Jul 20 2023

Formula for Strategic Leadership

Years ago, I heard then General David Petraeus give a talk to a small group of us about leadership. He was literally coming to us live from his command center in Iraq or Afghanistan when he was running the whole theater of war over there. I realize he subsequently had some tarnish on his reputation after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor around handling classified information, but the main thrust of his talk, his Formula for Strategic Leadership, still stands as one of the more memorable talks on leadership I’ve ever heard and is no less relevant as a result.

Given that I still remember it vividly 14-15 years later, I thought I’d recreate it here with my own annotations after the four principles. It’s a simple 4-step formula:

  1. Get the big ideas right. Obviously, you aren’t going to go down in history as a great leader if you consistently get the big picture wrong. That doesn’t mean you have to be right about everything and every detail. But if you pick the wrong market, bet on the wrong approach, happen to get your timing wrong by a few years…it’s hard to win.
  2. Communicate them up and down the organization. Every mature leader knows that ideas and plans only go so far if they stay in your head or get filtered down through leadership teams. For your values to take root, for your strategy and strategic choices to make sense, and for people in the organization to be able to connect their daily execution to your company’s north star, you need to spend a lot of time communicating those things throughout the organization. Different groups, different meetings, different channels. And then, when you’re finally exhausted and sick of hearing yourself say those things over and over and over again…keep saying them.
  3. Personally oversee their implementation. Leaders who throw things over the proverbial wall — “here’s what to do, now go do it while I move on to something else” — are not really strategic leaders. The devil is in the details. If you can’t bother to spend a few minutes overseeing the implementation of your strategy and carefully watching when and how it works and doesn’t (see next item), you may be a good visionary, but you’re not really a strategic leader.
  4. Memorialize and institutionalize best and worst practices. This is where so many leaders fall down on the job. When something in your organization wraps up — a launch, a quarter, a project — you have to do a retrospective, curate learnings both good and bad, and publish them. That way your whole organization can have a growth mindset as a system.

There are about a zillion books on leadership out there. Most of them are probably between 200 and 400 pages long. While they may all have variations on this theme and colorful examples behind them, this still rings true for me as the essential formula for strategic leadership.