Strategic Mindedness: Can You See the Forest Through the Trees?

Imagine yourself in the middle of a dark forest.  The shadows caused by the thick, tall trees obscure the direction of the sun, and there is no clear way out.  Looking up, you recognize that you must get to the top of the trees to have a clear view of where you are.  Selecting a tree and climbing to the top takes everything you have; but once you gain that clear view of a meadow on the nearest edge of the forest, you know which direction to go.

Sometimes business leaders and their teams also get lost in the trees in a common scenario, which I call “death by PowerPoint.”  Organizations often require PowerPoint presentations to be submitted days in advance so that the slides can be reviewed, modified, and re-worded to suit the preferences of layers of subordinate VPs, directors, and staffers before the presentation can be delivered to the targeted executive. The result is hours spent on non-essential work rather than on strategic projects.

I have found that the focus on managing an organization often creates an almost gravitational pull toward myopia, which, in turn, appears to stifle strategic thinking.  Even the smartest business leaders can become so absorbed in the details, so consumed by the specifics of their area of expertise, that they cannot see the big picture.  A well-worn idiom describes this as “not seeing the forest through the trees.”

This myopia can take the form of hubris, excessive pride and a feeling of infallibility, stemming from a leader’s feeling of confidence in his or her knowledge and abilities.  Everyone could cite examples of politicians and celebrities who have fallen victim to this.  Hubris occurs when you think you know so much that you stop looking for reasons you might be wrong.  Most people can readily recognize hubris, unless it’s their own. 

A Better Way Forward

In an article posted by Harvard Business Review, Robert Kabacoff points out that “in study after study, strategic thinkers are found to be among the most highly effective leaders.  And while there is an abundance of courses, books, articles and opinions on the process of strategic planning, the focus is typically on an isolated process that might happen once or twice per year.  In contrast, a true strategic leader thinks and acts strategically every day.”

An effective leader uses what I like to refer to as “Strategic Mindedness” to avoid drifting toward myopia or even hubris.  There is great value in becoming a leader who can see the forest through the trees.  

Six Ways that Strategic Mindedness Will Improve Your Leadership Abilities

  1. Strategic Mindedness encourages innovation. It is easy for business leaders to get lost (“death by PowerPoint”) among processes and systems and take on the role and paradigm of the detailed-oriented employees, who are actually working on those specific business challenges.  This paradigm blinds the leader to big-picture, creative, out-of-the-box thinking of Strategic Mindedness.  Then, instead of grasping the strategic advantage of imagining a new future, leaders can become resigned to the status quo.  When leaders focus on strategy rather than tactics and ask the “what ifs,” other members of the leadership team will follow in becoming strategic thinkers.
  2. Strategic Mindedness creates clear priorities. Strategic Mindedness is asking, “what should we become?” and then guiding teams and organizations to get there.  It takes effort, thoughtfulness, and discipline to separate competitive work (i.e., additional offerings, strategic enablers) from the necessary work (i.e., payroll, accounting).  Over time, a lack of strategic thinking and attention to prioritization will create corporate fog and significant inefficiencies. 
  3. Strategic Mindedness sets you apart from the competition. Strategic Mindedness is less common than you might think.  Does a little hubris sneak into your leadership?  I would argue that while many leaders would consider themselves strategically minded, some around them might disagree.  There are plenty of familiar company names that may not have seen the forest through the trees, such as Lionel Corp., Woolworth’s, Polaroid, Pullman Car Company, Magnavox, Blockbuster, etc.
  4. Strategic Mindedness ensures you’re delivering differentiated value to customers. The mentality of Strategic Mindedness is knowing (or learning) how to align all organizational business systems to deliver value to customers in a differentiated way.  It requires that you think like a CEO, assessing the key stakeholders, understanding their requirements, and finding optimal solutions that deliver the best value to customers.
  5. Strategic Mindedness helps communicate vision and purpose. Strategic Mindedness means working 360 degrees in the organization to communicate, coordinate, share vision, build a common purpose, and create buy-in.  It has been said that good communication is the bridge to clarity; in verbal communications, this means being in the present and listening intently.  An example of the opposite would be a member of Congress who was so involved in the minutia of the wording of a bill that no time was taken to discuss the legislation with others (who would have advised that the bill would never pass).  
  6. Strategic Mindedness helps others become Alignment Leaders®. There is greater problem solving and strategic advantage to be achieved from an engaged team than from the efforts of a single business leader.  Watch your people grow while they find new solutions.  As we point out in “Mastering the Cube,” being dubbed “organization aligners” for a few weeks will convert people into Alignment Leaders for the rest of their careers. 

Strategic Mindedness will ensure that a business leader’s talents and abilities are focused where they need to be.  Continuous organizational alignment and improvement will always require constant strategic thinking – perhaps from the viewpoint of the tallest tree in your forest.

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