Integrated Leadership: Strategy, Operations and Tactics
I find that many people often use words like 'strategy' quite glibly with little consideration as to what the word really means and consequently the concept of 'strategy' becomes devalued. It is often used in questions or statements such as ‘What's your strategy for this meeting?’, ‘My strategy for this tasks is…’, ‘What's your strategy for dealing with this awkward person?’ and so on. I wonder if this is indicative of a lack of thinking about what strategy actually means, and how it differs from tactics, and what links and integrates the two?
Business executives often talk about strategy (high level future plans) and operations, but by 'operations', they usually mean 'tactics' (the day to day, the here and now). What is it that provides the gearing between strategy and tactics?
The Prussians started talking about this in the early 19th century, the Soviets in the 1920/30s, and other western armies about six decades later: it is 'Operational Art'. My experience suggests that few businesses and public sector enterprises have explored the concept of strategy, operations and tactics and the means for integrating these three levels of activity which may be observed in every organization that I have encountered.
Let’s consider these definitions.
Strategy: The high-level plan which describes, in terms that enable the framing of all activity, how resources are to be deployed in order to achieve a defined future-state. Strategy provides a rationale and framework for operational and tactical decisions and actions; and provides coherence between external context, strategic objectives and actual capability; and thus may be emergent.
Operational Art: The orchestration of activity within a geographical or functional area of responsibility; in order to translate organizational strategy into resourced and co-ordinated tactical actions.
Tactics: The deployment of integrated, co-ordinated and cohesive groups of people and resources; in order to achieve defined tasks with maximum effectiveness and economy of effort which further the achievement of operational and strategic objectives. This is where the majority of the people in most organizations are engaged.
How does this relate to ‘integrated leadership’ and organization structure design within an enterprise? The trick is not to rely on some bureaucratic top down mechanism, but to understand how the ‘big three’ levels of leadership work interrelate.
Within every organization there is a leadership environment that tends to vary with the organization, but it is usually possible to identify three domains of leadership; and the larger the organization, the more distinct these layers become.
‘Tactical’ (or episodic) leadership is the level at which junior leaders operate (they may be called supervisors, team leaders or junior managers). They exercise leadership to solve a series of ‘local problems’ that require relatively quick solutions —leadership episodes— which are usually bounded by time and resources. Tactical work is the day-to-day application of business processes and delivery of outputs. Leadership episodes provide opportunities for the leader of a team to build the respect, confidence and trust necessary with their team members to build cohesion, morale and levels of team performance so tactical leadership is not limited to junior leaders but applies to leaders at all levels.
‘Operational’ leadership is what might be called ‘middle management’ or the ‘staff’ in head offices. They interpret policy, make strategy and objectives meaningful for more junior leaders, and assist in shaping a climate in which effective leadership is taken for granted. They create an environment where leadership episodes may take place successfully on a day-to-day basis and they are likely to have responsibility for several leadership episodes or tasks executed both sequentially and in parallel.
‘Strategic’ leaders define the vision or desired future-state and long-term purpose and objectives of the enterprise. They articulate the plan (strategy) for achieving that future-state and policies that inform choices and behaviour; they define the framework (structure, systems and processes) in which others work. Their attitudes and personal example set the tone and direction for others to follow —as senior people they are perceived to be ‘successful’, so imitating executive behaviour will lead to personal success within the enterprise. Senior executives influence all, especially the middle managers and their staff, by their decisions and ‘signal’ actions.
These three areas of leadership within organizations are not discrete, which is why each level reaches into the other two. If we consider the work of Senior Executives we may appreciate that they can and do lead others in accomplishing short term tasks; they also have their own teams to build and maintain, to coach and develop, to facilitate decision making and create plans with, and to brief. In bullet point terms, the executive’s job includes (but is not limited to) the same leadership responsibilities for his/her team that the frontline team leader has; it is complexity, unknown variables, level of responsibility, authority, time horizon that differ and personal impact and downstream consequences for the organization which really differ. Recognition of this is the basis for integrating ‘leadership’ in an enterprise.
Senior Executives also have a contribution to make to the operational leadership climate even if their main energies are focused on strategic leadership by ensuring that operational leaders ‘are clear’ and by ensuring that the organizational values are adhered to and demonstrated in their behaviour.
Strategic leaders should not rely purely on information fed upwards —they need to ‘get out onto the ground’ and talk to front-line employees to form an appreciation of how information or plans have really been interpreted and executed. They also demonstrate their concern for people by such visits —providing that they show genuine interest during conversation, and take appropriate follow up action based upon what they hear.
The operational level has considerable contributions to make in both directions by interpreting policy and providing the day to day framework for tactical leadership to occur while keeping the strategic leaders informed of developments, issues, areas of concern, actual progress and so on which influence future decisions. It is also the level where future strategic leaders are groomed.
Leaders at the tactical level, where energies are concentrated on solving short term problems and carrying out short term tasks, need to align their thinking and activity to strategy and do have contributions to make to strategy, possibly from research and development findings, from the lessons of newly tried techniques and processes, or from access to ‘market intelligence’ and knowledge of customer needs. How well strategic leaders listen, how actively they talk with people at the front, how effective the frontline staff are at gathering intelligence, and how effective the formal upwards feedback systems are, dictate the extent to which tactical leaders may help to evolve strategy. Strategic leaders need to check that what is strategically desirable is tactically possible; this is why Generals have helicopters to visit front line units, a job ‘purpose’ which is a pure leadership role, and have a headquarters staff system that allows them to lead without getting caught up in excess detail.
Tactical leadership at every level is the means for cascading strategic plans and enabling execution, and the lack of it by strategic leaders, and the lack of any organizational system for it, is often the cause of organizational failure to achieve strategic objectives. Tactical leadership is primarily concerned with individual leaders’ personal ‘leadership effectiveness’, their application of skills, knowledge and ‘leadership practices’, applied with appropriate, adaptable and authentic behaviour (or style or emotional intelligence, whichever language you prefer).
Future posts will examine the mechanisms for integrating leadership and the work of leaders.