It's the Leaders, Stupid!


Over the past couple weeks in this "Why is Strategy So Rare" series I have catalogued some of the excuses I have come across in working with organizations of all sizes all across the world. The Top Ten excuses on sheer frequency are:

1. Tyranny of the now
2. Check off the box
3. The rear-view mirror
4. Organizational myopia
5. Past is prologue
6. Fear of the unknown
7. Stakes are too high
8. No relevant KSAs
9. Belief in Big Daddy
10. The Munchkin model

If you missed them on LinkedIn you can see more about them on my website at and

These justifications for having no strategy are common, obvious from the outside and costly in every sense of the word. Why don't organizations learn from their peers or from history and avoid these pitfalls? I have noticed the following organizational conditions in these situations, sometimes singly, often in multiples. These are all excuses in themselves, of course, but easily recognized and useful as a place to start correction towards more responsible leadership.

1. Expedient Departures: The senior leader who has been ignoring or actively opposing investment in strategy formation conveniently leaves the organization just as the lack of strategy begins to bite. These are the retirements or new job prospects that occur in the second consecutive quarter of dropping revenues, dropping memberships, dropping supports and loss of key personnel. Everyone else on the leadership team including the board profess surprise at the poor organizational performance. The departing member makes a convenient scapegoat.

2. Circular Blame: This is detected in private interviews when each member of the leadership team identifies someone else to blame for both the poor organizational performance and the lack of corrective strategy rather than accept the collective responsibility. Individual members of the leadership team will almost randomly point fingers at each other: The CFO blames the COO who blames the CEO who blames the board, the board blames the board chair, and the board chair blames the whole senior management team. The CIO says that's not my job.

3. Erroneous Beliefs: The organization and its' leaders maintain a stubborn belief set that is contradicted by available evidence. This is commonly the reason that organizations repeatedly hire charismatic or emblematic but otherwise unqualified members for the leadership team and even the board. One example is the persistent belief that ‘Big Daddy' will solve all problems just because he says he can. Another variant is hiring based on notoriety achieved in unrelated fields, like media sensations, reality stars or social-political awardees.

4. Misreading the Problem: Organizations frequently will see only the immediate manifestation of a problem rather than the root cause. Mounting a glitzy new marketing campaign will not effectively remedy loss of market share, at least not for long, if the market environment has changed sufficiently to make the organization's products irrelevant. Lack of functional strategy blinds organizations to these environmental shifts.

5. Rear View Mirrors: The organization hires to fix previous errors not the future or even current problems. Replacing a CEO that ignored attrition in key personnel with an HR specialist is fixing last year's problem. The key hiring question at all times should be: "what KSAs do we need now to take the next strategic step". Without a clearly understood strategy this level of corporate reflection about their shared future is impossible.

So what is your responsibility inside the organization when you see these phenomena?

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