Leading with Strategic Thinking


Four Ways Effective Leaders Gain Insight,Drive Change, and Get Results by Aaron K. Olson and B. Keith Simerson, Wiley, 2015

All organizations need strategy and leadership to achieve results. While these subjects are individually interesting, it’s really a skillful combination of the two that leads to success. This book does a fine job of integrating the two topics and helps readers not just conceptually understand ‘strategic leadership’ but also develop and apply this important capability.

The book starts with an attempt to deconstruct strategic thinking and leadership in Chapter 1. We learn how strategic thinking draws heavily from the three academic disciplines of cognitive psychology, systems thinking and game theory. We also get a quick tour of the trajectory of leadership research and how the academic and popular views on leadership have evolved over time. The authors then analyze the intersection of strategic thinking and leadership and provide some popular and also contrasting examples of strategic leadership in action.

Chapter 2 introduces us to different types of strategic leadership based on how leaders go about strategy formation (planned vs. emergent) and strategy execution (directive vs. participative). These combinations give rise to four types of strategic leaders – visionary, incubating, directive and collaborative. The authors provide a detailed background on these four types of leaders including how they think, what they do, and the impact they achieve.

Chapter 3 provides real-world examples of how different leaders match their strategic leadership type to context. The case studies cover a wide range, from start-ups and small companies to large corporations and public enterprises. We learn that there is no one best type of leadership (context matters!) and also that the need for strategic leadership exists at all levels and in all kinds of organizations.

The authors shift gears in Chapter 4 and move to the practical application of strategic leadership. They discuss specific ways in which leaders gain insight (strategy formation) and drive change (strategy execution). The authors argue that insight can be gained through both process and mindful experience and change can be driven through both direction and participation. What matters is the match between the situation that the leaders face and the approach they adopt. Chapter 5 deals with the additional challenge strategic leaders face: enlisting the support of followers. The authors suggest a three-pronged approach to garner their commitment and advocacy. They illustrate through case studies how strategic leaders win the hearts, engage the minds and leverage the hands of their followers.

Finally, Chapter 6 elaborates on the competencies that strategic leaders display and recommends tools and resources to develop these. The competencies include three core competencies (fundamental to all types of strategic leadership) and 12 applied competencies (specific to one of the four types enlisted in Chapter 2). To develop these competencies, individuals and organizations need to adopt different combinations of coaching, training, experiential learning, partnerships and practice.

At the end of the book are additional tools and resources that leaders can use to further develop their strategic leadership competencies. These resources include self-assessment, books, journals and articles. I found the book both interesting and useful.

The conceptual frameworks are well-explained and easy to understand, while the case studies are wellresearched and read like first-hand accounts.

Strategic thinking and leadership have each attracted a great deal of attention as separate topics but have not been sufficiently explored as a joint construct. The authors break new ground to show how the two overlap in different situations.

The breadth of examples is also truly impressive and reflects the vast experience and network of the authors. I learnt from both the similarities and contrasts in these stories. The list of resources at the end is also something that I found extremely valuable.

Like a wind extinguishes a weak fire but fuels a strong one, the winds of disruption are also both a threat and an opportunity. Leading in times of disruptive change requires leading with strategic thinking. And this book is a great place to start!


Eklavya Sinha
Learning and Development Manager,
Aon Hewitt
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Aon India Consulting