The Done Right Podcast
Episode 14

Intensity and Integrity: The Core of Being a Strategic Leader

Welcome to the Done Right podcast. I'm Jordan Staples and over the past decade and a half, I've been studying how people live successful and satisfying lives, both in and outside of work. And here's what I've learned. People in the workforce who are successful and satisfied are the ones that show up, pitch in, and make an impact in their companies. They are the ones who know how to get stuff done but do it right. So our mission for this podcast is to deliver insight and inspiration to fuel the way you show up at work today. 

[Jordan] We are here in Lehi, Utah, with Trish Gorman. Excited to have you back for another episode of the strategic leadership series. Welcome to the podcast. 

[Trish] Thanks. I'm very glad to be back. 

[Jordan] Awesome. Well, let's get everybody up to speed. For those who haven't heard the previous episodes, give us a little bit of an intro of who you are and what you do for the University of Utah, kind of your background. And then we’ll intro them into this strategic leadership series and get them clued in on what we mean by strategic leadership. 

[Trish] Excellent. And for those of you who've heard this before, thanks for hanging in there. But I'll just highlight that my background is diverse. I've worked for a while in consulting, which I really enjoyed. I have a Ph.D. in strategy and economics, and a background in mathematics and operations. So I've done some formal education. I've had the opportunity to study with great people and to teach. Right now, I'm teaching innovation, entrepreneurship and strategy at the University of Utah’s Eccles Business School. But my most important role there is I'm the managing director of the Goff Strategic Leadership Center. So my background in industry and consulting in academia has led me to the conclusion that one of the most important things we can do is help each other develop into stronger strategic leaders, people who help others and motivate others to pursue value for their teams and for their organizations. And that's what this whole series is all about. 

[Jordan] That's awesome. So let's dig into that strategic leadership piece. We have an episode all about what a strategic leader is, but what you described to me was really it's kind of a sub-component of leadership. Right? And you just were talking about how that sub-component really is focused on creating value for the team and for the organization. Is that right? 

[Trish] Right. Strategic leadership is a subset of overall leadership. And there are so many kinds of leaders, charismatic leaders and servant leaders. We are not taking anything away from any of them. We're just focusing in on this slice of people who are focused, as you say, on value creation. And what does that mean, does that mean profit? It could. It could mean value for your community. It could mean value for your team, change in your competitive positioning, making you stronger against others, or closer to your customer. But that means that strategic leaders take some risk because there's no reward without risk. They live in the future. They're making decisions today that are going to impact tomorrow and days after tomorrow. And they're always learning. So there's sort of a profile of a strategic leader that we want to dig into today. And, you know, spoiler alert. We actually think it's actually latent in a lot of people. A lot of people have the potential to be more strategic, to act in this way and can unlock a lot more value than they're actually realizing right now. 

What makes an individual a strategic leader?

[Jordan] That's really cool. So the way that these are broken down, we've got an episode that is on strategic leadership and really the six key principles of that. And essentially the way you guys have organized it is that there's the core of a strategic leader which we’ll really hit on today, and in some future episodes. There is the role of a strategic leader, really how they interact with people. Then there's the goal of strategic leaders, which we’ll get into in some future episode. So focusing on the core. Right. Focusing on the core. What for you makes an individual a strategic leader? 

[Trish] That's a great question. And you're exactly right because leadership is such a great, huge concept, we have broken it down to these three key dimensions. And focusing on the core, it's really who you are as a strategic leader. And it breaks down to some aspects of integrity and who you are as a human, and how you express your beliefs and in what you strive to do, kind of what gets you out of bed in the morning. But there's more to it than that. There's also aspects of certain behaviors, which is a bias towards the future, a bias towards others. And really, if you could call it a mindset, I mean, I know some people take that sort of attitude, mindset thing and it's hard to pin down. But it's a perspective that says you have a desire to make things better. And a lot of people I used to––I don't know if people do this anymore––sign their email with a sort of “be the change you want to see in the world.” I mean, that's a bit of the essence of the core of a strategic leader.

That's not the only way, you know, but it's looking at something and finding a problem to solve. Being the kind of person that isn't complacent and isn't waiting for someone else to decide what to do next. Even, you know, in an abundant environment where there might not seem to be problems to solve, there are ways to continuously improve and change and make things better for yourself and others. So the sort of “who” you are as a strategic leader is someone who wants to create value, who's looking for those opportunities. And you may or may not have a formal designation that somebody tells you you're a strategic leader. Many of our students self identify as leaders and as strategic leaders, but they haven't been given any formal authority. 

How to know if you’re a strategic leader:

[Jordan] That's interesting because I guess I ask the following question is how do I know? How do I know if I've really got what it takes to be a strategic leader? 

[Trish] That's great. 

[Jordan] In a real practical sense, real pride. I think we all aspire if we want to bring value, want to create value like nobody wants to be outside of that bucket. Right? You know, whether you are in an official leadership role or not. Like, how do I know that I am one or that I have the potential? 

[Trish] Ok, great. And I chuckle a little bit because a lot of times I ask people if they think they are strategic leaders and very few people will actually immediately raise their hand. So it's easier to break it down into some specific things. So if I ask you, Jordan, you know, in recent days, have you seen a problem that is blocking somebody else and tried to clear that obstacle? Can you actually think of a time when you….

[Jordan] Yes. 

[Trish] Ok, so how about have you made decisions that you had to really struggle with? Ok, the short term answer is one, but I'm thinking about tomorrow I'm going to make a decision today that's going to impact tomorrow. 

[Jordan] A hundred percent. 

[Trish] A hundred percent. Ok, so you're already exhibiting some of these things that are really strategic leadership characteristics, right? So you find yourself kind of sitting around in your office waiting for people to tell you what to do? Or are you out looking for ways to help clients, customers, and teammates?

[Jordan] I hope I'm not sitting in my office waiting for that.

[Trish] I don't think anyone's ever spotted you sitting in your office. So if you're a doer, if you're somebody who is out looking for opportunities––now, you know, they may be opportunities to make yourself more successful and improve your reputation and improve your status in the community. That's ok. And we often see that your personal goals are aligning with professional goals. So we're not saying you have to always be saying, “oh, gee, how can I solve somebody else's problem? How can I go find trouble and, you know, be Superman?” No, no, no. But it's the bias towards, instead of saying, “oh, I have my work, I'm going to stretch it out to make it last until Friday at 5 o'clock when I accomplish tasks.” Strategic leaders are there, getting their tasks completed. They're getting work done. But they are dual processing and thinking about why they're doing it and maybe what they could do instead, or in addition. And I'm not saying you'll have to be workaholics, but it's this idea that you have a bigger picture in mind. You're not just in the weeds, you actually come up above and look out and say, “Hey, you know, I might be able to make a positive change, make things easier in the future and make things better.” 

Strategic Leadership vs. Opportunism

[Jordan] So I want to challenge you a little bit. So one thing that came to mind is even as we've been starting off this conversation is some of that description just to be kind of a devil's advocate, sounds like an opportunist. Right? So it sounds like someone who's gonna show up... and I actually had––this was last year––someone on my team said, “Jordan, if I hear the word opportunity one more time, I'm going to lose it.” Right? Because I see a lot of opportunities, but like, is there a point at which––and maybe I'm putting words in your mouth, but you brought up integrity, like right out the gates, and I just wonder, like, is there a difference between having the big picture in mind and being an opportunist, if that's not a leading question? 

[Trish] No, I think it's really interesting, and trust me, some of these words are so overused and especially once we turn problems into opportunities, then isn't everything an opportunity? And so, yeah, I can see where the skepticism might come in. But I would say strategic leaders have courage about themselves that they are willing to have the contrarian belief. Maybe everyone else is rushing to the opportunity that they see in artificial intelligence or they see in drones or they see in online education. And you may stop and say, actually, I disagree. I don't think that's our best opportunity. So making tough choices, having tough conversations, that's also a big part of it. So I do lead off saying, “don't be sitting, waiting for someone to tell you what to do. Go find something cool to do,” but don't just go find something cool to do and run after the first shiny object. There's also a lot of the true strategic element here, which is, is this a great opportunity for the time. So we ask, is it time? Are we too soon? Too late? We ask, is it big? Is it worthwhile? Is there really value here for us or for our customers and clients? And is it mine? It might be a great opportunity or a great potential value creation problem to solve. But it might not be yours. Walk away. Make choices. Is this the best way you could use your time and your team's time. So, yeah, I think there could be an opportunist bit to it, but I'm hoping that we go beyond that and we're more discerning. 

Let me give you an example of someone who's sitting in their cube or their office and they're demonstrating strategic leadership. So they're getting an email or a phone call or a slack that's asking them to do something. And we might all feel like, okay, I want to be a good soldier. I'm asked to do something. I'll do it. Even just taking that pause to say, is this my right next step? Is this the right thing I should be doing? Maybe you get that ask. And the right thing as a strategic leader looking at your core is to say, “I'm not the right person for that. Let me pass this on.” Now, is that passing the buck? Am I just kind of keeping myself from having to do any hard work? That's the essence of it, is really looking and saying, “gee, should I jump on this task? Should I join this team? Should I take this committee assignment? Should I help someone finish something by 5:00 today, or am I going to find the right person? Or is what's already on my desk more important, and I need to say no, because it would be abandoning something else that has higher value.” So stepping back and not just treating yourself as sort of a conveyor belt of requests that come and go, but having that discernment, that courage and that ability to make those tough choices. 

Is strategic leadership developed or innate?

[Jordan] Let me ask this question then. So there's probably people listening and certainly, there are characteristics you're describing that I envy, like there are things I want to develop. Do you see or maybe from your experience believe… like, how much of leadership, especially the strategic leadership component, is kind of innate characteristics like you were born to lead or born to be strategic vs.. This is stuff that people have developed like, you know, the best kind of strategic leaders actually developed into, you know, that kind of a role. 

[Trish] That's a wonderful question. And certainly, there are some characteristics like being extroverted, being articulate, being a risk-taker, that may seem to correlate with early leadership experiences. So if you're the first one to speak up, if you have a lot of confidence and courage, you may read as a leader. Other people start to see you that way, give you the opportunity to make more strategic choices and so on. But we actually find that some of the great followers are actually really good strategic leaders, and that's because they're processing what's happening around them. And maybe they're not the most extroverted, they're not doing all the talking, they're not in a formal role, but they're persuading, influencing, motivating and making choices and making change in their own ways. 

So some are innate characteristics, but strategic leaders, an awful lot of it has to do with analysis, being able to find data and come up with an argument that says here's why we should move in a direction or not, why we should make this choice. I don't want to imply that all of this is just from the gut that is just you're born this way and you have some superpower that allows you to magically know what to do. No, there's a lot of hard work, data collection, data analysis, discussion with others, creating buy-in, alignment, all the tools that are in a strategist toolkit, plus the leadership tools. And a lot of it can be developed and needs to be developed continuously. We work with students who are young and we work with CEOs and experienced senior executives. And there's always a way to reinforce or improve. 

Why become a strategic leader?

[Jordan] So let me ask you this then, I feel like I’m playing devil's advocate today, but maybe it's worthwhile. So why would someone like at whatever stage they're at in their career––I think we think of students a lot of times we associate that with, you know, you're young, you're kind of in learning mode already. Why would someone take the time and the energy today, whether they were early, mid, later stages of their career, to pivot and to really develop some of those characteristics, some of the skills that you're talking about? 

[Trish] There's two big reasons. One, because the world is changing, and two, because you may want to change your own role in the world we have now. So I'm going to start with the second. So if you're perceived as someone who can make these tough choices, who can find the right problems to solve and frame them and bring that courage, or we call it sometimes the intensity along with the insight to get things done, you will get more opportunities. It may mean you get promoted, you may move to a different office, you may have a larger team, a larger scope of responsibility, access to more interesting and more sophisticated clients. So the classic, whether it's climbing the corporate ladder or nowadays, people say, you know, traversing the lattice, or moving along and making sure your career has the impact and that you realize the potential of your career in terms of impact. 

So there's that piece. And people who are perceived as strategic thinkers and strategic leaders are very valuable inside most organizations and do get more opportunities. So one is if you want a great career, this is one way to make it happen. And we find people find more engagement in satisfaction in this kind of work as well. So if you want to enjoy your work and, you know, have a great career, that's number one. 

But the second is the world is changing. Your job is changing. Your industry is changing. The arena where you're competing is changing. Your customer preferences are changing. Laws are changing. Economics are changing. Technology is changing. And strategic leaders, a big piece of the essence, the core of a strategic leader is that they have the ability to continuously learn, they’re self-aware of where they're weak, they're honest with themselves that maybe what got them here won't get them to the next level. They may have mastered yesterday's technologies, but they're clueless about tomorrow's. 

So the ability to be resilient and adaptive is a huge part of strategic leadership. So you may be thinking, I want to have this great career and I want to have a huge impact, and then your industry takes a huge pivot to the left or is disrupted or destroyed. What are you going to do then? Well, your essential core is going to help you there, because you're going to be able to find new problems and retool and go in a new direction. So both of those reasons, we feel are really strong. So even if you're done with school and you think your education is over, the kind of skills and behaviors we're talking about will help you. 

[Jordan] That's great. Is there something that separates leaders from non-leaders or is it just like that, the desire to lead? 

[Trish] Well, it's interesting because you can be activating your strategic leadership and then you can you can kind of turn it on and off. You can be a follower on one day or in one meeting, and the leader in another. In one area or domain, you might really be the person who's perceived by others and acting in a leadership role. But it's not always on, there are times when you're in a support role. And certainly even that personal agility of knowing when you're more passive and when you're more active is part of what you need to learn in order to be really great at it. 

Diversity and gender in leadership:

[Jordan] So we were talking about this before we hit record. Let's talk about diversity a little bit, because I think we all know that men and women are perceived differently in the business world. And I'm curious to get your reaction like the differences you've seen in terms of how women versus men approach this and then certainly how they're perceived as they're influencing from a strategic standpoint. Like what are some of the differences that you've seen? Or other minority groups that you've looked into or you have some insight on that would be interesting as well. 

[Trish] Well, certainly I've spent more time looking at the gender issues than the underrepresented groups. But in diverse groups, it's easy for the individual to feel inhibited about expressing maybe a contrarian belief or a new opportunity for value. And often, even when they do the group hearing it is perhaps not really hearing it. For example, if a woman was heading in one direction, finds new information, and says, “actually I’m going to make a tough choice, we're going to move in a new direction. This is going to create higher value, but there is a probability of failure where we can learn something.” This can be perceived as, “Terrific! Go for it.” Or a bit of dithering or indecisiveness. Women have a double bind that a lot of the characteristics that they bring to the workplace are not interpreted in the same way as they would be from a man or from someone in the dominant group. 

[Jordan] So, are women perceived as more, in those situations, as more indecisive if they want to push for that pivot or that change? 

[Trish] I've definitely seen that happen. And I've seen women who had to use different tactics to find a group of like-minded women or men, or bring in the power of data, the power of experts, other sources of power, aside from their own individual voice, to make sure that they could kind of cut through the clutter and be heard, especially when there's a time-sensitive element to it. And building consensus and buy-in in the traditional ways, especially in a gendered environment, may not be an effective path. I do think also we see it's harder for women to nominate themselves to be a leader, you know, to say, “well, no one's stepping up, I'll step up.” If they've had early experiences where that's worked for them personally, they are more likely to do so. But often they need a mentor or they need or maybe not need, “need” is too strong of a word. But they benefit from having others who help to reinforce them in those roles. And especially when you're trying to convince a group to go in a risky direction and you're drawing on your personal courage. 

[Jordan] Either way, it's going to be just a risky, unsettling situation.

[Triah] And it's hard for men too. It's hard for young people sometimes when they're in a group of more senior people, sometimes it's hard for someone who's been around for a long time and has seniority when they're amongst young people who seem to have more technological insights and prowess. So it's not just men, women. It can be so many different permutations of the dominant group, the dominant logic, if you can call it that, in the culture of the place. And then someone who's perceived as bringing in maybe an unwelcome or unexpected idea, direction, or argument and finding a way to create a culture where those conversations can happen, it doesn't mean that every time someone who thinks they're a strategic leader brings a great idea for impact, that it's the right idea and it should be accepted. But it should at least be a process for making sure that it's heard and evaluated and then respected in some way, even if it is then dismissed. 

Today’s best next action:

[Jordan] So let's dig into maybe how someone might sort of develop some of these core skills of being a strategic leader or like what are some things that people could do to become better at this today? 

[Trish] There's a couple of things. One is to look around you for opportunities. Look at opportunities that other people are pursuing that you may want to lend your efforts towards. So it doesn't have to be a big risk, but it's a lot of looking up from your desk, looking up from your immediate tasks and responsibilities––not maybe on a regular basis––to look outside your typical kind of swim lane. And secondly, I would say look at others in the organization who seem to have these characteristics already and look at how they're succeeding in your particular culture. And that's also really helpful because we can give you all kinds of case studies of how, you know, this might have worked at 3M with this particular person or Dropbox with this other person. But you're in your own culture and environment, so one of the things you can do is sort out what tends to work in your place.

[Jordan] Be observant of that. 

[Trish] Yeah, be observant of that and be looking for things on a more specific level. You can do little exercises like we do one where we say, you know, “jump in your time machine and go to the future. And is what you're doing today going to actually matter?” And everyone does this in a different way. Does what you're doing better in 10 minutes, 10 months, 10 years is one approach that is very powerful and however that works for you, it's is this really the best thing I can be doing with my time right now? And if not, then step back, reevaluate. But a lot of times it does take, I call it getting into your time machine because just looking at what you're doing, I mean, I have a deadline at 5:00 today that if I don't step back and ask myself, the question of does it really matter? I'm just going to put my head down and get it done today because I said I would and it sounds important. 

But the practice, the habit of stepping back and also asking, do I have to do this? Maybe even if I'm honest with myself, what I think I really need to do by 5 o'clock today, I could delegate, or I could work more collaboratively. And it doesn't have to be all me. So getting your ego out of the way, getting in your time machine, and lifting your head up from your desk.

[Jordan] Do you see the kind of analysis paralysis get in the way? I mean, maybe you can go speak to some of the obstacles that get in the way of people really doing this. Right? Because I imagine that, you know, I think what I'm taking away from today is that at your core, with being a strategic leader, you've got to see the bigger picture and just see the opportunity, really think about what you're doing and the impact it's having. But I also know there is a lot of us that get stuck into that world of not wanting to make a move until it feels like the perfect move, or, you know, until they've analyzed it to death. 

[Trish] I'm so glad you're asking that question because that's the unseen cost of this sometimes. It's very obvious in many situations to see the person who's trying to sort of flip from opportunity to opportunity and go in their future time machine and, you know, kind of always be out there on the edge with the contrarian beliefs and trying to lead. We can kind of pull that person back and help them to channel a lot of that in positive ways. But sometimes you don't even see the person who's digging in deeper and deeper into analytics and as you say, analysis paralysis, trying to get ready for that big drum roll moment where they come out with “and here's what we really need to do, folks.” And since we can't see the wheels spinning and all those analytics, sometimes we can't repurpose that to a more productive way of work. But certainly, the 80/20 rule, or having enough of an idea of what you want to say or do to share it with a trusted colleague or to start to syndicated around is part of the suite of skills you need. If you're a hundred percent right, you're probably solving a problem that either one, someone else has already solved, or two, it was yesterday's problem. 

[Jordan] Well, I'm excited that we've got two episodes we're going to do together where we're gonna hit on the two core principles of strategic leaders. One is cultivating self-awareness, personal agility and continual growth, and the other is deliver results with strong personal ownership. So excited to jump into those topics with you. Thanks for being with us here today. We look forward to our next conversation. 

[Trish] Thank you so much. 

Thank you so much for listening to today's episode. You can find more information about the topic and continue the conversation at donerightpodcast.org. The Done Right podcast is hosted by me, Jordan Staples, the show is produced by Workfront. Our team includes Jeremy Tippetts and Marc Hansen. 

Thanks for listening. And if you like what you hear, rate and review the show, it helps other people find us. See you next time.