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Strategy in Leadership – The Path towards the Vision

July 1, 2023
Jaap Hollander

The Big Four
This is part three of our series on the Leadership Mindset. In the first article we discussed the four essential elements of leadership. We started from a compact, yet complete definition by Bill Clinton. In the second article we constructed a vision benchmark defining the meta programs that make up the working parts of 'envisioning' so to speak. In this third article, we are looking into the second element: strategy.

Leadership”, Clinton says in the famous 2014 Fortune interview, “means bringing people together in pursuit of a common cause, developing a plan to achieve it and staying with it until the goal is achieved. …. 

Strategy is the link between vision and action. The vision gives direction:  we want to go in the future. It is the motivator that empowers the leader and - if it is expressed well - inspires other people to work towards it. The strategy describes the path,  we want to get there; what we are going to do to bring that envisioned better world closer. 

A strategy contains a sequence of steps. Strategy says: First we will do this, in the meantime we will take care of that, then we will do that and finally we will achieve such and such. This is typical procedural thinking. When someone thinks procedurally (as opposed to thinking in options), they are aware of a sequence of actions or outcomes. Although phases or steps in the sequence may overlap, basically each phase needs to be finished to make the next phase successful or even possible.

What is realism?
Clinton mentioned "developing a realistic strategy". Of course, procedural thinking on its own can just as easily lead to unrealistic strategies. Pipe-dreams can have strategies too. Being procedural is no guarantee for realism. There are plenty examples of failed - and often very well strategized - ventures. Take the TouchPad for instance, HP’s iPad challenger. HP gave up the TouchPad after just a month and a half on the market. It was not a bad product. It did what is was supposed to do, but there wasn't anything it did better than the iPad. One retailer ended up with 250.000 unsold TouchPads. Or take the Galaxy Note 7, one of Samsung’s flagship phones. It would occasionally catch fire and/or explode.… The Note 7 was banned from airplanes, and to this day it still is. Samsung had to recall the entire line.

A good example of a successful, realistic strategy is offered by Toyota. When Toyota started selling Japanese cars in the US, the government responded with protectionist taxes on all imported cars. This made Japanese cars as expensive as US-made cars. Within a few years, Toyota established production plants in the US, avoiding the import taxes. Toyota continued to output cars significantly cheaper than US companies could. Their production processes were so efficient and lean, that they were able to beat USA car makers at their own game. Toyota spent years studying the production lines of American car makers such as Ford. They tried to copy what the Americans did well. Then they blended these processes with strengths of their own, and came up with something even better. 

What makes a strategy realistic? 

  1. Practical limitations are addressed
    HP didn’t seem to realise that the reception of their TouchPad would be limited by its minimal advantages over the iPad. Toyota did understand that their price advantage would be severely limited by tax-raised prices.

  2. Possible dangers are considered
    HP didn’t seem to have considered the danger of the TouchPads being sent back by the retailers if they didn’t sell right away. Toyota did understand that their whole USA venture would fail if they could not deliver equal or better quality for a lower price.

  3. Actions to execute the steps in the strategy are specified
    All HP could do when the Touchpad didn't sell right away, was to discontinue it and take their loss. This happened in only 6 weeks. Toyota responded to the protectionist taxes with a long term plan to establish US factories and refining their production processes over decades.

Vision and Strategy
In leadership, with a vision we communicate an emotionally charged, uplifting image of a better world. But just expressing that vision is not enough. How many times have you heard someone say: "Wouldn't it be great if...", without any consequences? A vision needs a path. A good leader not only defines a desirable endpoint. They also sketch the journey that will lead us there. And that sketch needs to have enough detail and enough realism. If the vision appeals to our feelings, the strategy appeals to our rational mind. 

Martin Luther King
A great example of vision is Martin Luther King's famous speech 'I have a dream'. He very specifically depicts what freedom and equality for black Americans will be like. When I was watching this speech again, I did notice that he actually starts with contrasting the oppression of black people ("The life of the negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation"), with the vision("that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of slaves and the sons or slave owners will be able to sit down at the table or brotherhood") Here we see not only 'towards', but also 'away from' thinking. The starting point of the strategic journey is defined as well.

I would like to point out the strategy element in this speech. At the very moment Dr. King is giving the speech, he is literally on the path toward his end point, his vision, the realisation of the dream. He is in Washington DC, surrounded by a mass of many thousands of protesters, who are obviously moved by his vision, but who are also taking concrete action by being there. Here we see and hear a wonderful synthesis of vision and strategy. After describing his dream, Dr. King goes on to describe the path: how they will keep on protesting and fighting for freedom together: "With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together". Although in this case I have to note that the sequence is not very clear. It's more something like 'let's do all this and we will get there', rather than 'first step A and then spep B' and so on.

Another aspect of Dr. King's speech I would like to call your attention to, is the aspect of tenacity. Clinton says: "Leadership means bringing people together in pursuit of a common cause, developing a plan to achieve it and staying with it until the goal is achieved…. Staying with it. King literally talks about 'struggling together' and 'going to jail together'. This represents strong tenacity in the face of resistance.

In the next article in this series we will look at the nuts and bolts of strategy. What is the mindset that helps with strategizing? And does it show up in a MindSonar profile?

About the author 

Jaap Hollander

Psychologist, living in the Netherlands. Founded MindSonar in 1995. Directs MindSonar Global, which manages the ICT development, applications and the curriculum of the MS Certification Trainings. Working part time as a trainer, writer and coach as well as being an expressionist painter (artist name JAAPH, see jaaph.com). Has written 10 books on NLP and Provocative Coaching.

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