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Don’t Get Lost or Hurt: The Vital Role of Leadership Strategy and Tactics

by | Sep 12, 2022 | By David Dye |

Balancing leadership strategy and tactics is critical for leaders at every level of an organization

When you don’t pay enough attention to strategy, you and your team end up lost in a wilderness of meaningless, unproductive busyness. However, when you don’t pay attention to tactics and effective management, you create needless conflicts, frustrations and hurt feelings. When you embrace effective leadership strategy and tactics, they’ll work together to help you, your teams, and organization thrive.

Leaders and managers often struggle with the difference between strategy and tactics or vision and operations. But they are both vital to your success and don’t have to be complicated.

The Danger of Focusing Only on Strategy

This weekend I went for a long trail run. The terrain was rocky with roots snaking across the trail. I kept a close eye on the ground and placed my feet carefully. Then I caught up with two women on the trail ahead of me.

I called out a friendly “passing on your left” and as they moved over to allow me to pass, I focused on the trail ahead where I would pass them, and I sped up.

And that’s when one of those roots caught my foot and I tripped, falling down in an inglorious pile of dirt, blood, and embarrassment.

In looking at the trail ahead, I lost focus on the ground beneath my feet.

That’s the danger of focusing on strategy or vision (the trail ahead) to the exclusion of the operational and management realities you face today (the ground beneath your feet).

leadership strategy and tactics hurt

The trail demanded attention

Tactical Questions to Help You Avoid “Injury”

Operational tactics (looking at the ground beneath your feet) include clear communication, a shared understanding of success, healthy professional relationships, and consistent accountability.

When you lack these elements, your team will experience the “injuries” of frequent conflicts, frustrations, and misunderstandings that derail productivity and quench morale. Here are several vital questions to help focus on the tactical aspect of leadership strategy and tactics:

  • Does everyone know what success looks like?
  • Does everyone know what specific behaviors are critical to achieving that success?
  • Have you checked for understanding to ensure everyone has the same understanding?
  • Are you consistently communicating critical messages and concepts five times, five different ways?
  • Do you schedule the finish with clear discussions and mutual appointments to conclude tasks and projects?
  • Do you and your team hold one another accountable for commitments?
  • Do you acknowledge and celebrate success?
  • Does your team know how to discuss and resolve day-to-day conflict, dropped balls, and misunderstandings?

For more on these critical leadership questions and competencies, check out Leadership Skills: 6 Competencies You Can’t Lead Without

To help your team with tough conversations, check out How to Provide More Meaningful Performance Feedback

The Danger of Focusing Only on Tactics 

Back to the trail…I got up, brushed myself off, and continued to run. Twelve miles later I took a new trail I’d never explored. I was determined not to fall again, so I watched the ground closely.

When I reached the end of the new trail, I turned around, confident I’d counted the number of branching trails I’d passed and that I could get back easily. But I was tired, hadn’t looked at a map, and I’d been watching the ground so closely that I hadn’t paid enough attention to my surroundings. I took a wrong turn and I was lost.

In looking at the ground beneath my feet, I’d lost track of where I was and where to go.

That’s the danger of focusing on tactics and operations (the ground beneath your feet) to the exclusion of strategy and vision (the map and the trail ahead).

leadership strategy and tactics lost

Lost and Wandering

Strategic Questions to Help you Avoid Getting “Lost”

Strategic clarity and vision (looking at the map and the trail ahead) include understanding the big picture, why you’re doing what you’re doing, and how your team’s work contributes to the whole. In addition, a shared vision (picture of where you’re going and what it will feel like to get there) inspires and energizes your team.

When you lack these elements, your team will get “lost” in business. Their work might be precise and done well, but it’s not meaningful—it doesn’t move the team or outcomes forward. This type of meaningless work saps morale and wastes precious time and energy. Here are several questions to help avoid getting lost in unproductive work as you focus on the first element of leadership strategy and tactics:

  • Why do we do this?
  • And ask again, up to five times… why do we do this?
  • What is our organization or team’s purpose?
  • Do we have a shared vision of success for our team? (What does it look like, feel like, and what is happening when we are at our best, doing our best work?)
  • How does our work contribute to the bigger picture? (That bigger picture can be your customer, the organization, or society beyond the business.)
  • What is changing in the world, our industry, technology, employees, or our customers so that we can understand and respond?
  • How will our customers, client, or world be better because of the work we do?

For more on connecting your team to the “why” in your work, check out Strategic Planning Tool: How to Engage Your Team in Better Conversation

To create more clarity and ensure everyone understands what matters most: Creating Clarity: Strategic Activities For Human Centered Leaders

To help your team make these connections and build a foundation for high performance: How to Build a High-Performing Team: Ten Vital Conversations

Resolving the Tension Between Leadership Strategy and Tactics

Many leaders and teams get into arguments and conflict as they struggle with the need to “look at the map” and focus “on the ground beneath their feet.”

The reason for many of these disagreements is that most of us have a natural tendency to focus on one direction or the other. Some people are natural visionaries, looking at the horizon, seeing into tomorrow, and inspiring people to come on the journey with them. Other people are naturally good at operations and ensuring everyone is on the same page, connected with one another, and doing their work well.

Obviously, you need both for any team or organization to do meaningful work and make a difference. What is obvious and self-evident for you will not be so clear for your colleague with a different gift.

In most discussions, the best way to resolve the tension between leadership strategy and tactics is to start with strategy. Where are we going? Why are we going there? How will we and our customer/client be better off as a result?

Once you’ve clarified the strategic goal, then focus on how you will achieve it and the leadership practices that help the team operate smoothly.

In your own leadership, commit to a weekly habit of strategy and tactics. If you’re strong tactically, schedule time at the beginning or end of the week to re-examine why you’re doing the work you’re doing and ensure it aligns with the big picture.

If you’re strong strategically, ask the tactical questions and ensure you haven’t let communication or accountability lapse while you’ve looked at the horizon.

Leadership Strategy and Tactics – Your Turn

A mutual focus on leadership strategy and tactics helps you and your team do motivating, meaningful work without morale-sapping frustration.

I’d love to hear from you: how do you balance leadership strategy and tactics, ensuring you don’t lose focus on one or the other?

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David Dye helps human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results.  He’s the President of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. He’s the award-winning authors of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and and Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Workplace Conflict, and hosts the popular Leadership without Losing Your Soul podcast. David is a former executive and elected official. David and his wife and business partner, Karin Hurt, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

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