Operational and Strategic Leadership: Lighting The Match

Fire fighters have a demanding job. On the one hand, they do all the stuff that we expect in a crisis – like turning up and fighting a roaring blaze that got out of hand. Behind the scenes, is all the important stuff we don’t see – part of which is getting prepared for the next big fire, while another of which is the critical and often unseen business of creating conditions that make fires difficult to take hold at all.

In some ways, public leadership is the same. Part of your job is in responding to issues as they present, while another is front-footing fires before they can kindle. Still more is the political and communications management to support politicians afraid of igniting backlash.

The critical difference between leadership and fire fighting though, is that leaders have the capability to do something that most fire fighters don’t: lighting the right match.

Now, I’m not suggesting we create issues. Rather, that we have the ability to set our world on fire by embracing opportunities that take us closer to our strategic goals, while managing the risk of negative fallout along the way.

Another useful behaviour: think like a bush fireman and burn out the scrub underfoot occasionally, so we've got the space to launch forward.

“Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire.

Likewise with randomness, uncertainty, chaos; you want to use them, not hide from them. You want to be the fire and wish for the wind.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

One of the workshop offerings I run with public sector leadership teams is around strategic risk management – something which I find is poorly understood at many levels. While operational risk management focuses on prevention – protecting the value we already have, strategic risk management concerns the opposite – creating new value.

While operational risk asks the question: “how do we handle the things that stop us from keeping things going?” strategic risk asks: “what might stand in the way of our big picture objectives?”

The difference is like night and day – and with this reframe, it becomes possible to take an outside view of the challenges we face. Instead of asking what’s happening in here, we ask deeper, more ambiguous questions about what might happen out there to throw us off course.

This principle applies to strategic leadership more generally. It isn’t enough to take an all-of-organisation view when we approach management, although this is a good start. Truly strategic leadership requires us to step out of our own positions and appreciate the broader context we operate within. Then, we can make informed decisions about where to place our focus to advance our community-focused agendas and create the change we want to see in the world.

Where do you find yourself on the continuum? Operational, organisational or strategic?

How about your colleagues and politicians?

Is it time to light a new match?

How to shift from the operational to the strategic:

1.      Ask different questions – Tap into the big picture and focus on what’s changing, shifting and possible. What stands in the way? How could we leverage those constraints?

2.      Take a look around – The most significant threats and opportunities rarely emanate from within. Blockbuster didn’t see Netflix coming, remember? Don’t get caught fiddling while Rome burns.

3.      Think opportunity instead of response – The old silver lining cliché. Challenge yourself and your team to think about ways to proactively drive new value, rather than focus on protecting what you already have.