaders to see trends, patterns and opportunities that other people miss? Their innate curiosity and willingness to stay up-to-date on a broad range of topics. Beyond just the required reading, most great strategic thinkers are plugged in to the broader marketplace, the workforce, and the world in general. They consume massive amounts of information – from the latest books and articles, to podcasts, workshops and seminars. What’s more, they are able to synthesize this information and see connections between topics that others often miss.

Team Players

But, great strategic leaders don’t rely on their individual efforts only. They have a deep bench of relationships they rely on to assist in their efforts. These range from mentors, to trusted peers, to executive coaches and colleagues in other fields. Like their willingness to stay up to date on a wide variety of topics, these varied relationships help leaders notice changes they might have missed on their own, identify and refine solutions, and develop a proposed strategy to respond.

Five Ways to Improve Your Skills as a Strategic Leader 

Becoming a recognized strategic leader doesn’t happen overnight, but you can take concrete actions today to start moving in the right direction.

Look for ways to lead strategically now. 

Many of us think that strategic leadership is only for those at the highest levels of an organization, but this is a costly myth. No matter your role in an organization, you can begin to think more strategically. Challenge yourself to notice the trends emerging in the work you do. Spend time thinking about how these things might change the way your job is performed in the future. How might the work of your team begin to change? The more you use this part of your brain and push yourself to think in this way, the easier it will become.

Build time into your day to think. 

When is the last time you had time to just think at work? In a busy workday, time to think can feel like an unrealistic luxury. If you’re serious about becoming more strategic, however, you must make time to think. Time to look at trends, patterns and emerging issues. Time to move outside your to-do list and the pressures of your daily obligations and and focus on the bigger picture of your work. This kind of thinking simply can’t happen while you’re responding to emails, returning phone calls, or running between meetings.

Broaden your horizons, inside and outside of your organization.

How much time are you currently devoting to professional development? And are you spending all this time focusing on where you are right now – the industry you work in or the specific job you have? If so, you probably need to broaden your horizons a bit. Perhaps you take a colleague in another department to work to learn more about what they do. Maybe you start listening to a podcast that seems mostly unrelated to your work. Even volunteer and community work can provide opportunities to strengthen your strategic thinking skills. 

Ask questions.

Often, we think that being a strategic leader means having all the answers. But the true hallmark of a strategic leader is the questions they ask. These questions – about how things work, why problems can’t be solved in a different way, when a change might affect their organization – are a reflection of the curiosity that they exhibit internally. So, the next time you find yourself wondering about something, speak up. Ask the question  you have out loud in a meeting, or one on one with a colleague, or at your next meeting with your supervisor. Be willing to move outside the comfort zone of acting like you know everything and risk feeling a bit challenged. 

Build relationships.

Building strong professional relationships is key for a number of reasons. Not least among them that it will help you build your ability to think and lead strategically. Surround yourself with interesting and challenging people both inside and outside your organization. Engage with them. Share the books you’re reading and ask for some of their favorites. Ask them what’s most challenging in their job currently. Bounce your ideas off them and be willing to serve as a sounding board in return. These conversations, which will move you out of the day-to-day routine of your work and life, can provide just the spark you need to generate a new idea. It can also help to notice a new issue that needs to be addressed, or recognize an emerging market trend.

Becoming a strategic leader can feel like a never-ending quest for a vague goal. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. By embracing a few very tangible steps, you can begin to build your own ability to think and lead more strategically. Before long, you just might start to recognize some of the hallmarks of great strategic leaders in yourself.