What makes a strategist?
Are they competition-specific or all-weather, all-terrain?
"What is it that makes one a strategist? It's more than a title, no?"
The question came via Twitter (from Jason Arriaga).
I replied off the cuff. "It's a mindset and a set of habits that collectively focus on orientations toward success in competitive endeavors. The core competency is to anticipate, design, and facilitate strategic decisions...a competency that can apply to many different activities."
I added that last bit because I wanted to emphasize application beyond the battlefield. There's this possessive tendency in military circles to try to "own" strategy. Military-focused strategists often dismiss out-of-hand the value of strategic ideas beyond pure military examples. Many in the military would prefer to study ancient and historical strategic decisions as opposed to more-recent conflicts or even business strategies that may have more bearing on geopolitics and modern military strategy.
There's some justification for this pride because the term "strategy" itself does come from the Greek term strategos (singular)/strategoi (plural), meaning “military general.”
But this thinking does impose limits. Military strategists run the risk of myopia by focusing too much on too narrow an education.
It also points the needle towards an issue in the practice of strategy. Are there individual strategists for different fields?
My sense is that there's only one kind of strategist with dozens and hundreds of applications and thousands and millions of derivations.
Strategists seek success. They do it by finding orientations toward success in their given endeavor. These are habits of mind. Thought patterns. A mindset driven to succeed in come kind of competitive environment.
These habits, these patterns, are more common than you'd think. A coach, a general, a CEO, a president—all have staffs stuffed with strategists and they’re all seeking success. Retired general Stanley McChrystal once suggested a CEO would make a good general:
“I’ve dealt with a lot of chief executive officers who could walk in and be general officers in the military tomorrow. All we’d have to do is get them a uniform and a rank. They’d step in and it would be seamless—because they solve problems and they lead people.”
His comment, if I remember correctly, received swift pushback from those in the military profession. But it raises an interesting question. Can you put a strategist in any role? Would a C-suite strategist do well in a military headquarters’? Could we plug-in a veteran political strategist on a pro sports coaching staff? (Or even an American football coach crossing the Atlantic to become a British soccer coach?)
It seems like we already do, to a less radical degree. We move generals (and their staff strategists) from assignment to assignment, one year to the next. Or CEOs job- and industry-hopping. Or military and business leaders (and their staffs) moving over to politics.
So should we swap strategists from one field to another?
Not without thought. But we also shouldn’t dismiss the value and perspective one strategist from one walk of strategy might bring into another.
The best test of this is a simple, deliberate 15-minute conversation. It's impossible to spot a strategist from the outside, but you can pick them out after a good talk. Language conveys thought, and so can reveal strategic thinking. Ask them about their arena. Ask them about their challenges. How astute their description is can tell you everything you need to know about whether the person across from you is a strategist that may have something to offer you in your own chosen field.
I fall back on something I wrote several years ago. I was tired of not being able to describe what I did for the organization. Family members would ask, “what’s your job nowadays?,” and I didn’t have a concise answer.
I wanted something pithy, like other jobs. I’d hear infantry officers use shorthand phrases like "close with and destroy the enemy."
So I came up with my own, a shorthand job description and “core competency” for strategists: anticipate, design, and facilitate strategic decisions. That encapsulates it all. Seeing ahead and visualizing coming challenges; organizing the problem in such a way that's digestible to key stakeholders; and possessing the skills to work with the multi-disciplinary groups necessary to wrangle wicked problems and then the soft, interpersonal touch it takes to navigate the all-too-difficult process to get those senior stakeholders to make an actual f*ing decision.
That’s a strategist.