The Champion: A Model for 21st Century Strategic Leadership
Strategic leaders are able to transform an organization through their vision and values, the culture and climate they create, and the structure and systems they develop. Strategic leaders can establish greater clarity, make stronger connections, and expand their leadership influence while contributing to their organization’s well-being when guided by a well-defined personal leadership model.
Strategic leaders know that they cannot expect to control complex, dynamic, and living systems as large organizations. However, they can have an effect on them with the help of leadership models. Leaders who influence organizations in an efficacious manner form a comprehensive understanding of both themselves and the organization they lead. Real leaders wrote the novelist David Foster Wallace, are people who “help us overcome the limitations of our own individual weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”[ii] As a result, a leadership model becomes invaluable to the strategic leader’s foresight, understanding, and ultimate success.
This article presents the Strategic Leader as Champion Model for strategic leaders where self-mastery through personal ethos leads to the individual champion, the exercise of meta-leadership leads to the organizational champion, and as a result, society comes to recognize the individual and the organization as its champion in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world. Let’s look first at the individual champion.
Above all a leader must be genuine…his own true self, not an imitation of some other, be that other ever so successful.— Lincoln Andrews
The Individual Champion
The Strategic Leader as Champion Model recognizes that the opportunity to lead is a privilege and not a right; a privilege earned each and every day. The individual champion emphasizes a personal ethos to direct and inform one’s efforts and actions and helps lay a solid foundation to make the leader resilient and resistant to failure due to character. Aristotle stated that developing a virtue was a matter of habituation: “Moral goodness is the result of habit.”[iii] The individual champion achieves a higher level of personal character through the routine practice of ethical behavior. It serves as a compass to regulate behavior and allow the leader to live values and qualities on a regular basis so they become entrenched. Meanwhile, a person of character must also be competent.
Competence is exemplified when leaders can develop a broad frame of reference and think conceptually about the VUCA environment. They, in essence, make integrative thinking essential to recognize and predict the effects of decisions they recommend or make.[iv] To do this effectively, the strategic leader conducts environmental scanning. According to U.S. Navy CAPT Matthew Feely, the environmental scanning approach helps to account for complexity and volatility and associated uncertainty and ambiguity.[v] CAPT Feely explains that scanning requires leaders [and planners] to identify, categorize, and analyze those environmental factors that could potentially be most consequential to strategies formulated against it.[vi] Successful strategic leaders develop a sophisticated understanding of each aspect of the environment around them as they effectively apply gained knowledge to influence the external environment.[vii]
Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses
The fact is that a strategic leader, no matter how talented they may be, is not perfect. But the demand for perfection can exact a huge toll upon a leader. This is why is it so critical for the strategic leader to gain a greater measure of awareness when it comes to strengths and weaknesses. They need to know their blind spots and how they’re impacted along with those around them. In order to overcome blind spots and overcome weaknesses, the strategic leader needs to incorporate trusted agents and intellectual watchdogs. These agents serve as an antidote against weaknesses and keep the strategic leader humble and focused.
In his seminal work titled Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman explains the importance of possessing and exercising a high level of emotional intelligence, meaning one’s ability to recognize emotions and properly react to them.[viii] The Strategic Leader as Champion Model provides the leader an advantage with its underlying emotional intelligence competencies of self-confidence, humility, empathy, and part change agent. However, one can quickly notice this is not an all-inclusive list. The strategic leader can make up the difference by being humble and comfortable enough to surround himself/herself with talented leaders that emanate other emotional competencies to create a more emotionally intelligent organization. Emotionally intelligent organizations are able to recognize oncoming issues, deal with them effectively, and therefore avoid erosion in trust; a key element for the success of a leader and its organization.
The Organizational Champion
At the helm of the organization, the strategic leader becomes its champion by his ability to build a high-achieving team using a leadership method known as meta-leadership.
Meta-leadership is a method designed to provide individuals with tools so they are better equipped to act and direct others in the worst of times. Its real value is in its heightened capacity to effectively collaborate up, down, across, and beyond the organization while maintaining a unified commitment toward a common goal with those within and without the organization.[ix] As a result, leaders that practice meta-leadership recognize they can no longer lead in the traditional single-level leadership most individuals are comfortable in. They learn to push toward non-stratified leadership as they learn that challenges in the VUCA environment tend to cross inter and intra-organizational boundaries.[x] This realization allows strategic leaders to attain order beyond what they can actually control; a very valuable aptitude since strategic leaders make consequential decisions in an environment defined by uncertainty. Alas, leaders will be asked in most cases to make decisions in an uncertain landscape where they face situations in which the intentions are not known and concealed from our normal perceptions.[xi] Meta-leadership breaks through the fog of uncertainty engulfing the landscape by dealing with complexity and ambiguity simultaneously.
The Strategic Leader as Champion Model emphasizes that acting strategically involves taking decisive action that is consistent with the strategic direction of the organization despite the chaos and complexity. Strategic leaders make decisions in ways that expertly manage the tension between success in daily tasks and success in the long term. A leader’s model facilitates consequential decision-making by providing balance of direction and comfort with autonomy.
In order to develop an organizational vision, the strategic leader needs to start with his/her own personal vision for the way one sees things. The more a vision reflects what one really thinks and cares about, the more powerful it will be since people are more likely to respond to a message if they see true care and passion about an issue, rather than seeing the strategic leader as a political figure speaking in an abstract manner.
GEN Stanley McChrystal posits that a way to foster a vision is by being more like gardeners. He states that “gardeners plant and harvest, but more than anything, they tend. Plants are watered, beds are fertilized, and weeds are removed.”[xii] The gardener’s approach helps to create a stronger vision since it increases the leader’s understanding of the environment, creates two-way communications, prevents marginalization, and therefore inspires buy-in.[xiii]
Within the Strategic Leader as Champion Model, similar to the gardener’s approach, the vision unites the organization with an exciting and compelling picture of what the future can be. Its impact and stickiness rely on a collaborative effort that creates ownership across the entire organization. In contrast, the vision imposed by a boss who is defined by his separation instead of membership in the team gets very little buy-in and ends up marginalizing the team.
A well-developed model also serves as an outline to mentor, coach, and develop young leaders within the organization. A strategic leader is leadership in action and not a position; a leader shows somebody how to do something while a boss simply tells people what to do. Organizational leaders have recognized the value in ensuring a robust leadership development program, and how vital such programs are to develop leaders in an increasingly complex global world. Developing future generations to lead is the only sure way to ensure organizational sustainability.
The Strategic Leader as Champion Model attempts to assist the strategic leader in building a unique culture that operates as a harmonious chorus where even solos can exist without the rise of resentment since one person’s success is seen as the entire organization’s success. A strong and positive culture is enhanced through commitments to mentoring and properly established feedback mechanisms. Leaders successfully shape cultures with effective designs, systems, procedures and structures that strengthen rather than marginalize team members.[xiv] In addition, the decision-making approach says a lot about the type of culture. While an advocacy approach to decision-making stifles the team, the strategic leader can choose the inquiry method where decision-making is inclusive, collaborative, balances arguments, and creates ownership.[xv]
It is important to note that the life of the organizational champion is not a life of one glorious mountaintop experience after another; it is a life of day-in and day-out consistency. And for this reason, the strategic leader is continually on the lookout for possible crises. This serves as an antidote against an oncoming crisis by exercising confident humility to understand that a crisis can strike even great organizations. Therefore, the leader ought to be ready for that worst of days as challenges afford leaders the opportunity to become champions to society.
The Champion to Society
The climax of the model is having society acknowledge the strategic leader and his/her organization as their champion. This level of the model is achieved when the individual and organization are trusted, are seen as inclusive and dependable, and make themselves accountable.
The Strategic Leader as Champion Model emphasizes values-driven action, especially during a crisis. For a strategic and ethical leader, crisis response is seen as an affirmation of their stewardship and not just a test.[xvi] The model guides a leader to be forthright, calm, and fierce through bold action. This is possible since the model along with the key components for success in crises (communication, clarity of vision and values, and caring) are shared.
Drawing on years of experience with crisis leadership, Coast Guard Admiral (R) Thad Allen explains that a crisis draws its strength from complexity.[xvii] And as such, complexity becomes a risk aggravator that requires defeat strategies. The strategies leaders employ during the crisis later serve to validate the model or present areas where the model needs improvements or enhancements. The Strategic Leader as Champion Model is built to help a strategic leader achieve success against any crisis it could to face.
The Genesis and Future Imperative of the Model
Great leaders feel the drive to satisfy a higher-order need to become more effective leaders. One way to cement one’s learned leadership blueprint is through the use of a personal leadership model like the Strategic Leader as Champion Model. The context and substance of the model rely on two things:
- previous leadership experiences along with one’s own journey as a developing leader and
- the future imperatives to allow the model to thrive
One can easily recall the moments when one felt wholly inadequate to take on a leadership challenge and how the lessons learned from the challenge were seared into our consciousness. Regardless of the difficult memories, one needs to note the causes and shortcomings that led to the failure and what traits and mechanisms were lacking at the moment. Lessons learned take into account how one failed at the personal, organizational, and societal level. This three-tiered assessment allows one to bring in questions of ethics, competence, and responsibility. Also important is an assessment of the actions of senior leaders.
So what’s the future imperative for the Strategic Leader as Champion Model? In the end, good leadership is learned in the trenches. Becoming a great leader is a life-long journey where one slowly and deliberately develops the thinking, skills, and habits of the leader one wants and society needs.
The individual champion understands that leading is a privilege and not a right. The model makes an imperative to master oneself first and foremost through ethical behavior, competence, humility, and emotional intelligence. Therefore, he/she inculcates themselves with the necessary ethics, values, and competence to effectively fend off the temptations that so easily beset so many talented leaders.
As an individual champion, the strategic leader becomes an organizational champion by his/her ability to build a team with meta-leadership concepts. The champion’s ability to use meta-leadership leads him/her to make better consequential decisions, construct a vision with buy-in, outline an effective approach for developing future leaders and prevents paralysis during a crisis.
Strategic leaders possess distinct personal instincts and talents that allow them to become effective and successful organizational leaders. Models like the Strategic Leader as Champion Model are purposely built with the intent to apply to a wide range of challenges. Thus, the strategic leader needs to understand that unique problems may challenge the nature of the model and necessitate the suspension of “business as usual.”[xviii] This is all part of recognizing the need to build on one’s strengths and turn weaknesses into opportunities for growth.
The beginning of each section in the Strategic Leader as Champion Model explains how one moves from one level to the next. But one never truly graduates from one level to the next; one does not abandon one level for the sake of the next one. The strategic leader exists in all of them at the same time with the endeavor to continually increase wisdom, knowledge base, and skills in order to avoid hubris and the demise it invites.
According to Lincoln Andrews, a leader must remain genuine, true to themselves and not an imitation of someone else.[xix] The Strategic Leader as Champion Model intends to preserve the uniqueness of the leader by emphasizing a leadership model where self-mastery through personal ethos leads to the individual champion. Then meta-leadership leads to the organizational champion, and thus, society comes to recognize the individual and the organization as its champion in the VUCA global landscape.
[i] Gaebelein, Thad A. & Simmons, Ron P., A Question of Character (New York: Red Brick Press, 2000)
[ii] Nancy F. Koehn, “Leadership Lessons from the Shackleton Expedition,” New York Times online, Accessed 20 March 2016 at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/25/business/leadership-lessons-from-the-shackleton-expedition.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&ref=ernestshackleton&adxnnlx=1394287275-6ftcNAVhqUDL1X5OqHp9mQ.
[iii] Aristotle, The Ethics of Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics, trans. J.A.K. Thomson, (New York and London: Penguin Books, 1953).
[iv] Gerras, Stephen J., Strategic Leadership Primer, 3d Edition, Department of Command, Leadership, and Management, US Army War College, 2010.
[v] Feely, Matthew SA., “Environmental Scanning: A Non-traditional Method of Scenario Planning,” Eisenhower School.
[viii] Goleman, Daniel, “Leadership That Gets Results.” Harvard Business Review, March-Aril 2000, Accessed 20 March 2016, Accessed on https://hbr.org/2000/03/leadership-that-gets-results.
[ix] Marcus, Leonard J., et al., “Meta-leadership: A Framework for Building Leadership Effectiveness,” National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, Harvard School of Public Health, 2015.
[xi] Gerras, Stephen J., Strategic Leadership Primer, 3d Edition, Department of Command, Leadership, and Management, US Army War College, 2010.
[xii] McChrystal, Stanley, Team Of Teams: New Rules Of Engagement For A Complex World (New York: Penguin Random House, 2015).
[xiv] Schein, Edgar H., “Legitimating Clinical Research in the Study of Organization Culture,” Journal of Counseling and Development, Vol 71, No 6, July 1993.
[xv] Garvin, David A. and Roberto, Michael A., “What You Don’t Know About Making Decisions,” Harvard Business Review, September 2001.
[xvi] Garcia, Fred H., “Effective Leadership Response to Crisis,” Strategy and Leadership, Vol 34, No 1, 2006.
[xvii] ADM Thad Allen Leadership Presentation at Eisenhower School, 1 February 2016.
[xviii] Garcia, Fred H., “Effective Leadership Response to Crisis,” Strategy and Leadership, Vol 34, No 1, 2006.
[xix] Gaebelein, Thad A. & Simmons, Ron P., A Question of Character (New York: Red Brick Press, 2000)
The model was created by the author. The ideas and views expressed in this professional leadership article are expressly those of the author.
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© 2019 Fernando Guadalupe Jimenez