The 6 Qualities of Great Strategic Thinkers, According to a Leadership Expert
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The 6 Qualities of Great Strategic Thinkers, According to a Leadership Expert

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The 6 Qualities of Great Strategic Thinkers, According to a Leadership Expert

Michael D. Watkins is a professor of leadership and organizational change at the IMD Business School and a cofounder of Genesis Advisers. Previously, he was a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the Harvard Business School and an affiliate faculty member at the Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation. He is the author of sixteen books, including the international bestseller The First 90 Days, which has been called “the onboarding bible” by the Economist, and is an Amazon “100 Leadership and Success Books to Read in a Lifetime.” He is also the author or co-author of dozens of articles on leadership in the Harvard Business Review and Sloan Management Review. In 2023, he was inducted into the Thinkers50 Hall of Fame in recognition of his decades of contributions to management and leadership.

Below, Michael shares five key insights from his new book, The Six Disciplines of Strategic Thinking: Leading Your Organization into the Future. Listen to the audio version—read by Michael himself—in the Next Big Idea App.

The Six Disciplines of Strategic Thinking Michael Watkins Next Big Idea Club

1. Strategic thinking is the most important skill for leaders today.

Every business is facing unprecedented challenges with technology development, supply chain issues, economic uncertainty, and political instability. Therefore, leaders need to cultivate strategic thinking to navigate through the turbulence.

For example, I’m working with a large, U.S.-based healthcare company that is grappling with the AI Revolution. They’re trying to adapt not only to the state of AI today but also to where AI is headed and how quickly it will get there. There’s a real need to think strategically and dynamically about the future evolution of artificial intelligence.

As you think about developing yourself as a future leader, recognize that building strategic thinking capability is among the most important work you must focus on in the present.

2. Precisely defining strategic thinking matters.

When interviewing numerous high-level leaders for this book, the first question I asked them was: What is strategic thinking? Their initial responses boiled down to, basically, Well, I know it when I see it. That’s not good enough because without a deeper understanding of strategic thinking, we can’t do the work necessary to develop it.

So, I really dug in and thought hard about how we think about what strategic thinking is. I concluded that strategic thinking, at its core, is about the set of mental capabilities leaders use to recognize emerging threats and opportunities, set priorities, and mobilize their organization.

“There’s a real need to think strategically and dynamically about the future evolution of artificial intelligence.”

It’s not an accident that the initials for those three identifiers (recognize, prioritize, mobilize) are RPM because it’s a cycle—a cycle that you need to go around quicker than your competitors. So, as you think about strategic thinking going forward, think about it in those terms. Think about how to recognize, prioritize, and mobilize within your organization.

3. Strategic thinking consists of six mental disciplines.

The first three mental disciplines of strategic thinking are pattern recognition, systems analysis, and mental agility. These form the foundation for recognizing and prioritizing emerging threats and opportunities.

Pattern recognition is the ability to see what’s important in the midst of a complex, uncertain, sometimes rapidly changing environment and to be able to focus the attention of others on what really matters.

Systems analysis is the ability to build mental models that take complicated situations and simplify them so that you can make sense of interactions in an essential way. It lets you realize that if you make a change over here, it’s likely to have an impact over there, and may set up a feedback loop over here.

Mental agility consists of two somewhat distinct but related capacities. The first is level-shifting ability. A CEO I worked with called it Cloud-to-Ground thinking. It’s the ability to move from the high-level, 50,000-foot view of things, then down into the details, and back up again. Critically, it’s the ability to do so intentionally and determine what altitude you need to be flying at.

The related second mental agility capability is the game-playing or chess master skill of understanding moves and counter-moves and looking ahead a few moves. For instance, understanding what competitors and stakeholders might do and using that prediction to plan the sequence of things to do moving forward.

“Think about how to recognize, prioritize, and mobilize within your organization.”

The other three mental disciplines are the foundation of powerfully mobilizing an organization: structured problem-solving, visioning, and political savvy.

Structured problem-solving is about helping your team frame and tackle complicated problems and come to an agreement about the right path forward.

Visioning is the ability to imagine futures that are inspiring but also potentially realistic and achievable and then work backward from the vision to understand what needs to be done now to move the organization in that direction. This needs to be done in a way that is powerful and simple. Powerful simplification is necessary for communicating in a way that aligns an organization’s energy and mobilizes people to go forward.

The final discipline is political savvy. This is the capacity to understand the political realities of stakeholders and to craft strategies that form the necessary alliances for moving your organization forward.

Together, those six disciplines are the tools you need to recognize what’s most important, set the right priorities, and mobilize your organization to move forward.

4. Political savvy is an essential discipline of strategic thinking.

It’s not usual that people bundle strategic thinking with political savvy, but I make the case that it is essential. Because, in the end, to implement any strategy, you need the support of alliances with key stakeholders. Doing so requires political savvy.

When people conventionally think about political savvy, the first thing they usually think about is emotional intelligence, meaning the ability to understand what people care about, empathize, and use that to craft bargain deals that address key needs. There’s no question that EQ is an essential part, but there’s also an important strategic element to political savvy.

“In the end, to implement any strategy, you need the support of alliances with key stakeholders.”

For many years, I taught negotiation and diplomacy at Harvard and, in the process, helped develop a school of thinking about politics, negotiation, and alliance building that is strategic in nature. For example, if you’re trying to build support for an important initiative, in what sequence will you talk to people to move forward with the most momentum? We know that there’s path dependence when trying to influence people. If you talk to this person before talking to that person, you may amplify your ability to convince the second person to support you. However, persuasion may not work well if you do it in the opposite order. This is a simple example of sequencing strategy.

Putting strategic thinking about politics at the core of this mental discipline will prepare you for the inevitable challenge of needing supportive alliances to move forward.

5. Strategic thinking is a learnable skill.

Based on my observations and research, there’s much you can do to improve strategic thinking skills. I think about this training similar to that of a marathon runner. There unquestionably is an important element of endowment (the mental machinery you were born with and have worked on your whole life), which, by roughly your early 20s, is set to a significant degree.

But like a marathon runner, you may well be born with the right lungs, the right muscle tissue, the right strength, and yet, unless you do the hard work of training consistently, you will never be a world-class marathoner. So, too, is it with strategic thinking.

Exercising strategic thinking is like the exercise you do as part of a physical fitness routine. Think of it as a mental fitness routine. It needs to be something you can do relatively simply on an ongoing basis—if not every day, at least a few days a week. Here are a few examples of strategic thinking training that can be incorporated into a daily routine:

The architect’s exercise involves stepping back when you enter a new space or situation and saying, What works here and what doesn’t? If I were going to make some key changes here, what would I do, and how would I make them? This quick mental exercise builds your capacity for imagination and visioning.

A second example is related to Cloud-to-Ground awareness. When you’re in a meeting, try to consciously move yourself between being down in the details and stepping back to look at what’s happening from a higher level. This trains intentionally moving between levels of analysis.

Through these and many other examples, The Six Disciplines of Strategic Thinking helps readers formulate a mental fitness training program that substantially develops strategic thinking capability.

To listen to the audio version read by author Michael Watkins, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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