Not all leaders are created equal.

Research has found that there are six essential skills that all strategic leaders demonstrate that sets them above their non-strategic counterparts: the ability to anticipate, challenge, interpret, decide, align, and learn. In a self-rating survey, thousands of business leaders rated their abilities in each facet of strategic leadership on a scale of 1 to 7. Scores averaged 5.2 out of 7, or an average of 74%.

If you’re feeling the need to improve your leadership capabilities, work on each skill area individually to cultivate a strategic outlook that will mutually benefit your career progression and your company’s performance.

Anticipate

Strategic leaders anticipate issues before they become big problems. At the same time, strategic leaders are excellent at scanning the marketplace for opportunities or gaps or signals that things are about to change.

Develop your skills in anticipation by considering various scenarios for each situation. It can prove useful to gather information from various sources (customers, competitors and partners) to anticipate where your industry is heading. Develop deep networks both inside and outside your organization to pick up on the winds of change.

Challenge

Strategic leaders challenge their teams to go outside the box, achieving more than the status quo. They not only accept, but encourage divergent viewpoints, perspectives and assumptions. The best strategic leaders only take action when they have considered and carefully reflected upon a problem.

To develop your ability to challenge, try to find the root causes of a problem rather than the symptoms. When facing a particularly difficult problem, take a moment to list and examine each of your assumptions and test each one to see if it holds water. Encourage debate amongst your team by asking and looking for different viewpoints; hold discussion meetings where conflict and dissent take place in a safe environment.

Interpret

Once you’ve honed your skills in challenging, you will no doubt be faced with large amounts of sometimes conflicting information. Thus, the next must-have skill for strategic leaders is being able to interpret complex information. Interpretation involves recognizing patterns, escaping ambiguity, and discovering new insights.

To improve this skill, analyze ambiguous information by asking why a particular phenomenon is occurring. Be able to zoom into the details of a problem, as well as zoom out to the big picture. Finally, step away. Taking a break from deep thinking can enhance your ability to see new perspectives.

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Decide

Once a strategic leader has interpreted a large amount of information, they are better equipped to make decisions that balance the short- and long-term goals of their company. Strategic leaders consider multiple options and the trade-offs of each, backing their decisions with conviction.

To succeed in the ability to decide, avoid binary decisions by asking your team what other options are available. Determine the party or parties that need to be involved in the decision-making process and include them from the outset. Consider testing decisions in a staged fashion rather than committing fully to an unknown course of action.

Align

The best strategic leaders are able to find common ground and foster harmony among stakeholders with opposing viewpoints. These leaders communicate proactively, build trust early, and engage frequently with interested parties.

To become accomplished in the skill of alignment, make sure to communicate early and often, using structured consultation to uncover bias or resistance. Reach out to resisters to understand their concerns and address them. Be vigilant in monitoring reactions to proposed policies during their rollout.

Learn

Finally, strategic leaders never stop learning. In their organizations they cultivate an environment of inquiry, questioning and constructive criticism. Strategic leaders learn to fail quickly, understand the lesson to be learned and pivot to a new solution. They don’t cover up mistakes, but rather, embrace missteps as a critical aspect of continuous improvement.

To learn better, begin the process of reviewing lessons learned from major decisions or milestones. Reward team members who take a chance and fail, encouraging reflection on what went wrong. Look out for project or initiatives that may be falling short and identify the underlying causes.

Becoming a strategic leader means consistent work on these six skills in both yourself and your team. A strong aptitude in one skill does not make up for a shortfall in another, so take care to develop all aspects of strategic leadership equally. With diligent and continued development, your ability to lead strategically will mean positive gains for both your career and your company.

Post adapted from this article.

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