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The State of Strategic Thinking

By: , , and :: Published: March 31, 2015

Amid today’s celebration of World Leadership Day, one fundamental question stands out above all others: where have all the strategic leaders gone?

Many studies have shown that today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) environment demands a different kind of leader — one who can rapidly adapt to market shifts and navigate through uncertainty — in essence, a truly strategic leader. Yet, there is a distinct gap between the current leadership capabilities and the future need.

To better understand the state of strategic leadership today, we asked business leaders and learning professionals from diverse industries about their market environment and the need for better strategic thinking — today and in the future. Our findings are summarized in a whitepaper, “The State of Strategic Thinking in Business Today,” and we outline a few of our key findings here.

We found that while the state of strategic thinking varies depending on organization size, industry and location of respondents, there were common themes that surfaced about strategic thinking across all organizations. Strategic thinking is:

In our work building strategic leadership capabilities within organizations, we often hear companies need leaders who are forward-looking and are able to think strategically to navigate through whatever the future may bring. Our survey results strongly reaffirm this need. An overwhelming majority of responses (94%) indicate that strategic thinking is important for leaders. In fact, 72% of responses place strategic thinking at the highest level of importance to achieving sustainable success.

Although strategic thinking is nearly always cited as extremely important across a variety of research studies, there is not a precise or consistent definition of this capability across organizations. When asked how “strategic thinking” is defined and communicated in their organizations, 31% of respondents indicated that strategic thinking was largely undefined or not clearly communicated. When respondents did define the capability, however, most definitions centered around having a long-term view and future focus, as well as anticipating and adapting to market changes.

Hard to develop.
Our previous research indicated that strategic thinking does not necessarily improve on its own without targeted development. In a study we conducted with 20,000 survey respondents from Inc. magazine, for example, we found that strategic thinking did not substantially improve with increased age or education alone. One potential hindrance to the development of strategic thinking is the perception that it is not easy to do, as the majority (60%) of survey respondents indicated the capability is difficult to develop.

Misaligned with future needs.
When asked about the level of strategic thinking exhibited by leaders today compared to the future need, most respondents felt a distinct gap between the current state and the future need. Specifically, fewer than 2% felt there was no gap, and close to 80% thought more than a minimal investment was required to bridge the gap.

While this means that organizations are facing a leadership and succession challenge perhaps greater than ever before, it also presents a tremendous opportunity. Those who recognize the importance of strategic thinking for future success and proactively develop it will gain a critical advantage in this VUCA environment.

To download the full whitepaper, “The State of Strategic Thinking in Business Today,” enter your information below and we’ll send it directly to your inbox.

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