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You’re the leader, what are you thinking?


Guest articles > You’re the leader, what are you thinking?


by: Jim Rickard


“We only think when we are confronted with a problem”.
John Dewey (1859-1952)

The statement, “thinking is hard work” may receive differing responses depending upon the audience receiving the message; the construction worker on the job-site and the architect who designed the project may have different opinions about what constitutes “hard work”.

An experienced leader of any size organization intuitively knows that in order for his or her organization to be successful there must be uninterrupted time set aside for thinking, planning and strategizing.

During the mid- to late-1970’s the new mantra for companies was called “strategic planning” and many companies jumped on board the ship; only to later find out that they sailed away into captivity with the strategic planners. When Jack Welch became the CEO of General Electric he began a process that successfully eliminated the bureaucratic power of the strategic planning department and by 1984 had restored power back to managers and leaders.(1)

There is nothing wrong with good planning, the problem with strategic planning comes when it becomes the final arbiter and ends up with the proverbial “tail wagging the dog”. Planning is a control function of any organization that helps provide stability to the organization and gives direction for positive movement of organizations. Strategic planning on steroids can become the bottleneck in an organization; instead of helping the organization, it can block creative thinking and ideas that could be a source of valuable information.

Leaders need to think strategically rather than plan strategically in order to bring about change within their organizations.

“You are today where your thoughts have brought you; you will be tomorrow where your thoughts take you”. (2)
-- James Allen (1864-1912).

Thinking strategically requires a leader to be able to think in terms of the past, (How did we begin?) present, (Where are we now?); and future (Where do we want to be?).

Four important forward-looking questions that require strategic thinking skills are:

  1. Where are we going?
  2. How are we going to get there?
  3. What are we going to do when we get there?
  4. How are we going to pay for it?

Perhaps you are wondering “what’s the difference between strategic planning and strategic thinking and can’t we use them to talk about the same thing?” Good question and the short answer is No! Strategic planning would be like the individual who works out the details for putting together a flying model airplane; strategic thinking would be the individual who not only can understand the assembly details, but also has the ability to “visualize and see” the end result of the model actually flying.

A 1991 article by Henry Mintzberg (3) related seven different elements involving strategic thinking as “seeing”.

  1. Seeing ahead,
  2. Seeing behind,
  3. Seeing down,
  4. Seeing below,
  5. Seeing beside,
  6. Seeing beyond, and
  7. Seeing it through. 

Perhaps you have heard the old phrase, “You just don’t understand the big picture”, the retort is usually something like, “Yes I do, and I have it hanging on the wall at my house”.

We need to be able to construct our own visual big picture in each unique situation. The big picture does not present itself to us matted and framed to show us the way to the yellow brick road.

Strategic thinkers are able to paint their own picture by their abilities of looking at the past, the present and the future expectations of their organizations. From looking at every possible scenario; forward looking, backward looking, looking up, looking down, looking laterally and looking beyond the horizon to see what is coming toward them strategic thinkers are able to prepare for action.

For those who think that the past is a long time ago and the future is too far away; the past is just a second of time behind us, the present is right now and the future is just one second ahead of us. The future is here and strategic thinking is critical to the success and continued success of any organization.

In today’s complex business environment no one individual has all the answers or even most of them, the days of all knowledge and wisdom supposedly flowing down from the leader and/or the board of directors are over. Strategic leaders today recognize that the most valuable asset they have for the future of their companies resides within the walls of their organization. Employees are the greatest strength that any company has and wise leaders who think strategically listen to their comments and suggestions and, if they have merit, act upon them.

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity”. (4)
 -- George S. Patton

Organizations who have a strategy of learning or a culture of learning not only think strategically, they act strategically and share information throughout the organization, almost instantaneously; through their internal computer systems. Learning organizations help to develop strategic thinking skills throughout the organization which, in turn, gives that organization a distinct competitive advantage over non –learning similar companies in obtaining needed market share.

There is an old story about three frogs sitting on a log and one of them decides to jump. The question is asked, “How many are left”? The answer is “three”. He only decided to jump, he didn’t jump and that is the point.

In the sport of tennis a good follow through is important in delivering the ball to the opponent’s side of the court. In using tennis as a metaphor to talk about business it helps to remember that a powerful serve is not always the most effective strategy to defeat our opponent, sometime a good cross court shot is just as effective in winning a point and the game. As leaders we can think strategically about doing something, but until we follow through with action nothing happens.



1. Mintzberg, H., Ahlstrand, B., & Lampel, J. (2005). Strategy safari: A guided tour through the wilds of strategic management. New York: The Free Press

2. Phillips, B (1993) Phillips’ Book of Great Thoughts and Funny Sayings, Tyndale House Publishers Inc. Wheaton, Illinois

3. Mintzberg, H., Ahlstrand, B., & Lampel, J. (2005). Strategy safari: A guided tour through the wilds of strategic management. New York: The Free Press

4. Phillips, B (1993) Phillips’ Book of Great Thoughts and Funny Sayings, Tyndale House Publishers Inc. Wheaton, Illinois


A former United States Marine, Jim Rickard has worked with a major international non-profit organization since 1983 and he has earned his BA in Criminal Justice Administration, Master of Public Administration and Master of Business Administration. Jim lives with his family in Brandon, MS and is currently pursuing his Doctor of Strategic Leadership degree with Regent University, Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Contributor: Jim Rickard

Published here on: 29-Jan-12

Classification: Leadership


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