Strategic Execution Requires 'Artful' Leadership

Aug 8 , 2020
By Ristu Fekadu

Vladimir Lenin, the Russian revolutionary, is believed to have coined the term "useful idiot," which he used against communist sympathisers in Europe and the United States. But there are plenty of good examples for such personalities in any walk of life.

Such people are perceived to be advocates of a given system while in actuality they are not fully aware of what the ultimate goal is. They are used cynically by the owners of the cause. It has a meaningful use in social, political and, of course, from the perspective of business strategy execution. Within the latter, they could only possibly be disadvantages. They cannot be harmonised with the sort of leadership styles that are most effective at executing strategies.

Every leader expects good results from their strategy. Starting from formulation to execution, as far as the success is concerned, there is reliance upon clear and articulated strategy management guidelines that in turn incorporate science and art. These two work together. While formulating any strategy, science prevails in most scenarios, while art is essential in the implementation phase.

Leaders should be more sensitive on how things are going and listen, feel and be responsive to the harmony that the eyes do not see. It is art, not science. Without this, strategy is abused and in turn misleads leaders in many companies.

A carefully crafted strategy is critical. But it is much better to execute a mediocre one effectively than to have great strategy with weak implementation. Implementation is a rather exaggerated task. There is no devil in the details. It rather needs to understand the people who are subjects or stakeholders.

A lot of issues could be incorporated in any given strategy, but people are everything. Execution is akin to riding a bike, which comes through experience and exposure even though pretending may help as a motivation. Without the practice to work harmoniously, the strategy is make believe. Leaders are required to inculcate strategy through multiple channels and must consider the feedback and responses that come to them. But they should remember that nothing is static; not even the strategy. The dynamism within the employee is the ignition coil for the organisation’s strategy. And this is where art is required.

Figuring out the strategy is not comparable with executing it successfully. There are various elements and factors which should be considered for successful implementation.

The primary obstacle to proper execution is harmonising expectations with reality.

"How did they do it?" or "Nothing is impossible!" or "We can take strategic risk!" are familiar phrases in any given business strategy formulation session.

The concepts of strategic management and actions have been successfully articulated by a number of organisations. Yet dreamers have to be doers by flexing their muscle to be able to realise their vision.

Relevant to this is expectation management. I am not saying this from the financial or business process standpoint but rather from the human element. Those who are responsible for strategy implementation of a company have to get a clear understanding of the details to address the objectives.

Nevertheless, leaders should be cautious that executors could deceive them. It does not mean they have to be suspicious on every matter; however, evaluating the real result has paramount importance. In most cases, implementers are dictated by the executive management’s expectations and tend to want to please. Denying this fact does not make one a great leader.

Indeed, getting genuine information is a headache for most decisionmakers or executive management. The discrepancy shown should be communicated; the soonest the better. The onus for this rests on the leader’s shoulder. Openness is critical with regular monitoring and evaluation.

Just as critical a problem is how organisations assume that every answer to problems lies within strategic documents. Here is where the challenges appear. Whether the strategy is formulated by the organisation itself or by a consultant, the diagnosis is not enough. Business perspective initiatives and projects by their own will not stand. Thus, it should be inherent, cultural and behavioural setups in line with the articulated objectives that help.

The bad part is that "useful idiots" presenting themselves as "yes men" at every corner make it impossible to diagnose the pain points.

While controlling for this, it is crucial for strategy management to anticipate the natural course of the business. Some rivers flow into the ground and dry at the end of its course without reaching another body of water, while others flow into an ocean or sea. The map that one has at the start of the journey may not always tell the whole story.

This is why remedial activities and initiatives have to be evaluated beyond the story told on the papers. There may be stories and anecdotes of others that followed a certain strategy and have become success stories. But every river is not the same and has to be explored on its own merits.

Here, order is crucial. Leaders should approach strategy management with flexibility, no doubt about it. But some leaders confuse responsiveness and agility with disorder and disorganisation. Flexibility has to be undertaken carefully. Leaders may want to experiment, not be bound by the book all the time, but neither should they stray from it too far. I have noticed that strategy executors justify their failure to fulfill the objectives by their leader’s ever-changing requirement and demand. Flexibility is turned into slipperiness.

There are various styles of leadership, and most prefer the opposite to servant leadership – where the leaders' priority becomes serving their employees - at the time of strategy execution. Applying this style might not be easy, but to transform the organisation by leading by example is important.

But most importantly, art is critical. This is the art of not falling to any extreme but only according to the situations and circumstances. More critically, this is the art of motivating and inspiring employees, particularly at a time of strategy execution, to the point that no "useful idiots" remain.

PUBLISHED ON Aug 08,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1058]

Ristu Fikadu is a former export manager and currently works as a senior customer relationship manager at a financial institution. He can be reached at

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