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Strategic or not? Behaviors of a Strategist

by | Essay

I spent the last month writing about the importance of having a destination and a road map. There’s more to be said. We all know that once we begin a journey we’re forced to confront the terrain ahead of us. Even the best road map can fail to get some people to the destination. That’s because a road map still requires a measure of strategy—in real time.

Unfortunately, I’ve found that many people are confused by what strategy is and what it looks like in practice. Let’s tackle strategy.

I’ll start with a question. What’s the difference between a person who thinks and acts strategically and one who does not?

I believe it rests in the ability to ask good what if questions and the courage to be guided by the answers to them.

The ability to think and to act strategically requires a skill known as foresight.

Foresight is a process through which you gain a comprehensive understanding of your environment and the cascading (or future) impact of various actions and decisions. If you’d like to be more strategic, develop your skills in foresight.

Here’s how you can do that.

Head Up

If you’ve ever played sports like soccer, basketball or hockey you’ve undoubtedly heard this refrain from your coach. If you’re looking down, it’s hard to tell where you’re going. Pause, and find moments where you can look up to scan your environment. As you scan, make note of what you’re observing. Strategic thinkers and actors move with their heads up. They are constantly scanning and observing their environment. Don’t allow yourself to become so busy that you can’t pause for a moment to lift your head and to notice what’s going on around you.


Strategic thinkers and actors learn to interpret what they see. They can assign “meaning” to the information they’re observing. They are able to discern what to pay attention to and what to ignore. Often, strategic people choose what not to focus on. In the process, they ultimately settle on what they ought to do. In many situations, the best thing you can do is not to act. Don’t act first, think first.


Strategic thinkers and actors construct models to help them see their world in three dimensions: what’s happened, what’s happening, and what’s likely to happen? You can practice building three dimensional models of your world by searching for the trends and patterns that help to explain what just happened. Knowing history is a key asset for strategic people. It enables them to carry historical lessons over into the present, and to identify the trends and patterns today that explain what is currently happening. Finally, strategic people look for emerging trends and patterns that most cannot or are not able to see. They see the impossible before others.


Once a strategic thinker has built explanatory models, s/he then has to learn how to test them. The best way to test a model is through a forecast. Like those who help us prepare for the weather patterns that will affect us today and tomorrow, great strategists enjoy making forecasts. They forecast what might happen by posing what if models. What if x happens? If y happens, what is likely to happen to x? Don’t confuse a forecast with a prediction. Strategists don’t necessarily predict the future. They, instead, help us narrow likely future events to a manageable range of possibilities.


If we have a forecast, we can prepare ourselves better. Accurate forecasts enable strategists to help us prepare for what’s likely to happen. When forecasts are way off and when we are left wholly unprepared for what actually happens, it means we need to reexamine our models and our understanding of them. When we’re not prepared for what is happening, perhaps it’s because we weren’t paying attention or we chose to ignore what we knew to be true. If you find yourself unprepared today, some of the problem may rest in what you were doing yesterday.


Great strategists continue to observe, analyze, model, and forecast. They establish a process that shapes everything they do; a process that becomes a way of life. Great strategists not only know what to monitor, but how to properly incorporate the results into our day-to-day activities. Practice monitoring your strategy. As you do so, make sure you’re monitoring both leading and lagging indicators. A leading indicator will suggest what is likely to occur in the future, while a lagging indicator confirms it already happened. High blood pressure is a leading indicator of potential future health problems. A heart attack tells you what you already know—those health problems are no longer relegated to the future.

Behaving Strategically Beyond Work

These six behaviors are things you can begin to implement today. I encourage you, however, to apply them broadly—not only on the job, but also in life.

What if you spent 30 minutes on Saturday or Sunday morning looking back at your week? What would you notice about what happened? What are the forces in your environment that seem to shape what you just experienced?

What if you could make the time next week to anticipate some of those forces? What might happen if you were able to minimize the bad forces and to enhance the positive forces in your life? How might that change the forecast for the week, and for the week after that, and after that?

I especially hope those of you who are working in under-resourced organizations and on issues that disproportionately affect vulnerable people will heed my subtle call. Yes, you need to keep the trains running and the lights on. But we also need you to be strategic. Leadership is a both-and proposition.

If we’re going to successfully reshape the systems and environments around us, we’re going to need some great strategists.

If, in several years, your actions haven’t bent the arc of history toward justice, what happened?

About the author: Dr. A.J. Robinson is the founder and CEO of Symphonic Strategies, a firm that specializes in collective action, leadership development, and systems change. He’s a strategist, teacher, and activist for policies and practices that elevate. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for Excellence in Public Leadership at the George Washington University and is an adjunct faculty member at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.