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Book Review: The Art of Strategic Leadership: How Leaders at All Levels Prepare Themselves, Their Teams, and Organizations for the Future

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Steven J. Stowell and Stephanie S. Mead, The Art of Strategic Leadership: How Leaders at All Levels Prepare Themselves, Their Teams, and Organizations for the Future. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2016. 192 pages.

This book follows the parabolic approach made popular by Patrick Lencioni. It follows the management career of a fictional character named Alex who is given the opportunity to assume the leadership of a newly acquired plant in Dallas. If things do not turn around at that plant, it will be closed. The story relates how Alex utilizes a three-step process to transform the plant into an innovative, profitable, cutting edge business.

The authors assert that strategic leadership is the key to success in the future. They note: “The promise of a better future is what gets team members engaged and unleashes their motivation. When people are invited to be a part of creating the future and can clearly see how they fit in and why they matter, it causes them to do their best work” (ix). The authors assert that many organizations have a strategic plan, but not all have the strategic leadership skills to implement the plan in the face of obstacles. They note: “But without the guidance of an insightful leader who can drive the process, it is difficult to make any strategy a reality. Ultimately, strategic leadership is what makes the difference between success and failure” (xi). They add: “You can’t have strategy without leadership. They are inseparable. Sure, you can create a sound strategic plan, but to do something meaningful with it requires bold leadership” (3).

The authors suggest there are two things strategic leaders accomplish (4). First, they ensure that day-to-day tasks are accomplished successfully and efficiently. Second, they have an eye to the future so they remain competitive. Many leaders focus on the first task. Far fewer manage to accomplish the second. They note: “There are only a few differences between normal, day-to-day leadership and strategic leadership, but they are big, and they are distinctive” (4). They add: “Simply put, the thing that is missing most often is the leadership necessary to translate strategic ideas into reality” (8). They offer the analogy of a ship captain and crew who are building their ship while they are on a voyage to a destination they have never been to before (32).

I found the style of the book helpful. It describes how Alex inherits a leadership team upon his arrival. For the first couple of weeks, he observes and asks a lot of questions. In time he concludes that his team consists of people with varying gifts that are all valuable to the team as a whole. As he utilizes each member’s strengths, the team adjusts itself to a strategic future. Each chapter focuses on a different team member and their particular strengths. In between the narrative, the authors insert their observations to the discussion. There are some good quotes and insights that are made throughout the book.

Some of the helpful comments include; “Sometimes you have to slow down to speed up” (65). Strategy can be a “decision filter” (69). Thomas Edison: “Many of life’s follies occurred when people didn’t realize how close to success they were when they gave up” (73). “Speed is the ultimate strategic weapon” (108). “Any strength that is overused or carried to an extreme can really hurt you in the long run” (125). “. . . creativity is the single, most important leadership competency” (146). “. . . there are no rewards for heroes who win every battle but ultimately lose the war” (151).

I read a lot of leadership books and not all of them are worth the read. I felt like this was. If you don’t like parables, or the use of fiction in leadership books, then this is not for you. But what is helpful here is not only being told what competencies and practices are essential to successful leadership, but then getting to watch how those play out in the story. Of course, another way to do this is to cite real-life examples to illustrate the points being made.

The downside of fictional accounts is that they can at times appear quite fictional. I felt like the one aspect of the story that seemed a bit far fetched is that every member of the leadership team not only has significant skills needed by the team, but they all have good attitudes. In Patrick Lencioni’s books, there is usually at least one person, who will not adapt to the new leadership and must ultimately be shown the door. It seemed a bit of a stretch to think that a team that had been largely neglected over the last two years could consist of such stalwart individuals. However, the authors’ point is that leaders must discern the strengths of team members and then leverage them for the benefit of the entire team. Generally team members will have strengths. What can be missing at times is a positive attitude or an acceptance of the new leader.

That being said, this is a helpful book. It addresses something that many leaders feel inadequate in, and that is leading strategically. I recommend this book, especially if you are preparing to undertake a new leadership role where you will be leading a new team. The way that Alex is portrayed as working with his team is a great example of what to do to gain quick buy-in from team members.

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