Strategists are not leaders
Why it matters to pick the right lane and live your role
Let’s start with a simple fact. Strategists’ serve on staffs led by someone else. A strategist then, is not The Leader.
Let’s dispense with the nonsense objections, that leaders will always think they “possess a strategic mind” (some do), and strategists will always think they’re “leading on a smaller level” (okay). If you want to play word games, those are true to an extent, a small fraction.
But if you want to live in the real world, both roles clearly have different skill sets and focus areas. Leadership gathers and mobilizes people, harnessing the power of many to accomplish some great task. Strategists anticipate, design, and facilitate strategic decisions. These are distinct lanes with mutual interests. Multi-tasking doesn’t work when the roles are so huge. Don’t be nothing while trying to be everything.
Leadership requires strategists. Strategists require leaders. You don’t need a strategist if the task isn’t tough, and strategists will always rely on leadership to execute and accomplish tough tasks.
The strategist sets up a decision. The leader makes the decision. One poses the right question, the other’s charged with the best answer.
Nobody’s better at describing this relationship than scholar Stephen Biddle. He points out that, “inherent” in “strategy is the idea that your goals are always in some degree of tension. People don't like that, and…strategists don't like it either, but at the end of the day, there are always goals in tension.”
He illustrates the point using the choice between an ambitious rollback strategy and a more cautious containment approach in a 2006 interview (the talk begins at 44 minutes in this video)...
Biddle: “In this particular problem, the goal of prosecuting the war on terror and prosecuting the delay of the rise of a superpower challenger are in tension in a variety of ways. One would be if you're going to pursue a rollback strategy against terrorists, you have to be very ambitious and expend enormous amounts of treasure and effort in a very risky attempt to re-engineer an entire region of the world. That tends, other things being equal, to run down your economic condition in ways that make it easier for a rising challenger elsewhere to eventually equal your economic power and pose that kind of great power threat to you. If instead we were more conservative and husbanded our resources in an attempt to delay the date at which our GDP is overtaken, perhaps, by a rising China, you would not be able to conduct the war in Iraq, for example, as energetically as we're doing, and the prospects for political change in the Mideast would be much more distant, if realistic at all.”
Interviewer: “You're suggesting—and I think that your analysis is fair to all sides in this debate about what the course should be—that in focusing on the war on terrorism we are attempting, or the administration is attempting, to deal with what they see as the compelling threat in the short term, whereas those who emphasize grand strategy are putting off dealing with that present threat in order to secure a long-term future. Is that fair?”
Biddle: “I think all of these positions are defensible. In fact, not only do I think they're all defensible, I think a choice among them ultimately rests on value judgments that analyst folk like me can't resolve. The question of risk preference, for example: rollback might solve the problem but it's very risky. Containment is less risky in the short term but can't solve the problem, at least not anytime soon. It's like the difference between swinging for the fences and trying to get a home run but risking a strikeout, as opposed to someone who swings for contact, hits only singles but very rarely strikes out. No analyst can tell you that swinging for the fences is the wrong thing to do. It's a function of how risk-tolerant we are as a people. In fact, arguably one of the fundamental political processes that elected leaders should conduct is to manage a national debate over how risk-acceptant are we. How ambitious does the public want to be here, and how much of a cost and a danger are they willing to accept in order to pursue that?”
Interviewer: “I guess as a strategist the virtue of what you're doing is trying to analyze these choices and lay them out without the emotion of the moment that might color the debate one way or the other.”
Biddle: “I'm trying to lay bare the choices and illuminate the costs and benefits of them each, and to show where the value judgment lies as a way of facilitating a political debate that I can't, at the end of the day, resolve about what are our values. But I think at the moment, without laying that bare, what we get is a very muddy process with people arguing past each other and debates that don't converge, because so much of what is objectively analyzable about the problem remains opaque and misunderstood.”
Most major decisions come down to values, goals, risk tolerance. Strategists set these thorny decisions up, leadership makes them.
This can be frustrating for both parties in the relationship. Leadership’s often pressed for time. Their personal brainpower and bandwidth’s chewed up by endless meetings. They’re short on real time for strategic thinking.
Strategists find it difficult that leadership just won’t make the great decision, the right decision—heck, any decision. This problem, the Forever Maybe, is the strategist’s greatest hurdle. Because our universe’s default setting is stasis and decay (the first two laws of thermodynamics), organizations tend to follow suit. They don’t advance, stuck in the twilight between nothing and something. Stagnant, slowly unraveling.
This is the central challenge of the Leadership-Strategist relationship. I’ve met far too many strategists and leaders that think they’re both and end up being neither.
Of course there’s some overlap. The lanes aren’t entirely exclusive. The world’s messy. But each has a role and those roles are jeopardized when one doesn’t understand the others’ strengths.
So how do we overcome this tension?
If you’re a strategist, no matter what you may think, you’re subordinate to leadership. Leadership has the right to be monstrously wrong (as long as it’s not criminal or illegal), and you’ve got to acquiesce to such decisions.
As a strategist this understanding can bring you peace. A sense of calm. And with it, a more objective mind born of the presumption that you can never be too heavily invested in one particular course of action. That’s a strength.
Strategists who believe in ridiculous notions like “leading up” in their organization are playing with fire and their own sanity. It’s an understandable, if foolish, impulse. A “leading up” mindset simultaneously disrespects actual leadership while revealing an I-know-better hubris.
“Know yourself,” Sun Tzu advised, thousands of years ago. Somehow, some people have yet to listen.