READ: What is your level of Strategic Acumen?

Reality and strategic acumen went out the window during the referendum campaigns for the UK to leave or remain in the EU. Both camps were very polarised between people who seemed to be blindly optimistic about the opportunities of going it alone and others who had severe scepticism about the economic impact of having to renegotiate hundreds of trade and security agreements.

The leave result shocked the nation (including many on the Leave side!) and the UK was thrown into political turmoil by the intense feelings that 1 million people felt about the country being better off out of the European Union. It was extraordinary to see the government unravel within hours of the result and to watch a vicious but thankfully short leadership campaign for a new Prime Minister.

I was pleased to see that the most moderate candidate won overwhelming support and that the other main contender quickly backed out of the race because it was clear she could never win. It was also clear that a bitter 9 week campaign would only create more economic uncertainty in an already volatile situation.

Balancing Traits

The early signs are that the new Prime Minister has realistic optimism about the situation. She has chosen a broad range of people with very different views to be in charge of governing the country and its relationships with the rest of the world. She has removed or kept-out the people with the most extreme and rigidly held views. This is a clever move and it will be very interesting to see whether her new Secretaries of State will be able to temper and balance the strong traits they demonstrated during the campaign.

For example, will the people who demonstrated blind optimism be able to balance it with some thoughtful analysis of the potential pitfalls so they can avoid mistakes that could have serious consequences for the lives of UK and EU citizens? Will the people with severe scepticism be able to pick themselves up and balance their cynicism with optimism and a positive approach that will make the most of the situation?

Capacity to change

As many regular readers of my articles will know, humans have an amazing capacity to change but it takes self-awareness and effort. When we have a rigidly held view it can be very difficult to acknowledge, let alone understand, the opposite point of view. For example, the unbalanced optimist is so positive and enthusiastic that the thought of analysing potential problems or pitfalls feels negative and defeatist. They tend to see people who want to raise difficult issues or highlight the need for more analysis as being awkward and destructive. They can quickly label these people as being negative and refuse to listen to them, interpreting any challenge of their own ideas or position as a personal attack.

On the other hand the unbalanced sceptic will view the optimist as unrealistic and not grounded in reality. They can quickly become irritated by their lack of willingness to scrutinise their ideas and dismiss them as having inflated egos with little strategic judgement.

Don’t miss the hidden truths

These opposing views were clearly demonstrated during the Referendum campaign and it was quite shocking to hear some senior people on the Leave side say “experts cannot be trusted” or those on the Remain side say “the economy will collapse”. The truth is never that simple. It is dangerous to make universal blanket statements about your opponents or the situation you find yourself in. Doing this means you will miss the hidden truths or the subtle realities that you would perhaps prefer not to acknowledge. Those truths may make you doubt yourself which feels very uncomfortable and psychologically painful, so your ego kicks-in to protect you with spurious blanket statements that dismiss ‘the others’ as stupid or ignorant and not worth listening to.

A more enlightened and wise approach is to balance your optimism with a healthy dose of analysing pitfalls. To be an effective leader, we require a willingness to set aside our ego and really listen to what others are saying. We also need to acknowledge obstacles and difficulties, explore them fully without losing sight of the bigger picture and recognise that by including a variety of view-points and opinions we are stronger than trying to figure it all out alone.

Strategic Acumen

The paradox of Strategic Acumen is neatly illustrated by one of the very powerful and insightful Harrison Assessment reports. It takes the traits of ‘Optimistic’ and ‘Analyses Pitfalls’ and puts them in a graph that produces four sub-traits.

The developer of the tool, Dr. Dan Harrison has found a proverb for each paradox, the one for Strategic Acumen says: “Keep a positive attitude about the future, but be mindful of difficulties when they are small.” This implies that you are able to maintain optimism and your belief that the future will be bright, even when faced with significant obstacles. You are also not afraid to scrutinise potential pitfalls and address issues when they are still small or in the distance. So rather than hoping they will go away if you ignore them or pretend they are not there, you are willing to face them and make changes to your plans.

The paradox is illustrated below:

The trait of ‘Optimistic’ is defined as the tendency to believe the future will be positive. The trait of ‘Analyses Pitfalls’ is defined as the tendency to scrutinise potential difficulties related to a plan or strategy.

Each Paradox is designed to give a very simple insight into the imbalances that arise when one trait is strong and the other is weak or underdeveloped. For example, the trait of ‘Sceptical’ is the tendency to overly emphasise the potential difficulties of a plan or strategy without giving sufficient emphasis to the potential benefits (low Optimistic and high Analyses Pitfalls). Being ‘Blindly Optimistic’ is the tendency to focus on the possible benefits of a plan or strategy, while failing to adequately see the potential difficulties (high Optimistic and low Analyses Pitfalls). When both traits are under-developed or neglected you have ‘Careless Pessimism’. This gives the unfortunate tendency to take risks without due consideration of the pitfalls while at the same time believing that the future is bleak (Low Optimistic and Low Analyses Pitfalls).

‘Realistic Optimism’ is the wise and balanced approach. This is the tendency to analyse the potential pitfalls of a plan or strategy while maintaining a positive view of the future and the potential benefits of the plan or strategy (High Optimistic and High Analyses Pitfalls). It means your self-esteem is high enough to face the uncomfortable facts of a situation and make appropriate changes and not allow your belief in finding a good outcome to be shaken.

You need to provide the antidote

As a leader, your level of strategic acumen is being carefully observed by your directors, managers and your people. They will all have their own opinions based on their traits and you need to consistently communicate and vividly describe your vision of a brighter future while demonstrating your ability to stay grounded in reality by scrutinising plans for potential obstacles.

This can sometimes be a challenge, especially when there is increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) in the commercial, economic and social environments. We are more interconnected and interdependent than ever, and the new political situation that the UK finds itself in is having global implications.

Your leadership skills will need constant development, whatever level you are already at, because you now need to provide the antidote to VUCA by articulating your ‘Vision’, seeking to ‘Understand’ even more, providing ‘Clarity’ for your people and maintaining the ‘Agility’ to flex and adjust with the changes that are going on all around us.

Increasing self-awareness

After overcoming my initial shock of the referendum result, I have been listening to more of the arguments that I found it difficult to hear during the campaign. I’ve been scrutinising my own scepticism and analysing my optimism. I now firmly believe that while it will have its challenges we need to focus on making the best of the situation we are in and use our wisdom to build on our strengths, protect the vulnerable and collaborate with partners for mutual benefit.

Developing and maintaining the balanced versatility of Realistic Optimism will be the key to your success over the coming months and years. What are your traits in this paradox? What are the traits of your senior team? Are there any imbalances that could lead to poor strategic decision-making or missed opportunities?

Navigating the current economic uncertainties will require a learning mindset and high levels of self-awareness. It is difficult to lead others if you can’t lead yourself because you are still driven by your personal tendencies and biases.

What do you need in order to maintain your optimism while being open to scrutinising your strategies?

The Paradox of Strategic Acumen is only one of twelve paradoxes in the Harrison report. If you would like to read more about them, you can catch up on some of the others on the Talent4Performance Featured Articles (you can find them by looking for the illustrations similar to the one above).

To explore where you stand on the Paradox of Strategic Acumen and discover your key strengths please contact Glo at We also facilitate Team reports so you can identify the strengths and imbalances in your key teams. This can lead to powerful insights that increase strategic awareness and effectiveness.

Remember, especially as you consider your strategies . . . Stay Curious!

David Klaasen

©David Klaasen – October 2016