ATD Blog

Strategic Leaders Need Strategic Tools

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Every profession requires tools for its trade. Accountants use spreadsheets and financial formulas; physicians use MRIs, lab results, and checklists; machinists use lasers. Most professionals pride themselves on having access to and using the finest tools because it facilitates their ability to produce their best work. 

Executives take a different tack. They prefer to make decisions, plan projects, execute change, and evaluate progress with minimal use of tools. Despite the abundance of high quality methods from organization scholars and expert practitioners, business leaders are more naturally inclined to rely on personal judgment and past experience. 

Executive point of view 

Executives seem to believe that they don’t need tools to make decisions, solve problems, and engage others in planning. It’s as if to use a tool is to admit that they personally don’t have all the knowledge and skills. But, of course, they don’t. And executives don’t want to expose this perceived “weakness” to their co-workers. 

Although, executives wouldn’t want their physician to diagnose without a stethoscope and they wouldn’t want a carpenter to remodel their house without a hammer, for some reason, they have this mindset that an organizational leader should be able to do the work without tools. 

When input from others is sought in meetings and alternate points of view are invited, the process tends to be unstructured with those individuals with the most organization power, most strident voice or financial support, the most likely to prevail. As a result, organization performance is sub-optimized. Without the use of good working methodologies, it becomes more difficult for leaders and managers to demonstrate those behaviors that have been shown to create a positive working environment and increase productivity. 

It seems that the higher one travels up the organization chart, the less likely it is that leaders use structured methods to help them address the critical issues before them. Instead, senior leaders are more likely to be influenced by broad ideas of strategy and general concepts rather than structured thinking and best practices to attack the challenges before them. 

Unfortunately, it is here that the greatest value could be wrought from using structured methods. The issues higher up the hierarchy have larger ramifications, and they are less likely to have clear answers, require greater cooperation across internal silos and between external entities, and are fraught with greater risk. It is here that issues require input from many sources—and available information is scant and must be teased out. Ironically, it is here that the use of strategic leadership tools can provide the greatest power. 


Leadership needs art and science 

We believe that leadership is both art and science. Charles J. Palus argues this point in his 2005 Leadership in Action article. Palus says that both art and science are based on careful observation, awareness of personal bias, inquiry, and experimentation. And these are also the processes of effective leadership. However, like the scientist and the artist, leaders need tools to observe organizations, to become aware of their own biases, to conduct systematic inquiry, and to experiment for the purpose of improving performance. 

The vast majority of leadership advice is cast toward the art side of the equation. However, the greatest advances in leadership effectiveness can be made by focusing on the discipline or science side of the equation. The most expedient way of making that happen is for organizations to adopt those leadership tools that can most easily and effectively help their people address the specific challenges before them. 

Complexity of organizations makes tools necessary 

Margaret Wheatley, author of the bestselling book Leadership and the New Science, makes the case that in these chaotic times, authoritarian, controlling leadership doesn’t work anymore. Leaders need to help workers bring order to their lives but this is not done by telling them what and how to do things. Wheatley says that leaders must help organizations examine themselves and use that information to learn and improve. We think this self-examination and change can only be accomplished by teaching people how to use the tools of self-study, problem-solving, and decision-making. 


In an article titled, “Teaching Smart People How to Learn,” Chris Argyris, considered by many to be the father of organizational learning, describes a tool he used to help leaders learn how to surface the “undiscussables” that are blocking good decision-making and problem-solving in an organization. Argyris wrote: 

“The key to any educational experience designed to teach senior managers how to reason productively is to connect the program to real business problems. The best demonstration of the usefulness of productive reasoning is for busy managers to see how it can make a direct difference in their own performance and in that of the organization. This will not happen overnight. Managers need plenty of opportunity to practice the new skills. But once they grasp the powerful impact that productive reasoning can have on actual performance, they will have a strong incentive to reason productively not just in a training session but in all their work relationships.

  “One simple approach I have used to get this process started is to have participants produce a kind of rudimentary case study. The subject is a real business problem that the manager either wants to deal with or has tried unsuccessfully to address in the past. Writing the actual case usually takes less than an hour. But then the case becomes the focal point of an extended analysis.” 

The senior manager’s “case study” followed by a structured analysis is a tool that is used with the leadership team to have an open and free-wheeling conversation about the incorrect assumptions and misperceptions that have been blocking communication and understanding. By using a highly structured process, Argyris has used a tool to give permission to talk about the topics defined by the task. To simply initiate a conversation about problems would not result in the learning that comes about as a result of using the tool. 

Bottom line 

In the past, you were to be able to lead an organization by virtue of a title and an org chart. You could control information, rewards and recognition, and behavior by giving orders, edicts, rules, and regulations. Not anymore. 

Today information is accessible to everyone nearly instantaneously. Employees are demanding control of their own reward and recognition structure. The modern employee doesn’t respond well to micromanagement. Leaders need other ways of encouraging and facilitating learning and change.  By employing structured tools, leaders can help their teams successfully address organizational challenges.

About the Author

Ralph Jacobson is the founder of The Leader’s Toolbox, author of Leading for a Change: How to Master the Five Challenges Faced by Every Leader , and the recently published, Getting Unstuck: Using Leadership Paradox to Execute with Confidence . Contact him at [email protected].

About the Author

Stephen is the co-owner of, a marketplace for organizational learning tools, and also owner and principal of Stephen J. Gill Consulting. Steve's expertise is in creating learning cultures in organizations and measuring the impact of learning and performance improvement interventions. He has done this work for more than 25 years, since leaving the faculty of the University of Michigan, School of Education. He has written extensively about these topics. His most recent books are Getting More From Your Investment in Training: The 5As Framework, published by RealTime Performance in 2009, Developing a Learning Culture in Nonprofit Organizations, published by Sage Publications in 2010, and Communication in High Performance Organizations: Principles and Best Practices, published as Kindle ebook in 2011. Steve also posts regularly on The Performance Improvement Blog. He serves his community as an elected trustee of Washtenaw Community College.  

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