Strategic Leadership and Decision Making


The Strategic Leader as an Individual



Times of great change create an enduring need to do more leader development, more often.

Sullivan and Harper


An excellent concept of development comes from George B. Forsythe's article "The Preparation of Strategic Leaders." Forsythe argues that one's definition of development depends on the way one frames the concept. One frame is to take a learning perspective, and to consider leader development as "the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and values associated with-effective leadership." This type of development is "adding new tools to the tool box." When we identify strategic performance requirements, using this approach, we are specifying the new knowledge and skills strategic leaders will need.

But leadership at the strategic level is more than the acquisition of knowledge and skill; it consists of "qualitatively different ways of doing business." There is a second frame, and that is a developmental perspective. This perspective concentrates not on the knowledge acquired, but how to interpret it and what to do with it. "The developmental approach is concerned more with who the leader is and how the leader makes sense out of the world. It thus is concerned more with expanding frames of reference, perspective taking, building mental maps, and the development of conceptual capacity rather than with the acquisition of skills and knowledge. This process of leader development involves adaptive change in the leader's frame of reference as he or she advances to higher levels in the organization."

What provides the impetus for this adaptive change? Most often, it is the recognition that existing frames of reference are not sufficient to deal with the performance demands placed on the individual. Think of it as being "outside your comfort zone." When a leader is confronted with VUCA characteristics of the strategic environment that existing frameworks cannot explain, there is an impetus for development and adaptive change to develop frameworks which can deal with the demands. How does one go about developing the new frames of reference and increased conceptual capacity? It involves two steps: self-assessment and development planning. Self-assessment will be discussed in the next chapter.

Development planning and self-assessment provide the insights that lead to adaptive change. Feedback from self-assessment either confirms things you already knew about yourself, or provides you new insights. If you stop at that point, however, you have not begun the process of growth and change. It's only when you commit to development that the real value of the assessment process is realized. The critical question to focus on is: "How can I maximize my personal and professional growth?"

Development involves life-long change, with each part of life having attendant satisfaction and challenges.The first step in planning for development is self-assessment. The self-assessment process, however, goes beyond the use of feedback assessment instruments. When you engage in self-assessment, look at all the areas of your life. The rationale is simple: your life is an integrated whole, a system. Your goals, aspirations, challenges, and opportunities in one area will have an impact on other areas. One key question to address in development is, "How can I achieve a balance in my life?"


What is going on in your professional life? That you have been selected to attend ICAF means that you are among the high performers from your service or agency. You are well established in your profession, and have moved into the middle management ranks.

Most of your experience has been at the direct leadership or "operator" level. By direct leadership we mean the level of leadership where interactions are at the personal, face-to-face level. In the services, direct leadership extends up through the lieutenant colonel/commander level. When you can interact with members of your command, you're operating at the direct leadership level. Many of you also may have had staff assignments or assignments in a functional area of expertise (such as maintenance or logistics). Most of you will not have had the opportunity to serve at the strategic decision making level in major commands or on joint staffs. Having reached the top of the direct level of leadership, you need to be ready to transition to a higher level.

There are two different areas where the road may take you in the near future in your profession. Some of you will go on to command at the colonel/captain level, which may mean moving into a more indirect leadership role. At this mid, or organizational, leadership level, the performance requirements and demands of the position are often different than at the direct level (think back to Stratified Systems Theory). Many of you also will be operating on a high level staff such as a major command staff, a DOD agency, or on the Joint Staff at the strategic level. Part of your development must prepare you to operate at this level.

Civilian students may have had a different career path up to this point, but also are at a transition point. Many have been functional specialists. Those who are acquisition specialists, logistics specialists, budget analysts, or systems analysts may have spent careers in a narrow specialty. You also are at a transition point because you need to move to a higher organizational level, advance in your profession, and broaden your frame of reference.


What are you likely to be going through, individually and personally, at this stage in your life? Gail Sheehy's fascinating and insightful book, New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time, is organized around the stages of life and the passages that occur between those stages. One of her assertions is that the traditional life cycle we took for granted does not apply today. There have been such dramatic changes in how long people live that the old markers of age are outdated. To understand what is likely to be occurring in your life at a particular age, your frame of reference has to be your generation. You can't judge what is happening in your life by examining your parents' experiences; yours will be entirely different.

Sheehy predicts that at about age 45 most of us will go through a transition from what she calls First Adulthood to Second Adulthood. She calls this transition middlescence, in a play on words on adolescence. Her theme is that with increasing longevity, those in their 40s can look forward to an entire new adulthood from 45 to 85+. Ms. Sheehy views this move into second adulthood as an opportunity for tremendous growth and development. No longer should we view reaching our late '40s as the beginning of a long decline into old age, but rather the beginning of a new adult life that can be just as productive as our first adult life.


"How can we achieve a balance in our lives?" What should have emerged from reflecting on what is going on in your life is that there are multiple demands, challenges, and opportunities. How can you pursue multiple goals in different life areas simultaneously? The answer is, you can't. What normally happens is we pursue goals in one area at the expense of the other areas, and our lives get out of balance in either our profession, family, community, or self.

The balance most of us find the hardest to achieve is the balance between profession and family. The demands of the profession for many are such that there is no time left to spend with one's family, or at least not sufficient quality time. You may be experiencing a problem of balance at ICAF. This year represents an opportunity to reflect, learn, and grow. But you also may have had expectations that you could take time off from the demands of your normal jobs and get reacquainted with your families this year. How do you achieve a balance, take the opportunities this year provides for professional growth, yet also grow in other areas? The only way to resolve this dilemma is through prioritizing. Establish goals in each of your life areas, then determine which are the most important. If you find that your life is out of balance, trade offs in one area may provide the opportunity for achieving goals in other areas.


In addition to asking yourself how you can achieve a balance in your life, there are some key questions. One of these is, "What are the major challenges I will face in the future?" A large part of development is preparing yourself to face anticipated major challenges. For example, we have suggested that one major professional challenge may be to prepare yourself to operate in the strategic arena at a higher organizational level. An example of a major challenge in the family area may be caring for aging parents. An essential first step in planning for development and growth is anticipating the challenges one will face in the future.

Another question to ask is, "What can I control?" Some things in your life are out of your control. You can't reverse the aging process. However, you definitely can make lifestyle choices that can slow down (or accelerate) how rapidly you age. And, in the professional area, you may not have much say about where you will be assigned, but you can control how well prepared you will be for a particular assignment. An essential part of development planning is determining where you have choices and when you can exercise some control over your life.


"Where do I want to be in the future?" This is the second step in planning your life journey: envisioning the future. Shift your attention to tomorrow. Look to the future, and ask yourself, "Where do I want to be in 5 years? In 10 years? In 20 years?" Remember Sheehy's conceptualization of the Second Adulthood as extending from age 45 to 85+. What do you want to do in your second adulthood? Essential to the successful passage into second adulthood is viewing the passage as opening up possibilities and choices, not limiting opportunities and restricting choices. Increasing longevity has given us opportunities that our parents never had: the time to build an entire second productive adult life. This provides tremendous opportunities for growth, if we can only avail ourselves of those opportunities. Determine where you could be in five or ten years, or where you would like to be.

Skeptics are saying, "Why envision a future that you can't achieve?" If envisioning the future is dreaming about unachievable outcomes, then it is a waste of time. But if you look more closely at those who achieve their dreams, you will find that they didn't stop with dreaming about where they'd like to be in the future. They asked themselves, "What can I do to get there and reach my goals?" They then developed and implemented a plan to achieve what they wanted to accomplish.


This brings us back to a few more critical questions you need to ask. First, "Do I really want to commit to development?" There are substantial opportunities for growth and development during your year at ICAF. McCall, Lombardo, and Morrison, in The Lessons of Experience: How Successful Executives Develop on the Job, present a model for development which involves three choices.

The first choice is to recognize your shortcomings or identify areas where there is room for growth and improvement. All of us have strengths and weaknesses, and if we're going to overcome our weak areas and our shortcomings, the first choice we must make is to identify those weaknesses. Figure 1: the authors believe that sooner or later you will be forced to confront your weaknesses, because they eventually will be revealed in one way or another.

CHOICE: Finding out about


<------> AVOID
Wait for a castastrophe to

reveal a weakness

OR Actively pursue an

accurate protrait of self


The second choice is to accept responsibility for your shortcomings. If you deny any responsibility for your weaknesses, then there's no reason to try and do anything about them. You must accept responsibility for your weaknesses and determine their causes if you're going to overcome them.


CHOICE: Accepting responsibility

Diagnosis of Shortcomings

<------> DENY

The third choice is what to do about your weaknesses. The authors suggest four types of strategies based on the diagnosis of why the weakness exists: build new strengths, anticipate situations, compensate, and change self.

CHOICE: What to do about it about <-->IGNORE

build new


anticipate situations


change self

find situations where learning new things is essential. ask "dumb" questions. avoid certain situations. intensive counseling, coaching.
find ways to get help and support while learning. seek advice, counsel. delegate to others. personal change effort.
  spend time learning. choose staff who cover weaknesses. change just enough to get by.
  use others' expertise. change the situation.  

  Committing to development means recognizing areas for development, taking responsibility for growth in those areas, and forming a plan on how to effect that development. If you are committed to development, the final two questions are: 

The answers you reach to these questions will determine if this year really becomes a year of transition, growth, development, and change. 


As we stated at the beginning of the chapter, the ICAF experience is about development. As you've gone through the chapter, we hope it stimulated some thought about development, and helped you think about the question we initially asked you to focus on: "How can I maximize my personal and professional growth during my year at ICAF?" As you continue through the Strategic Leadership and Decision Making Course and the ICAF year, we hope you will continue to focus on development, and take every opportunity you can to truly maximize your professional and personal growth.

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