According to my definition, strategic leadership means jumping out of a plane from a high altitude under bad weather conditions into uncharted enemy territory with a parachute prepared by someone you do not know.
In an unconventional exercise, a senior executive and his colleagues were invited to parachute. After a short training period, the moment of truth came.
When the plane had reached the target altitude, the high-flying manager was called to the open door. With great trepidation, he looked at the abyss.
He knew there was no turning back — his colleagues would have ridiculed him if he had backed off at the last moment. So he crossed the threshold of fear and jumped.
This act of self-conquest dramatically shifted his perspective and attitude, since he had learnt to make a leap into the unknown. Afterwards, he parachuted several times to stamp out his fear forever.
Strategic leadership, with its holistic, systemic and transformational orientation, has a lot in common with parachuting.
Conversely, failure to parachute — understood in a metaphorical sense — leads to the fall of many a promising executive eyeing general leadership positions. Here are three intertwined recommendations for leaders derived from the parachuting analogy:
First, put in place an uplifting support system to gain distance. Movers and shakers regularly need to edify themselves and rise from the ground to overcome barriers, gain perspective, sharpen their situational awareness and, in a great offensive, reach new territories.
In an elated mood and from on high, they can scan the horizon for opportunities and storm clouds. From the distance, they will understand social interaction better.
They can recognize patterns, see what matters and set priorities accordingly. Alternating ascent and descent, they finally have to return to the roots and deal with crucial details on the ground.
Based on their new insights, the helmsmen will be able to give meaningful directions to people who often are already fully occupied, but might be so immersed in what they are doing that they do not see the forest for the trees.
A busy but unfocused worker acts like a forester who is so busy fighting wolves that he forgets that his task is to cut trees.
The man in the saddle also needs to gain social distance from time to time, making it possible for him to communicate tough messages, for example, which might be more difficult if he is too close to his subordinates.
Finally, by elevating himself, the helmsman underlines his distinctiveness, which, in right measure, is a precondition for effective leadership.
In the analogy of the ground staff and air crew, as well as the infrastructure and plane, the precondition for gaining distance is to build up a personalized, uplifting support system. First, the headman needs a pilot — an edifying mentor and spiritual director, who guides, inspires and corrects him.
Moreover, other people and systems need to free him from routine tasks, so that he can climb the skies whenever needed.
Especially in state organizations, micromanagement by the leader is often institutionally enshrined. In such cases, the torch bearer first needs to complete the pivotal strategic leadership task of redesigning structures, systems and processes, institutionally empowering others.
Second, respect, trust and leverage others to gain personal freedom. A support system can only be effective if you allow it to do the work for you. A helmsman first must adopt and cultivate a spirit of humility, acknowledging that he depends on others who complete the work for him. He must realize that his status as leader hinges on others allowing him to guide them.
It is equally important to respect and trust those who work for you and be ready to let them do the job, which entails letting loose and making yourself vulnerable.
The vivid example is the jumper who uses a parachute packed by somebody else, thus literally putting his life in the hands of another person.
A strategic leader, who does not only need to build interpersonal relationships but also has to deal with organizational formations, even has to place trust in the work of those he does not know or does not see.
The need for reliance on others, including impersonal trust, increases the higher you climb in the
Since many organizations become more geographically dispersed and count more on electronic communication tools, impersonal trust becomes ever more vital.
With companies increasingly competing on the basis of their supply chains, their reliance on outside stakeholders grows, too.
When the opportunity costs are higher than the benefits from doing a job themselves, men of premier rank have to delegate work even though they think they can do it better themselves.
Parachutic leaders operating under highly constraining conditions, such as Peter the Great, through personal inspiration and inspiring systems, individually and synergistically, manage to actualize the potential not only of great talents but also of mediocre persons, as well as create new possibilities. Obtaining maximum output from limited resources, they thus achieve great, transformational results.
Third, prepare yourself and dare to make a leap of faith. Like the parachutist, a strategic leader needs to be properly trained and get as much information about the prevailing conditions and the landing place. But then, he has to gather the courage to take calculated risks.
During war, for example, he might even have to jump under bad weather conditions into unknown territory occupied by enemies. Prime movers oftentimes have to make critically important decisions without all required information and with some stakeholders remaining hostile.
Executives will not get very far if they want to please everybody and fear to combat fallacious orthodoxies. Oftentimes, they have to act as pioneers and crisis leaders, stepping out to initiate transformational encounters.
Like parachutists, they must be willing to dive in the sky alone, left only with the strength of their character and a thin safety rope, steering themselves into hostile territory. They always have to remind themselves that they are “children of light” for others to follow.
Finally, like jumpers in retarded free-falling motion, would-be revolutionaries should leverage the prevailing forces at work whenever possible and try to control them.
Helmsmen who are believers enjoy what I call a “supernatural leadership edge” when it comes to dealing with the unknown. They do all they can to get prepared, but then make a leap of faith, trusting that God will take care of them.
In one biblical story, Peter asked Jesus, who was walking on a lake, to tell him to go to him on the water. When he received the requested order, Peter left the boat, which went against the wind and thus was wave-buffeted, and, at quite a distance from land, walked on water until he started to fear and began to sink.
The mission of high-impact strategic leaders is to improve the world in every moment of their lives through innovative designs and transformational encounters.
This requires a leap of faith away from the cozy, protected environment, fearlessly parachuting themselves into the unknown while trusting in tools prepared by others.
Are you ready to become a parachuting leader, stepping out to create transformational experiences and dramatically improve lives?
“Prof. Kai on Strategic Leadership” Column Number 51. Kai-Alexander Schlevogt (D.Phil. Oxford) serves as Full Professor of Strategic Leadership at the Graduate School of Management (GSOM), St. Petersburg State University (Russia), and Director of the IBM-GSOM SPbU Growth Market Leadership Program. His latest book, Brave New Saw Wave World (ISBN: 978-81-317-5403-0), is available at Amazon. Email: email@example.com; website: www.schlevogt.com