How to Recognize a Strategist

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ken Teegardin at www.seniorliving.org

When some­one asks you if you’re preg­nant, you either are, or you’re not. Strat­e­gy is not like that. You can be doing strat­e­gy, but your process and emo­tion­al state might be too rushed to do it very well. So, when we talk about “strat­e­gy,” we’re real­ly talk­ing about “effec­tive” strat­e­gy. And while we’re nit­pick­ing, maybe we should real­ize that we’re real­ly talk­ing about process and the emo­tion­al capac­i­ty for strat­e­gy.

Strategy Helps in a few ways

First, let’s talk about how strat­e­gy helps.

  • Strat­e­gy helps you make deci­sions quick­er in the day-to-day, sav­ing time.
  • Strat­e­gy keeps peo­ple focused and cre­ative, because they know why they’re doing what they’re doing.
  • Strat­e­gy saves ener­gy (both in move­ment and in frus­tra­tion) by giv­ing clar­i­ty.

A Strategist is Two Things: Emotion and Process

Strate­gists don’t have a cor­ner on the abil­i­ty to see sys­tems or to study a bat­tle­field and decide what are the most impor­tant ques­tions to ask. But they’re able to get them­selves into an emo­tion­al state that allows them to study, when oth­ers are rush­ing to con­clu­sions. For some, it’s an emo­tion­al dis­ci­pline. For oth­ers, it’s nat­ur­al.

Strate­gists often have a default frame­work for under­stand­ing prob­lems that comes with a nat­ur­al curios­i­ty (part­ly hav­ing to do with the emo­tion­al qual­i­ty that we just talked about). But a good strate­gist is able to build a process that fits the sit­u­a­tion, and is able to change that on the fly. As Moltke the Elder said, “No strat­e­gy sur­vives the first con­tact with the ene­my.” But a good strate­gist under­stands the sys­tem well enough to know how to change it just enough to deal with vari­ables.

Other Habits of a Strategist

A strate­gist ques­tions the cur­rent way of doing things. The strate­gist is sus­pi­cious of expe­ri­ence, espe­cial­ly when the voice of expe­ri­ence doesn’t seem to under­stand the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion or why they’re sug­gest­ed course of action worked in the past (which is very often).

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a fine mot­to when growth and change don’t cre­ate an advan­tage. But it’s a hor­ri­ble point of view for when things are chang­ing. Strat­e­gy is for­ward-look­ing, antic­i­pat­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties and prob­lems and then imag­in­ing solu­tions.

A strate­gist asks “why” when oth­er peo­ple just assume. A good strate­gist keys in on piv­otal assump­tions that could have a pow­er­ful bear­ing on results. This can frus­trate peo­ple who don’t know what to do with them­selves unless they’re exe­cut­ing.

A strate­gist can fig­ure out what to do when there’s noth­ing to do. In chess, Kas­parov talks about under­stand­ing the board well enough that, even when your oppo­nent is bored, you’re mak­ing small moves that end up chok­ing your oppo­nent. The abil­i­ty to iden­ti­fy these small moves makes the dif­fer­ence.


Everyone’s a strate­gist. But a strategist’s effec­tive­ness depends whether they can extract prof­itable insights from sit­u­a­tions where oth­ers might not see poten­tial. Can they turn insights into a goal and then define tasks we can exe­cute today that will move us toward that goal?

Strat­e­gy, done well, nev­er fails to cre­ate progress. Don’t skimp on strat­e­gy. It con­sis­tent­ly works in war, pol­i­tics, chess and life. But it takes a process. So con­tact me if you want help cre­at­ing a strat­e­gy pro­gram to more quick­ly reach your wor­thy goals.