Strategic leadership is about creating and allocating resources ahead of the action. Tactical leadership is about managing resources during the action. Crisis leadership requires both at the same time. The concept is simple – if you’re viewing things dispassionately from the outside. It’s a whole different game if you’re on the inside.

Strategic Leadership

Strategy comes from the Greek “Strategos,” the art of the general, arranging forces before the battle. The critical word is “before.” Strategic leadership is about setting others up to win. Strategic leaders think through where to play and how to win.

Think of the sales strategists identifying the right target prospects (where to play) and then building the team, messaging, materials, and tools required to market to those prospects, make initial contacts, and then set up sales meetings.

Tactical Leadership

Tactics come from the Greek “Taktikos,” deployment of forces in battle. Where strategic leaders make their contributions before, tactical leaders make their contributions during. They are in direct contact with the actors, coaching, directing, and supporting them.

Think of the sales managers helping to think through which particular salesperson should call on which particular prospect. They make sure the salespeople have the knowledge, skills, materials, and tools they need to serve each individual prospect and client best.

Crisis Leadership

Crisis comes from the Greek “Krisis,” the act of separating decision, judgment, event, outcome, turning point, sudden change, and, in particular, the turning point in a disease. If strategists think things through “before,” and tacticians bring their strategies to fruition “during,” crisis leaders come into their own when things don’t happen as expected. They have to respond to sudden changes and make decisions that can mean the difference between success and failure, if not survival and extinction.

Think of the sales efforts behind a new product launch – well strategized, well managed tactically until, suddenly, the product’s availability is delayed six months. The crisis leader could come from the ranks of the strategists, the tacticians, or the front-line actors. In any case, they have to step up, rethink where to play and how to win, redirect resources and manage the actors in new directions – all at the same time, in a very short time.

Issues

Problems arise when strategic leaders get too tactical, tactical leaders try to change the strategy, or anyone moves slowly enough to create an unnecessary crisis.

When strategic leaders get too tactical, they disempower the tactical leaders by taking away their degrees of freedom. The result is a breakdown in Tactical Capacity and teams’ inability to translate strategies into tactical actions decisively, rapidly, and effectively, with high-quality responsiveness under difficult, changing conditions. Instead of responding to the changing conditions they see, they simply comply with what the strategic leaders tell them to do.

When tactical leaders get strategic during an action, they run the risk of upsetting others’ actions. They may not have a complete picture of how their piece fits into the whole. Doing things outside of their bounded authority may have a negative impact on other parts of the strategy.

Almost by definition, strategic leaders deal with the longest time horizons of the three. Tactical leaders’ actions are time bound. The longer tactical leaders take to complete their actions, the greater the risk of things changing. While Tactical Capacity should give them the ability to respond relatively quickly in most cases, in some cases sudden changes create crises.

Implications

Get and stay ahead of the curve – but in your lane.

If you’re a strategic leader, think things through and then give the tactical leaders the direction, resources, bounded authority, and accountability they need to be successful.

If you’re a tactical leader, translate those strategies into actions decisively, rapidly, and effectively, responding to changes in your circumstances as appropriate.

If you’re a crisis leader, make sure you’ve prepared in advance and then react to events and bridge the gaps. Inspire, enable and empower others to get things vaguely right quickly, and then adapt along the way – with clarity around direction, leadership and roles.

Click here for a list of my Forbes articles (of which this is #804) and a summary of my book on executive onboarding: The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan.

Follow me on Twitter.
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