Strategic Agility: A Leadership Imperative for a Volatile World

Today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world threatens CEOs who don’t adapt. Still, many fight fires, exploit immediate gains and set plans as if the business landscape was stable—though it’s clearly not. To create sustainable value amid the high stakes of uncertainty, it’s imperative that leaders take a disciplined approach to honing their strategic agility.

In a recent study by Management Research Group, “When asked to select the leadership behaviors most critical to their organization’s future success, executives chose strategic thinking 97% of the time.” However, being “strategic” is largely ill-defined, even for some of the most senior leaders. Decision Strategies’ research with more than 20,000 global leaders highlights distinct capabilities of truly strategic leaders that can help CEOs strengthen their own performance. These skills include the ability to:

  • Anticipate where your marketing is going. As cited in the Harvard Business Review, the best CEOs today “lead for the long-term.” This means looking out far, wide and often enough to foresee—and capitalize on—impending market shifts and trends. Successful CEOs, like Warner Brothers’ Kevin Tsujihara, look for signals of change. “Consumers’ expectations don’t allow us to wait for the silver bullet that doesn’t exist .. .we need to anticipate where the market is going,” he says. At Google, Larry Page says leaders must look five years ahead and ask not just “what will be true, but what might be true.” Assign someone to scout emerging trends. Observe startups. What do they see that you don’t?
“Surround yourself with people of different backgrounds. You really don’t need another you.”
  • Challenge conventional wisdom. Strategic leaders are not afraid to be contrarian or question conventional wisdom. A study of CEO succession by Booz & Company (now Strategy&) recommends that “Rather than breadth of experience, boards and recruiters should look for a proven track record of challenging conventional wisdom and experimenting with unconventional ideas.” At Amazon, “leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable.” To promote divergent thinking, Hala Moddelmog, former president of Arby’s, surrounds herself with people of different backgrounds. “You really don’t need another you,” she says. Foster debate in meetings and use devil’s advocates to push back on false consensuses.
  • Learn and fail. Forward-thinking leaders cultivate experiments knowing some meet objectives and others don’t. Failure can surface valuable lessons that otherwise would not have been discovered and is a worthy investment in future success. This explains Procter & Gamble’s famous mantra: fail fast, cheap and often. Spanx founder Sara Blakely had many missteps on her journey to success, but her father taught her that failure was equivalent to not trying. This led her to keep experimenting, and, ultimately, hit it big as a self-made billionaire. Make bets, learn and be resilient if you fall short. Shine a light on mistakes as a source of learning, and encourage others to do the same.

VUCA conditions are changing the way the world operates and CEOs must do the same. Strategic agility is more important now than ever before and only by mastering the art of strategic leadership will chief executives successfully win the long game.

The ideas in this article are further elaborated in Krupp and Paul J.H. Schoemaker’s book “Winning the Long Game: How Strategic Leaders Shape The Future,” which will be published in December by Perseus Press. Visit



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