4 Timeless Qualities Of Strategic Leaders

Being a marketing leader in today's economy reminds me of my first solo cross country flight in 1988: even when I think I'm totally in control, bad things can happen.

I prepared one week in advance for this adventure from Stratford, Connecticut to Concord, New Hampshire. I had all of my sectional charts clearly marked, and the forecast was clear blue skies and calm air. As I crossed the invisible aerial border from Connecticut to Massachusetts, something strange happened.

I was headed for an airport—but it wasn't the Concord airport. In fact, it had two runways. It took me several seconds to realize it was Manchester airport, a military base. Visions of armed military guards greeting me and my Cessna 152 were scary. Even though I had meticulously prepared for this day, my plans were almost thwarted.

As the role of marketing continues to evolve at breakneck speed, do you ever feel like you are no longer the captain of your own journey? These are trying times—especially for B2B marketers—and our traditional flight plans need revisions.

Here's how I define a strategic marketing leader, and their attributes.

In general, a top marketing leader is someone who influences the hearts and minds of others to improve their conditions. And because information is moving at record speed and crossing organizational hierarchies, different approaches to leadership are emerging. After advising marketing and sales executives for over 15 years, I still cannot find the perfect marketing leadership model, but I can identify four timeless qualities of a strategic leader:

1. Articulate. Twitter is our ally. It has forced many of us to become more succinct and clear with our language.

Bestselling author and consultant Alan Weiss says that "Language controls the discussion; discussion controls the relationships, and relationships control the business." This is the number one differentiators between a practitioner and a strategic leader.

2. Accepting. Accept yourself, warts and all. Laugh at your blind spots. Accept what you can change and what you cannot. Acceptance makes it much easier to choose your response to the chaos surrounding us. The greatest leaders I have met have their own ritual to foster acceptance and compassion for themselves and others. While flying from New York to San Diego, I had the privilege of sitting next to Joseph Hoar, the U.S. General who served under Colin Powell in Somalia and Middle East. He told me that "every day, no matter what, I take time to reflect."

He is one of the most accepting, peaceful leaders I have ever met. Personally, I foster acceptance when I turn down the noise, walk away from my computer, and spend time in nature or meditate.

3. Aggregation. A strategic marketing leader spots trends in disparate places, and sees patterns to better understand the big picture. I find my greatest inspiration and new ideas by spending time with clients and people outside of my industry. When I spent a day touring Zappos, the online retailer in Henderson, Nevada, I walked the halls with CEO Tony Hsieh. He saw many years ago that building another online shoe store was not sustainable. Creating a "wow" customer service company was. He sold the company to Amazon, and today they continue to thrive—even though their parent company recently launched a similar website.

4. Adaptable. I've been a business author and columnist for 14 years, and will never forget a conference I attended which featured the late Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I was told prior to the conference I would never get time with Stephen. Then, at the last moment, the L.A. Times reporter cancelled and a spot opened up. I had just seven minutes to prepare for a fifteen minute interview. I silently panicked. When I told him I was unprepared, he offered me an oatmeal cookie. We were off and running. It was the best 35 minute interview I can remember. I was proud of myself for living "in the moment." From that day forward, I realized that momentum happens when I accept that perfect is the enemy of done.

Nike CEO Mark Parker was recently quoted in Fast Company as saying "Companies and people tend to look at chaos as an obstacle, a hurdle. We look at it as an opportunity: Get on the offense." Now is the time to consider buying weaker competitors, entering new markets, launch new programs and processes, and optimize your marketing and sales teams.

Those are the fundamentals of strategic leadership in a chaotic world. The next time you are flying towards your destination, don't be afraid to take a sharp right turn.

—Lisa Nirell is the chief energy officer of EnergizeGrowth and the founder of Marketing Leaders of D.C. She has helped B2B companies such as Adobe, Microsoft, and BMC Software grow customer mindshare and market share. Lisa is the author of EnergizeGrowth NOW: The Marketing Guide to a Wealthy Company. Visit energizegrowth.com to download a free sample chapter through EnergizeNews and follow Lisa on Twitter.

Related Posts:

Why Marketers Need to Channel Captain Kirk
Meditating on Growth Challenges
The Power of Silence

[Image: Flickr user Jim Sher]

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  • HiltonB1

    Splendid article. 
    An underlying point in your article is that EQ-savvy leaders are still in desperately short supply while high-functioning IQ-reliant leaders are still feted. 

    In tumultuous times, give me EQ-savvy leaders every time.

  • possible1

     Hello Hilton, Thank you for your comment. Give us your definition of a high functioning EQ leader--some people may not know what you mean. Also, whom might we know that demonstrates high EQ leadership traits?

    Keep contributing,

  • HiltonB1

    Lisa - Richard Branson is always the easiest example to cite. Highly empathetic, high levels of socially-accountable business practises and, by all accounts, a genuinely humanistic leader. In comparison, and perhaps an unpopular example, but Steve Job's leadership style seemed infinitely more autocratic. There's no denying he deeply understood the market and what would attract consumers, his ability to catalyze his teams and how he acted as leader seemed less EQ-driven. Of course, these examples come from reading biographies of both men not, unfortunately, from any 1st-hand experience.

    You cite military examples in your post. I suppose I'd add Colin Powell as a high-functioning EQ-leader too. Who do you consider a high-EQ leader?

  • Tim Bunch

    An excellent piece. Aggregation is key. Without being able to aptly pull together the key elements spread across the marketing universe, you're lost. Like an ship captain who has forgotten how the stars are aligned... and his GPS and Compass are broken.

  • Lisa Nirell

     Tim, I appreciate the new navigation metaphor! In today's marketing organizations, successful "ship captains" surround themselves with others who are very adept at spotting trends and patterns well in advance of the stormy weather.