How to Become a Strategic Leader

By investing more time in three key activities, new and experienced managers alike can become better strategic leaders.

Reading Time: 7 min 


My career at Facebook started in 2006 as its first intern. Three years later, I became a rookie manager at the age of 25. Today, I manage an organization of hundreds of people. This path has brought countless new challenges, mistakes, and lessons, many of which are laid out in my new book, The Making of a Manager, a field guide for new managers.

One of the key areas of growth for me as a manager was strategy. As I progressed in my career, I knew that there was an expectation that the work I did would become increasingly strategic. But what does that really mean? This is what I used to think it meant:

  • Setting metric goals.
  • Thinking outside the box to come up with new ideas.
  • Working harder and motivating others to work harder.
  • Writing long documents.
  • Creating frameworks.
  • Drawing graphs on a whiteboard.

As a result, I tried to do as many of the above as I could. I brainstormed. I wrote epic, sweeping documents. I familiarized myself with the language of KPIs and measurements. Before each new task, I gave myself a mental check. This, I thought, must be strategizing.

Unfortunately, I was doing the equivalent of strumming a guitar and assuming I was making music. The core problem was that I didn’t really understand what strategy was. Because nobody had ever explained it to me, I figured that being strategic was simply engaging in high-level product and business discussions.

What a strategy actually entails is a set of actions designed to achieve a particular objective. It’s like a route designed to get you from point A to point B. Now, there might be many routes you could take, so a more interesting question is: “What makes for a good strategy?” For that, I subscribe to Richard Rumelt’s definition: “A good strategy is a set of actions that is credible, coherent, and focused on overcoming the biggest hurdle(s) in achieving a particular objective.”

Let’s begin by breaking this down into discrete parts:

  • Achieving a particular objective: It should be clear what success looks like.
  • Set of actions: There should be a concrete plan.
  • Credible and coherent: The plan needs to make sense and hold up under scrutiny without having conflicting components.
  • Focused on overcoming the biggest hurdle(s): There should be a clear diagnosis of the biggest problems to be solved, and the plan should focus resources on overcoming them.


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Comments (3)
T Chromczak
Great article !  Thank you Julie Z.

So often organizations (really  the people in charge) create gridlock by championing too many "priorities" and lose focus on what matters most.   

I love the metaphor "strumming a guitar and assuming I was making music"  which reminded me of the adage Don't confuse activity with achievement.
Siddhartha Bhattacharjee
The content of this article and the headline seems disconnected. From a business perspective, the leaders ability to make sense of opportunities, create a value for employees , customers and stakeholders, choice of a path and mobilizing people to set course  is definitely strategic leadership.  Time and again this has been proven in the world of business, adventure, military and politics. Alignment of direction happens not because of enforcement or a shared vision , but on the basis of individual's appetite for challenge and it's potential to enhance self image.
Stephen Chan
I like the whiteboard part.