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The Strategy of Leadership is Thinking, Vision, and Planning – The Future Depends On It
Grammar speaks of events occurring in three plains. The past was, the future will happen, and we live now, the present. However, operating in the information age, the age of instant global communication, makes the future now. Gates  wrote we are citizens of an information society. He noted that past generations, and past societies found ways to gather information, get more work done, increase life spans, and improve their standards of living. Time was not as critical in those past ages. A message from a ruler may take months to arrive by sea courier. The Pony Express was six days. Airmail was cross-country overnight. The time span between thought and action are virtually unidentifiable today. Although leaders rely on collective knowledge sharing, leaders who engage in strategic thinking, imagining events as happening rather than will happen, allows them to view the present as their personal and organizational future.
This paper considers how important strategic thinking is for leaders who want to shape their future and the future of their environment. Strategic thinking is the starting point for creating vision. Traditional planning gives way to flexible organizational structures that change “on the fly.”
Strategy in past generations allowed leaders time for thinking, sensing a vision, clarifying the vision, articulating it to begin considering action plans. Accepting that the future is no longer an event to happen later, this paper explores how leaders think, envision, articulate, and plan. How do leaders continue to use strategy to their advantage in a rapidly changing global environment? The answer is in the age of possibilities . Today, as never before we are free from traditional bonds of work, we are free to choose our futures as well as shape them to suit our own desires and needs.
This age is an extension of Gates’ information society. We have the ability to choose our reality in a way that never before existed. In the past, a baker’s son became a baker. However, many leaders of the past came from unexpected places. The Biblical King David was the young son tending sheep (1 Samuel 16:11) and Jesus was just the carpenter’s son whose mother we know (Matthew 13:55) . Truman had leadership thrust upon him. These people saw a point on the horizon but events changes their vision. The age of possibilities allows us to rewrite our future as events dictate.
Accepting that we can change as events dictate suggests that there is a less linear structure in this image and a more chaotic non-linear structure. Sanders  describes an organizational structure as a known initial condition but the future appears random. Using the model of the “Lorenz Attractor,” she presents a view of interacting and interrelated parts that appear disorderly until a closer inspection reveals the spiraling order hidden in the model. The Gates’ information society and the Taylor and Wacker age of possibilities do not depend on a linear progression of thought and action and Sanders holds the non-linear nature of the new science of strategic thinking allows us to understand natural order on its own terms.
Does strategy have some mythical or mystical property? Leaders and leadership use the word in many contexts, perhaps not really acknowledging what strategy is. Therefore, a simple working definition of strategy for this paper is the deliberate means of attaining an outcome, being visionary.
Mintzberg, et al  explains that strategies inevitably have advantages and disadvantages. The advantage of setting direction is charting a course; however, the disadvantage is narrowing vision, hiding dangers. The advantage of focusing effort is coordination of activity; however, the disadvantage is groupthink. Having a definition of the organization provides understanding of the organization; however, the definition may hide the complexity of the supporting systems. Having a strategy that provides consistency establishes order in a way that reduces ambiguity; however, creative groups appear to operate with little or no consistency.
Strategy involves paradoxes as the above paragraph suggests. One paradox tells us the story of answers and questions, once you think you have all the answers, someone changes all the questions. Taylor and Wacker state this paradox as, “The more you are right, the more wrong you will be.” This contradiction confuses the reader, if you are right, how can you be wrong? How? The speed of knowledge accelerated beyond our ability to absorb it in our traditional learning pattern.
Another paradox for visionary leaders involves predicting the future. Leaders who are successful predictors of the future act as agents destabilizing the present. Taylor and Wacker explain that today’s realities and tomorrows expectations collide. The allocation of resources between present and future “produce a massive future-based political problem with huge consequences for the present.”
Strategy at Work
The State of Nebraska recently made National news with the passage of LB1024 that, in effect, created segregated school sub-districts in Omaha. The bill was the Unicameral’s way to defeat intercity lawsuits claiming “One City – One School District.” The City of Omaha annexed several small suburban communities to its west, provides police, fire, and city services to these communities; however, the communities remained independent school districts.
The City of Bellevue annexed several Sanitary Improvement Districts (SID) to its west, provides police, fire and city services to these incorporated SIDs. Previous mayors and city councils of Bellevue and Papillion drew arbitrary boarders marking the fringes of the two cities school districts in, what were then, unincorporated zones. Population growth attached itself close to Bellevue. Now, Bellevue’s city limits extend beyond the school district boarders. Therefore, Bellevue claims “One City – One School District.”
By passing this bill, Senator Chambers  acknowledged formal segregation of the districts. LB1024 created two super-districts, one in Omaha, and one in Bellevue. In Omaha, the super-district has three independent sub-districts. The independent sub-districts have authority over teacher hiring, measures of teacher/student success under federal No Child Left Behind, and administration of their own budget. The super-district has academic authority over the smaller sub-districts.
The strongest supporter of the LB1024 is the State’s strongest proponent of desegregation. Why did Senator Ernie Chambers of the State’s 11th district support the bill? He claimed the Omaha school district is already segregated. Segregation re-occurred with the end of bussing in 1999. Yet, no Omaha high school is more than 48 percent African American.
Bellevue Mayor Jerry Ryan acknowledged the drain on city funds fighting to redraw school district lines. The fight in Bellevue and Papillion is over federal dollars to schools with a population of children of military families. Offutt Air Force Base is located near Bellevue and military dependent children attend elementary and secondary schools in both cities. Redrawing district lines would result in more federal money to the Bellevue Public School District.
Strategic Thinking and Vision
Reading the paragraphs above may leave the reader asking, “What were they thinking?” Recall the paradox of predicting the future affects the present in adverse ways, yet successful leaders operate as though the future is now.
Another view is that nothing turns out exactly as expected. This may leave leaders in an action quandary: Strategic thinking in the midst of shifting paradigms servers to help organizations “identify, respond to, and influence changes in its environment.”
Strategic thinking allows leaders to think in terms of opportunities to innovate and influence their future and the future of their organization. Strategic thinking aids in abandonment of policies and procedures that are outdated, obsolete, or ineffective.
Strategic thinking is having an awareness of what has not yet taken shape, having foresight. Foresight has a facet that is an individual ability and behavior and it can be a process or activity in business. On a macro level, foresight is a global practice. Note, reaching a macro level must pass from micro – individual, through mezzo – organizational, to reach macro. Foresight starts with the individual leader seeing or sensing something better .
Foresight is more than vision; it is visionary. Being a visionary leader means being provocative and questioning rather than seeing answers. Mintzberg, et al (1998) calls upon visionary leaders to operate on emotional and spiritual resources, values, aspirations, and commitment. Leaders need a mental image, build a mental model of a desirable future state. The visionary state is as simple as a dream or complex as a written document outlining the dream in measurable steps.
Visionary leaders must next translate the dream of the desirable future state into a vision they can share with the organization. Sharing a vision must be proactive, must be like a theater performance. Mintzberg, et al addresses performance by the leader as a rehearsal. Rehearsal is the practice of the vision, learning everything they can about the vision. Upon becoming comfortable in rehearsal, the leader must openly perform the vision. Performance brings a dream to life; however, performance has no value without the attending audience. The organizational audience views the performance while feeling empowered to mimic the performance. Organizational mimicking of the performance serves as a starting point for transformation to a higher state of consciousness, becoming, as Senge  describes, a learning organization.
Bellevue, Nebraska is the third largest city in the state. Eight years ago, Jerry Ryan made his first run for Bellevue Mayor winning an election against a popular mayor. Bellevue’s population in 1998 was about 29,000. Improvements in transportation, cost of housing and housing developments, and growth in retail and commercial ventures has caused an explosion in population to almost 50,000 with an extended sphere of services into not yet annexed developments of an additional population of about 15,000.
In the May 2006 primary, Mayor Ryan  ran against a field of opponents. Mayor Ryan ran on the ideal that Bellevue has reached a size that requires a full time mayor devoted to the city. Opponents, all in their seventies, do not share his view. Mayor Ryan won the majority of primary votes telling the city his vision. In interview with Mayor Ryan, he expressed how hard it is to run a city of 50,000 part-time. “Citizens think I run the city. They are not aware that it is the City Council that approves all action. And, the City Council doesn’t want a full time mayor,” said Ryan in interview. “If there is one thing I’ve failed to do,” said Ryan, “is adequately share my thinking and vision within the council.”
In the “One City – One School District” battle in Omaha, the school district argued that incorporation of suburban districts into Omaha would create a broader tax base, allow for creation of magnet schools throughout the district, and more equitably share resources. Senator Chambers, in support of LB1024, argued that schools already segregated would have more administrative control over their districts to create educational opportunities for racially distinct schools by racially distinct administrators. Opposition to LB1024 was high before its passing, the Governor faced strong opposition for signing it, the Attorney General believes it is in violation of federal law and unconstitutional and Omaha’s most famous citizen, Warren Buffet, expressed his strong opposition.
Senator Chambers is the only African-American state senator who is controversial and outspoken. Many of his claims include racially provocative statements against police, school administrators, teachers, and fellow senators. By contrast, to Mayor Ryan, Senator Chambers does not appear to have a vision based on strategic thinking. Senator Chambers’ term in the Unicameral ends in 2008 and he cannot run again because of imposed term limits.
Morgan  offers some thoughts on social construction of reality. What he writes is people have images of themselves and these images unfold into their reality. Two leaders identified thus far have diversely different views of reality. One holds a vision of what can be for the city while the other fights against change using deeply entrenched assumptions of the power of others to shape events.
Another person, a division head of a large First Data Corporation region , offered some insight into strategic thinking and being visionary. In an impromptu interview, she held that having a focus on what is possible helped her rise within a company at a time when it was having serious leadership troubles. When everyone else was seeking safety, she sought innovation-providing direction when it appeared there was none. Her member services region is the western United States, Canada, and Mexico. She said, “I thrive on chaos. When things look the most confused, I see my division diversified, flattened, with empowered subordinate managers.”
Our dialogue continued on chaos with Kim conceding she manages chaos within set organizational plans and policies. This lead to her admission that she is more ordered in her expectations and spends more time planning than thinking and creating vision.
Hill and Jones  discuss strategic planning with the same cautions of Davis . One concept of planning is doing so under uncertainties. In life and business, the only certain is uncertainty. Organizations cannot plan for the future because it is unpredictable. Another consideration is planning cannot be a top-management function alone. This “ivory tower” planning may result in senior leaders thinking in a vacuum, being enthusiastic about a plan and having no operational realities. Finally, strategic planning often suffers because planners have a short-range view of the current environment missing the dynamics of the competitive environment.
Mintzberg, et al devotes a section to “Planning’s Unplanned Troubles.” They explain that planning establishes inflexibility. They support the assertion presented above with the fallacy of predetermination. This fallacy says organizations are able to predict the direction of their environment, are able to exercise control over the environment, “or simply to assume its stability.” “Because analysis is not synthesis, strategic planning has never been strategy making.”
Reverse course a little, planning is not a bad thing when used in cohort with strategic thinking and visionary leadership. It is applying the controlling element strategy to planning that causes problems. Morgan argues in favor of plans and planning when created in a visionary framework that can evolve as circumstances change. What they insinuate in relating the tail of the “Strategic Termites” is unpredictability of organizational structure. An organization’s leader does not need a strategic plan to impose order. Order, like in a termite colony, emerges in an evolutionary way. Planning is not guided by plans rather by a sense of know what the organization wants to ultimately achieve. Ideas, action, and events occur separately but self-organizing yet apparently disorganized groups of termites seize the opportunity to initiate change.
The Future Depends On It
Seeing the future depends on foresight. Having a future view and strategically thinking of the future creates a new paradigm, part of the paradoxes already discussed. One old paradigm suggests future thought as a prediction and development of plans based on the prediction. Making plans establishes policy necessary to reach the predicted future. When the predictions fail to materialize an organization scrambles to recover. Another paradigm is the invention of the future. This means people both construe and become constrained by the structures they enact and change through practice. Gaspar  refers to the work of Mintzberg, et al, saying the old paradigms do not work in future thinking organizations. She tells us we must integrate a strategy that includes patterns and perspectives with planning and positioning.
Take a view of American companies 100 years ago. Of the top 12 companies 100 years ago, ten dealt in selling commodities. Today, of the top 12 U.S. companies, three deal in commodities. The remaining nine companies deal in services, manufacturing, and high technology . The only thing certain is change and business leaders must learn to cope with it in order to manage it. Coping with change and managing it mean businesses can profit from it. The future of business is knowledge driven. Countries must be smart, companies must be smart, and people must be smart.
Countries, companies, and people must be equally smart at the same time. To win the future game, each of the three must anticipate and adapt to change in order to manage it effectively. Mayor Ryan admitted that government is slow to change. By example, he cited the city council established a steering committee to investigate whether the city needed to spend money for computers in the mayor’s office. The city has a web presence but the city council did not adopt an intra- and inter-city email system until the steering committee received confirmation from surrounding cities of their system usage. The mayor is 72; by contrast, the average age of the city council is about 63. Mayor Ryan recognizes the value of technology and aggressively seeks younger citizens to enter city government. He hopes forward thinking younger people will drive the risk adverse council toward active and aggressive risk management.
Senator Chambers is the longest serving Senator in the Nebraska Unicameral. He is 69 years old and suffered racial slurs and isolation from fellow senators when he took office. Slurs and threats, chalked on his capitol office door, remain and he considers these a badge. He does not appear on the senate floor in suit and tie. He wears blue jeans and sweat shirts in protest to conformity. However, Senator Chambers seems to exist in an era when racism and segregation were the norm. He rarely seeks coalition with other senators preferring to be a voice of defiance .
These two leaders view the future differently. While one hopes to achieve the future by recruiting younger forward thinking people into the political system, the other remains rooted in the past. Neither manages the future proactively but approach the future based on present and past experiences not through information seeking, strategic thinking, and visionary mental modeling.
This paper discussed strategy, strategic thinking and vision making, planning, and the future. These are not separate activities although the discussion presents them individually. By recognizing the Lorenz Attractor as a spiral of interacting parts of an organization, one can also find this model fits a non-linear process of thinking, vision, and planning. Seeing the future as an evolving present helps leaders comprehend that rigid policies based on formalized strategic plans inhibit response to change.
Strategic thinking and vision creation suggests that leaders continually test their mental model with new thinking and questioning – progressively looping thinking, vision, and new information into new thinking. This cycle process allows leaders to anticipate disruptions in the business cycle. Leaders who question themselves asking, “what if …” know “what if …” These leaders are future seeking and organizations employing these leaders are future seeking learning organizations prepared to change before change occurs.
This paper does not deny the value of planning as part of a strategic process. However, rigid planning that does not calculate the shifting horizon of organizational development leaves the company questioning, “What happened,” rather than “what’s happening.”
Foresight allows for strategic management, forecasting and positioning of an organization. The outcome from foresight in business is the anticipated future becoming an inevitable future.
1. Gates, B. (1996). The Road Ahead. New York: Penguin Books.
2. Taylor, J., Wacker, W. with Means, H. (2000). The Visionary’s Handbook: Nine Paradoxes that will Shape the Future of Your Business. New Youk: Harper-Collins Publishers, Inc.
3. Holy Bible. New International Version. Bible Online. Retrieved from http://www.bible.com.
4. Sanders, T. I. (1998). Strategic Thinking and the New Science: Planning in the midst of chaos, complexity, and change. New York: The Free Press.
5. Mintzberg, M. Ahlstrand, B. & Lampel, J. (1998). Strategy Safari: A guided tour through the wilds of strategic Management. New York: The Free Press.
6. Gaspar, J. (2005, August 21-24). Corporate foresight – an attempt to listen to the voices futures’ generations in the strategy making process. Future Studies Department, Corvinus University of Budapest. Retrieved June 15, 2006 from http://www.budapestfutures.org/downloads/abstracts/Gaspar%20Judit%20Abstract.pdf#search=’judit%20gaspar%20corporate%20foresight’
7. J. Ryan (personal communication, April 28, 2006) in discussion of mayoral leadership strategy in a metropolitan community.
8. Senge, P. M. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The art & practice of the learning organization. New York: Currency and Doubleday.
9. Morgan, G. (1993). Imaginization: The Art of Creative Management. Newbury Park: Sage Publishing, Inc.
10. Hill, C. W. L. & Jones, G. R. (1998). Strategic Management: An integrated approach. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
11. Davis, S. (1996). Future Perfect. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
12. Ong Teck Mong, T. (2006, May 7). Anticipating and Managing Change: The Key to Future Success. Asian Institute of Management 37th Commencement Ceremonies. Retrieved June 16, 2006 from [http://www.aim.edu.ph/home/announcementc.asp?id=741].
13. Ernie Chambers. (2006). Wikipedia. Retrieved May 31, 2006 from [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernie_Champers].
14. Blackman, D. A. and Henderson, S. (2004). How foresight creates unforeseen futures: the role of doubting. Futures, 36. 253-266.
15. Johnson, T. A. (2000). An Intellectual and Political Biography of Nebraska State Senator Ernest Chambers: Activist, Statesman, and Humanist, 1937-. Plains Humanities Alliance: Events. Retrieved May 31, 2006 from [http://libr.unl.edu:2000/plains/events/seminars/johnson1.html]
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17. Somasegar (No First Name) (2006, January 21). Strategic Thinking. Retrieved June 2, 2006 from http://blogs.msdn.com/User/Profile.aspx?UserID=3644.
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