The Three Simple Keys to Strategic Leadership

It’s guest post Monday! This post is written by Nathan Magnuson  who is a leadership consultant, coach, speaker, and thought leader. To learn more about his services, visit or follow him on Twitter. If you would like to have a post featured on my site then click here.

Everyone has something to say about leadership these days, whether it’s an opinion, complaint, resource, or philosophy. “Leaders get the most out of others,” some say. “Leadership is all about serving,” others add. Where does the commentary end?

While I truly believe that anyone can become a leadership expert (yes, that means you!), it’s also true that leadership is more than just a sentiment. Leaders don’t just influence other people to feel a certain way. They influence change. They make things happen that wouldn’t otherwise happen and set things in motion that alter the course of the future. As Tom Rath says in his book Strengths Based Leadership, “Leaders with great strategic thinking strengths are the ones who keep us all focused on what could be.”

So what I’d like to share with you are the three simple keys to thinking – and leading – strategically.

1. Discover Where You’re Going

Strategic leaders are future-focused. That means they can see down the road and visualize what reality could or should look like. Then they keep themselves, their teams, and their organizations focused on achieving the desired future state. When the future destination is unclear, any activity will most likely send the organization in a different (read: wrong) direction.

2. Determine Where You Are

Once the future destination or state is determined, strategic leaders are able to determine where they are in relation to it. Some say knowing where you are ought to come first, but I don’t necessarily agree. Where you are may be good or bad depending on where you want to go. If you want to be in Kansas City, there is a big difference between being in St. Louis or being in Washington, DC. Knowing where you are – your current state – sets the stage for the final key.

3. Deduce How to Get There

Once strategic leaders uncover the desired future state and the current state, they figure out what route or what steps should be taken to get there. No roadmap or strategy can ever be effective without a future objective to serve as guidance. This may seem overly simplistic, but I’ve personally seen many different types of organizations which either lacked or were unclear on their overarching strategy. Every team pursued their own set of good ideas which resulted in the organizations literally being pulled apart by competing priorities or needing to undergo significant “strategy therapy” – all at a high cost of effectiveness, morale, and usually budget.

So what does strategic leadership have to do with the personal side of leadership? Ask yourself this question: how will my followers (employees, customers, constituents, families, etc.) be negatively impacted if I am unable to determine the three strategic keys listed above? All the sentiment in the world won’t matter without the strategic piece. One of the best ways we can serve our followers is to ensure that the strategic efforts of our organization are in good hands.

I realize many leaders are more naturally suited for other domains of leadership, like relationship building or execution. That doesn’t relieve them from the responsibility to lead strategically, but it also doesn’t mean they necessarily have to do perform each strategic task themselves.

Question: Is there someone else on your team who is a more natural fit to lead the strategic responsibilities? If so, are you willing to follow?


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Great post Nathan! I think it’s always important as a leader to have vision, or to be future-focused as you put it. Far too often we get carried away with the ‘now’, and forget about the ‘later’. The present and the future are equally important, I believe that. Cheers!

    • Thanks Sam, hopefully these three tips are easy enough for people to remember!

    • Vision is so essential. Thanks for reading and adding to the discussion.

  • As soon as someone one with promotional and social networking skills in the area of book, music, film marketing offers to help push my work to the next level on the speculative fact that it will be successful, I’ll fall into the role of follower. Until then, it’s little by little.

    • Dan, it’s the same with selling my consulting services. I’m not a good self-promoter! I’d be happy to follow, but until then, I’ll do what I can on my own since selling work is definitely one of my top strategic priorities!

  • Many leaders gloss over the plans and locations of where they are by chasing or trying to pull away from the competition, but real details and analysis is a great point and crucial for success in business or personally. Excellent points.

    • That’s very true Floyd. Thank you for taking the time to read and share:)

    • I’m glad you found this helpful, Floyd.

  • Your question at the end is really powerful…are we willing to follow or do we think we have to always lead? A good leader knows their weaknesses (where they are) and is willing to learn from others and let others lead in those area’s.

    Great post!

    • Glad you enjoyed it, TC. The converse is also true: when there is no one who can lead in our areas of weakness, sometimes we’ve got to temporarily bite the bullet!

      • Very true…just take it one day and one situation at a time.

  • Great perspective. It is critical to delegate to others, or surround yourself with others, who compensate for your weaknesses. Not all leaders are secure enough to do that, but it benefits everyone. Glad to see you on Dan’s blog!

    • Good point, Tom – I think of it on terms of strategic planning. The chief needs to take responsibility for making sure the plan gets done, providing input, and signing off, but another leader can own the enforcement. At the end of the day, we need each other!

  • Hi Nathan,

    Excellent post and thanks Dan for introducing us all to Nathan.

    My view is similar to yours Nathan, in that people have different leadership styles. For instance, my own personal style is relationship building. However, I constantly keep switching to a strategic perspective to see what the future is like and if the current steps being taken are, helping to realise the vision.

    However, at the same time with leadership we need to accept that others will be better than us at other things. If this includes having superior strategic skills, then leaders need to allow such people to use their skills for the betterment of the organisation.

    Thank you.

    • Hi Hiten, I agree. If you are the top guy, then ultimately everything falls on your shoulders. But that doesn’t mean you need to do it all yourself. In my business, strategic leadership comes easy to me. It’s the relationship building (and customer building) that’s tough, so I am looking for strategic (there I go again) partners for that process.

    • Your welcome Hiten:) I hope you and Nathan are able to connect. Both of you guys have great content and know would enjoy reading each others writing and connecting.

  • This is a good plan for a leader to follow and if someone on your team is better to lead then I agree that you should be willing to follow! Great post Nathan.

    • I’m glad you liked it Kimanzi – there’s a difference between delegating ownership and delegating responsibility, wouldn’t you say?

      • Definitely a difference. We will likely own something more if we understand how to delegate. Too many “leaders” fail to do that and end up failing due to lack of delegation. Great post man.

  • Nathan, thanks for sharing this post with us. These three points are a great place to return when we’re emotionally spent and haven’t seen the results we expected.

    • They sure are Chris. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • Thanks Chris – good reference to emotions relating to strategy. I’m sure there’s a lot that could be said about that.

  • A good vision should be contagious, and like you say – everyone needs to be on the same page, with the same outcome in mind. #2 made me smile, I can remember numerous instances where a perceived ‘leader’ didn’t know where they were, yet they were trying to get others to go the same way. I knew right away that I should be cautious, it’s never nice following someone with a skewed sense of reality!

    Thanks for the post (or guest post, Dan!), have a great day, and stay in good hands! :)

    • Nick – I’m glad that point made you smile. I confess I’ve had some more extreme reactions in the past!

  • I really like this Nathan, (just Tweeted it!) “Leaders don’t just influence other people to feel a certain way. They influence change.” I am currently reading a book on vision and these points just tie in.

    • Thanks for the Tweet! Great to know I’m not the only one who thinks these things!

  • Deducing how to get there is a good strategy Nathan. In war and leadership, one needs a plan and course of action. the more strategic you are, the more success you’ll have and by strategic thinking about consequences, speed and creativity in getting from point a to be.

    Also, great leaders get the 20/80 principle – they focus on the most effective strategies and not do any of the other activities which don’t advance the cause.

    • Thanks for the comment, Vishnu – SWOT analysis would be another good way to inform strategy.

  • I would add that an important part of discovering where you are going is to listen. Listen to your peers, listen to your followers, listen to your family. That doesn’t mean taking everyone else’s advice, but it does mean listening with an open mind. It means accepting that your own bright ideas might not even be the best ideas. A true leader is focused on the cause, not the power.


    • Thanks Trevor – you’re right, there is a big difference between a good idea and a right idea.

  • Hello Nathan,

    I couldn’t agree with you more. First find out where you want go then find where are you now, and after that try to figure out how to get there. Simple points but holds too much meaning.

    I believe that there’s a leader in everyone, some realize it and some ignores it. Those who realize it and act on it are the real leaders.A true leader always knows where he will end because he never follows the road instead he creates his own road and leaves a trail.

    “There’s a way to change the world, just count on me.” _ that’s what a true leader says.

    it doesn’t matter if your leader sings off keys, It doesn’t matter if your leader is not good at many things, if he inspires you to dream big, learn more, do more, and become more then he is a true leader. And I can follow him anywhere he goes if he can teach me how to overcome myself. I’ll always be on his side, because I know that after being with him, I can shine bright, No more fears, no more tears, and everything will work out. That’s the magic of a true leader.

    • Thanks for reading, Romy

    • Great additional thoughts Romy! I totally agree with you about a leader being inside of everyone. This is because anyone can influence someone. Thank you for taking the time to read and add to the conversation.

  • Defining strategy as “future focused” is a great way to put it, Nathan.
    I think that the strategy tends to come to you as you think about the difference between where you are and where you want to go. And it’s important that this is a regular thought process, not just a one-time session.

  • I think discovering where you are is of utmost importance. When you discover where you are aligned you will be able to determine where you are going. My mentor Jim Rohn always says that if you don’t set a sail to correct the errors of the past you will just be blowing in the wind.

    • I totally agree Lincoln. Great saying by Jim Rohn! Powerful. Thank you for taking the time to read and add to the topic.

  • DS

    I feel like my wife and I compliment one another regarding the strategic piece. In the workplace this can be one of the areas that demoralizes people – not knowing where they’re going. With the strategic vision firmly in place it helps people better utilize the resources and tell other things “no” as needed if it doesn’t fit.

    • I agree, a strategic vision is a must. It’s great you and your wife compliment each other:) Thank you for reading and adding to the discussion:)

      • DS

        I’m fortunate to have such an amazing wife, and best friend.

        • I hear you, I feel the same way about my wife:)

  • Great tips, Nathan. It’s funny, I was just thinking about strategy and how it relates to my team today. We’ll soon be meeting to be refocusing on all of the above, namely: “Who are we? Where are we going? How are we getting there?”

    • That’s great Stephen! I hope that meeting goes well:) Thank you for stopping by and sharing.