Written by Phil on August 17, 2011
“There are too many leaders of the U.S. civilian space program, and not enough leadership. These several leaders at this point are not in agreement regarding how best to transition away from 30 years of the space shuttle being the visible centerpiece of the U.S. human space flight effort. Attempts at leadership without agreement among leaders is a recipe for short-term confusion and longer-term drift”. a recent comment from the Washington Post which reflects the lack of strategic leadership as time, technology, politics and economics overtake the vision as the Shuttle Programme comes to an end.
“In more than 40 years of close observation of the U.S. space program, I don’t think there has ever been more uncertainty and fear of impending program collapse. One result of the current confusion is the too-widespread impression that the final flight of the shuttle means that the U.S. program of human spaceflight has come to an end” writes John Logsdon.
So what is strategic leadership and how would it have prevented the infighting within the US’s Space Programme and allowed it to carry on in a relatively seamless manner?
For me strategic leadership is about vision it’s about long term projection and the ability to communicate a dream and make that dream tangible within an organisation. The problem with long term is the ambiguity induced by time. Things change over a period of time and things are changing faster than ever as the pace of life quickens. This makes strategic vision really difficult but really essential in leading an organisation. More difficult as it is more intangible and it is more essential to hold an organisation on its course in a swiftly changing environment. Moral courage, drive and determination are all required in a strategic leader in shaping the future and taking an organisation forward.
Strategic leadership also involves risk and its mitigation. Risk is another thing that very few modern organisations have a handle on as evidenced in the recent US banking Crisis and even the more recent struggles with national debt within the European community. Risk involves three things the ability to identify future threats to an organisation, to put in place means of identifying the proximity of those threats and finally preparing strategies and plans to mitigate those threats. Now again the speed of life makes the management of risk much more difficult as the unforeseen happens in an instant. Take the recent riots in UK sparked by the police and the independent police complaints commission not dealing sensibly with the unfortunate death of a suspected criminal. Now a true strategic risk practitioner may not have seen that coming but surely they would have controlled the rioting in London sooner certainly before it spread to other cities or prevented it taking place in other cities by having contingencies in place. Threats need to be pre-empted if they are to be mitigated hence strategic managers of risk need to be aware of and sensitive to their changing environment through exploring worst case scenarios. This can be easily accomplished by modelling, gaming or red teaming. Thinking the unthinkable allows for effective contingency planning and aids risk mitigation. Identified risk also needs to be communicated and devolved to as close to the action as possible, for it is here that the truly empowered and enlightened employee can prevent the threat.
Strategic Leadership is also about talent management; making sure that the right people are in the right place at the right time. Whether they have been nurtured or hired is irrelevant, it is ensuring that they are where they are needed. I like the following quote as it epitomises talent management to me:
“The best leader is the one who has the sense to surround himself with outstanding people and the self restraint not to meddle with how they do their jobs” Author unknown
Don’t talent manage people out of the organisation by telling them what to do and how to do it . Mentor and develop them to exploit their own individual potential and maximise their utility to the organisation by empowering them by telling them what you want done and affording them the authority and resources to do it ! They will develop and learn even when wrong; now that’s talent management!
Strategic leaders are brave, they are prepared to tolerate mistakes providing they are learned from. Strategic leaders are visionary and excellent communicators. Strategic leaders are risk takers but every risk they take is calculated and every threat mitigated as far is possible. They believe in the power of the organisation rather than their own power. That’s why true strategic leaders are rare creatures!