Good leaders must find time to write their future story

Strategic leaders find the right teams to deliver the day-to-day operations – so they can get on with creative storytelling, says Andrew Laird

I must admit that I have not made it through the entire 750 pages of Sir Lawrence Freedman’s recent book, Strategy: A History. However, I was lucky enough to attend a lecture a few weeks ago where he summarised the main findings of his book.

Speaking at London’s RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), Sir Lawrence took us on a journey through time covering the evolution of strategic thinking including: the battle strategies of David against Goliath; Achilles in The Iliad; the great military innovations of Sun Tzu (the Art of War) and of Clausewitz; the political strategies of Machiavelli; all the way through to modern corporate strategy found in the thinking of Peter Drucker and others.

Strategy is a story told in future tense.

During the Q&A session he was asked if he could summarise strategy in a single sentence. He paused for a moment before coming out with the top nugget of the day: “Strategy is a story told in future tense.”

I found this a really fascinating insight into the required mindset for good strategic planning. Sir Lawrence’s mighty tome will give the reader huge insight into the history of strategic planning and the lessons learned – but without being in the right frame of mind where you can block out the day-to-day noise and think creatively about your organisation’s future story you will struggle to set your own strategy.

People get focused on the here and now of operational demands. This is particularly poignant in public services where for dedicated staff there is simply nothing more important than the patient or pupil in front of them. For most staff, this is the right mindset – but every organisation must have the capacity to step back and think about the future and how the story of their organisation might unfold.

Great public service leaders don’t allow themselves to get constantly caught up in the day-to-day firefighting. For sure they can zero into the detail of an issue or challenge when required but for the most part they surround themselves with a great team and empower those people to use their judgement in operational matters. This goes against many managers’ natural instinct to micro manage, and yes there is an argument that at a time of budget cuts it’s a battle to survive and all attention must be focused on the here and now. However, this is not how some of the most inspirational leaders today in public service social enterprises operate.

Take Jon Niland from Provide (a social enterprise providing integrated health and social care) or Scott Darraugh from Social adVentures (a public health social enterprise in Salford). You only have to spend a little time with them to realise that at least 3/4 of their brain power is devoted to their organisation’s “future story”. Their ability to think creatively is obvious, as is their ability to clearly project their vision of how the future story of their organisation will unfold (and if you spend long enough with them they will tell you how your own future might look too!).

As a leader of an organisation, if you are constantly bogged down in day-to-day firefighting you won’t have the head space even to think about the next week, never mind the next year or five years. But without that future vision then the organisation will only ever lurch from one issue to another without any real sense of direction and progress.

So surround yourself with a great team and be prepared to delegate and empower them to handle day-to-day operational issues. Only by doing this will you allow yourself the time to write your organisation’s future story!

Andrew Laird is a director of Mutual Ventures. Mutual ventures works with local authorities, NHS organisations and other public bodies to help them achieve more from their services.

Photo by Mike McKay