“All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.” — Sun-Tzu, Chinese strategist.
“Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action comes, stop thinking and go in.” — Napoleon Bonaparte, French general and (later) Emperor
Which function should demand the lion’s share of a leader’s time: short-term tactics, or long-term strategy? The short answer, as is often the case, is “it depends.” Good leadership requires a continual balancing act. On the one hand, you’ve got to keep the team fueled up and running smoothly on a day-to-day basis; on the other, you have to set strategic priorities and plan for the future. For those at the executive leadership level, the stakes become especially high. Let’s look at a few points to help you make your decision.
1. Good news and bad news. The bad news first: there’s no clear-cut answer. It depends on the job. The good news: as crazy-fast as the business world has become, tactics and strategy have begun to merge into a continuum, rather than presenting as distinct leadership aspects. Many of your routine decisions will have implications for both the short- and long-term, making your highwire act a little easier.
2. Position determines priority. If you occupy a low- to mid-level leadership position, your top priorities include your basic job responsibilities, impending deadlines, and emergencies—the operational tactics that keep the business chugging along. Priority 2 consists of strategic goals that aren’t urgent but will improve the team and organization. When you rise to the upper rungs of the organization ladder, your old Priority 1 and Priority 2 tasks flip-flop. Long-term strategy rather than day-to-day tactics becomes principal. Spend most of your time determining and communicating strategic priority and direction for the operational functions to deploy.
3. Know what your leaders expect. Even if you’re in a junior leadership position, your superior(s) may require your input on long-term strategy, either as part of their due diligence or while grooming you for a higher position. Or they may directly structure your schedule in such a way that you have little or no say about how to prioritize.
4. Necessity. Does your team’s workflow move in fits and starts? Has it broken down? Even if you believe you ought to focus on strategy, immediate needs may temporarily trump long-term requirements. Don’t just ignore the squeals, boings, and crashes because you’ve gotten behind on next year’s budget—or you may end up incapable of generating said budget. Similarly, if you’re zipping along at ninety miles an hour without a clue as to your direction, stop long enough to at least consult with the policy-makers.
An Uneasy Balance
Unless you own a small business, you’ll rarely need to consider long-term strategy and short-term operational tactics on an equal footing. While your job as a leader is indeed to be a strategic enabler of business—a channel for the talents of both your subordinates and superiors—what you focus on depends primarily on your position. The supervisor on the shop floor rarely decides the company’s overall direction; he makes sure the people on the line get the product out on time and within budget. Similarly, the CEO can’t be out on the line directing the skilled workers instead of setting direction for the company.
That’s not to say the CEO should be ignorant of operational tactics, or the supervisor of overall strategic goals. Both should know the basics up and down the chain of command, so they can do their jobs better. But inevitably, each will spend more time on one than the other, according to their role in the hierarchy. To the supervisor, too much strategic thinking represents a luxury; to the CEO, handling the daily operations is a waste of valuable, expensive time.