Academic journal article Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies

Building a Culture That Encourages Strategic Thinking

Academic journal article Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies

Building a Culture That Encourages Strategic Thinking

Article excerpt


The ability to think strategically is critical for leaders and managers at multiple organizational levels. Specific work experiences can contribute to the development of an individual's strategic thinking ability. Culture, among other organizational factors, can either encourage or limit those contributions. Leaders, as culture constructors and transformers, can act to maximize the relationship between organizational culture and the process of learning to think strategically. A cadre of formal training, developmental activities, and self-directed learning initiatives can provide leaders with the skills to enhance the strategic thinking of those they lead.


strategic thinking, management learning, leadership development, organizational culture


"Culture eats strategy for lunch." This management truism is linked to examples of how strategy failed, acknowledging that actions attempted were inconsistent with the organization's values, beliefs, and assumptions (Weeks, 2006). The strategy-eating potential of culture has been used as the basis for recommending that leaders initiate large-scale change efforts to align culture with strategy. However, it has long been recognized that culture can also severely restrict the strategy selected to begin with, because of the myopia of shared beliefs among decision makers regarding the organization's goals, competencies, and environment (Lorsch, 1985). Moreover, shared assumptions about the organization's core mission can limit not only the strategy but also the vision (Schein, 2004). Thus, one of the most basic elements in any theory of leadership roles--establishing vision (Sashkin & Sashkin, 2003)--is inhibited unless the thinking used to develop it, strategic thinking (Heracleous, 1998), is encouraged by the organization's culture.

Strategic thinking is recognized as an individual ability (Hanford, 1995; Liedtka, 1998; Mintzberg, 1978), yet we know relatively little about its development. Limited work has been done addressing individual, group, and contextual factors contributing to strategic thinking, although a few frameworks and developmental models have been proposed (Bonn, 2005; Casey & Goldman, 2010). Not considered in depth are the importance of organizational factors and how leaders might influence these factors to cultivate strategic thinking across the organization. This article builds on a dynamic model of how strategic thinking develops. We explore culture and other related organizational factors that influence the process of learning to think strategically. Strategies that leaders can employ to influence these factors are proposed. Approaches for educating new leaders and managers in relation to the application of these approaches are discussed.

Strategic Aspects of Leadership

As an influencing process, leadership is described as being purpose driven and resulting in vision-inspired change (Antonakis, Cianciolo, & Sternberg, 2004). Across theories, vision stands as the most common important element of approaches to transformational leadership (Sashkin & Sashkin, 2003). The Sashkins (2003) noted that various theorists (e.g., Bass; Bennis and Nanus; Conger and Kanungo; House; Jaques; Kotter and Heskett; Kouzes and Posner) indicate that leaders are required to develop a vision, articulate and inspire communication of a vision, and manage followers' attention through vision.

The limitations of focusing on having and communicating a vision (alone) were discussed by strategy theorists Mintzberg, Ahlstrand, and Lampel (1998) in their identification of the "entrepreneurial school" as one of 10 ways of developing organizational strategy. They described the entrepreneurial school as being preoccupied with vision development and visionary leadership as an antidote to the failures of strategic planning: "Every self-respecting organization suddenly had to establish a vision" (p. …

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