Conventional wisdom says there are two kinds of leaders. Transactional leaders solve immediate problems: they make expedient deals, please people and keep the enterprise moving. But they falter at complex problems where the solutions are uncertain and the parameters are murky.
For that, you need strategic leaders: people who can transcend limits and achieve extraordinary goals, not once or twice, but routinely and repeatedly.
The times clearly call for that kind of leader. And it’s becoming clear, from studies of the mind (the locus of mental activity) and the brain (the physical organ) that there is a way to train yourself to make decisions more strategically.
Imagine any complex moment of choice facing you as a leader. It could be an ethical dilemma (whether to fudge numbers or pay a bribe), a recruitment for a complex position (or a layoff), or an investment opportunity that could either solidify the enterprise’s future or squander it. How do you ensure you make the right choice this time – and build your capacity to make the right choice in the future?
The way you think about other people, at that moment of decision, makes a difference. You could focus on what you want, what they want, and giving everyone what they want. Psychologists call this type of mental activity subjective valuation; it activates and strengthen the “low ground,” as we call it, of your mind and brain. The low ground is essential for anyone in an accountable role. But it’s limited.
To influence effective change, in your organization or the world around you, you need to activate the “high ground” of your mind and brain. Instead of thinking about what people want, you think about what they are thinking, and what they’re likely to do next. Psychologists call this “mentalizing,” and for many people, it’s a bit uncomfortable. Indeed, it’s associated with people of low status. But when you’re an executive leader, thinking in this way, you galvanize your influence and effectiveness.
So the next time you have a major decision, don’t just think about how to make people happy – including yourself. Think about what has led others to the position they hold. That will help you strengthen the high ground of your mind and brain, and thus to build strategic leadership into a habit. The experience of this type of leadership can be compared to listening for a voice within yourself: a kind of “wise advocate,” seeing you as others do, but also looking out for your deepest fulfillment.
The more prowess you gain as a leader, the stronger this voice becomes – and the easier it is to take on a similar voice of strategic influence in the organization around you.
This is an adaption from the book “The Wise Advocate” by Art Kleiner, Jeffrey Schwartz and Josie Thomson.
Kleiner is the editor in chief of strategy+business, the management magazine published by PwC. Schwartz is a research psychiatrist at UCLA School of Medicine and a leading expert in neuroplasticity and Thomson is an award-winning executive coach, speaker, author, and two-time cancer survivor.