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The Leadership Triangle

August 22, 2022


Photo by Mathias Jensen on Unsplash

Life has this annoying way of serving up problems that don’t lend themselves to easy answers. Take a moment to think back to examples of conflict that have come to mind as you have gone through the above questions and exercises.

As you understand the principles of the Leadership Triangle, you’ll see that the same leader often behaves very differently depending on the nature of the problem she confronts.

When the problem is technical (tactical), the leader’s role is that of an expert or an expert-finder. Her tone is confident – “we can apply our current base of knowledge to solve this”. The key question she raises is “What’s wrong here?” and the evident problems are to be solved. As she interacts with her people she functions as a trainer, bringing knowledge to bear. And she functions in the present tense – “how can we solve this problem right away so that our today can be better”.

When the problem is strategic, the leader’s role is that of a synthesizer, bringing together knowledge of the internal organization, the external constituency, and the broader climate. Her tone is that of casting vision, introducing an inspiring picture of the future that takes advantage of and confronts the changing landscape. Her key question is “What should our focus be?” and she realizes that the key way to tackle problems is through innovation and integration. Her interaction with her followers is best described as inspirational and she focuses on the future tense– the imagined and aspired-to results of careful adherence to a clearly articulated strategy.

When the problem is transformational (transformational), the leader’s role is that of a facilitator, inviting dialogue and discovery, particularly in the areas of values and beliefs. The tone she strikes is one of creativity– whether in problem-solving or in conflict! She knows that the key question now is itself “What’s the question?” and that problems are not so much to be solved or planned for as much as re-framed – considered in an entirely new way. She knows that group interaction at this level of leadership needs to be free-flowing and robust – everything on the table – and that the focus is not only on the present but also on the past and the future. Transformational challenges are the very stuff of leadership and require a leader operating at full creative capacity.

Most leaders respond to situations the way they have always responded. They use their tried and proven mode of approaching problems. After all, it has worked many times before. So if it isn’t working now, they conclude, it is the fault of the people around them. But remember the old adage: if the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail? When leaders rely on predetermined approaches to problems they rob themselves, their organizations, and the people who follow them of the chance to see greater outcomes.

In our work with hundreds of organizations, we’ve observed that successful leaders use three primary modes of leadership: tactical, strategic, and transformational. Let us explain.

Tactical Problems

Tactical problems are solved by experts. If the roof leaks, hire a roofer. If your department head isn’t performing well, hire a new department head. If your computer network is down, call the Geek Squad. Most leaders function in this mode most of the time. Leaders, for example, are experts in theology, organization history, exegesis, and hermeneutics. More importantly, they tend to be experts in delivering advice (that’s often how they got into positions of leadership in the first place). Often they use their positions as leaders to address issues. And when the issue is tactical, this is appropriate.
Leadership teams bring their own expertise to the table: financial, technological, managerial, and so forth. If the organization is considering a new building project or product line, it is appropriate for others to bring their expertise to the table. To solve a tactical problem, simply find a person who has the expertise and authorize that person to solve the problem.

Strategic Challenges

Strategic challenges relate to external changes. They are future-oriented. They are about major transitions. Such challenges require more than a tactical fix. Strategic challenges require strategic leadership, the art of leveraging strengths in order to minimize weaknesses and capitalize on opportunities. But strategic leadership often involves dealing with opposition, as internal stakeholders may resist the needed change. Strategic leaders are on a quest to understand their external environment. They must ask big-picture questions.

How do people think?
What motivates people?
What do they value?
How do they form relationships?
How do they make decisions?

Strategic challenges have to do with responding to the world outside your organization. These challenges are not necessarily problems to be solved, but challenges you can anticipate. Strategy has to do with surveying the environment outside your department or organization and deciding how best your team can adapt to external opportunities and obstacles.

Strategy is a systematic method of differentiation from the competition. It is based on priority activities, performed in unique ways, reinforced by current practices, to produce a distinct result. Everything about strategy is unique. That’s why United Airlines could never reproduce Southwest Airlines’ strategy. Nor could McDonalds ever replicate Subway’s strategy. They are in similar industries, but strategy is all about differentiation. And once something becomes commonplace (like dollar menus) in a certain context, it is no longer strategic. Everything about strategy is rooted in context.

In the face of strategic challenges, tactical effectiveness is not enough. Anyone can operate effectively and still go out of business, fail in a charitable fund- raising endeavor, or coach a losing team. Strategy is when you choose a unique value proposition through a series of activities that become rooted in your system. Essentially, strategy is what differentiates your organization from any other.

Strategic challenges require a different, and in some ways more sophisticated, set of skills than tactical problems. But strategic acumen does not cover every type of leadership challenge. Often, when strategic direction is established, the result is that a whole different set of issues surface, issues related to values, behaviors, and attitudes.

Your role, as a leader in choosing the Strategic Option, is that of the synthesizer. Here, you have to think like a symphony conductor, who must bring music out of a diverse collection of instruments, personalities, temperaments, and life experiences.

But conductors are more than leaders. You must hear the music in your head before you can lead your orchestra. And you have to hear more than the melody or the parts for trumpet or violin or timpani, you have to hear the whole thing all at once. There has to be a synthesis of sound.

We’ve found that the very best conductors know about a lot more than just music! They are intense students of the culture and the communities in which their orchestras are located. They pay attention to trends, they are curious people! So, it is critical for you to be a curious person as well. Use the five why’s as a way of uncovering trends or discovering information. Never settle for a basic answer to a basic question. Ask why five times. Ask a question, get an answer, and ask why. Repeat that four more times. You’ll get a lot more information than if you just take the initial answer at face value. We do this with our clients, for example, to help them discover their purpose.

Transformational Issues

The truly important problems are rarely tactical. Nor are they mostly strategic. They are usually transformational. Transformational issues involve values, behaviors, and attitudes. An issue requiring transformational change is much more complex and is sometimes hidden within the systems and structures of the organization. We are seldom aware of transformational issues. They mostly revolve around competing values. This is why strategic direction often surfaces transformational issues. The new direction challenges the status quo.

Transformational issues always bring competing values to the fore. What’s a competing value? You may ask. People interpret their problems according to their mental maps (internalized directions as to how we should respond in all of the experiences in life, which are directly connected to the stories in our brains we’ve mentioned previously). And a central component of these maps are the values they contain –what matters most.
Unfortunately, because of a variety of inputs and experiences, our values aren’t nicely aligned one with another, as we would like to think. In fact, we have many internal competing values. Many of these competing values arise from things I value for myself personally as opposed to things I value for my family and the surrounding community. I want to reach out to my neighbors and form strong bonds of community. At the same time I value time alone. I need to work long hours to make money. At the same time I like to spend a lot of quality time with my spouse and children.

Organizations and communities also have competing values. A corporation values making a profit (or it wouldn’t exist), but they also value strong employee loyalty which begins with a reasonable work/personal life balance for employees. These two values may come into conflict as employees are asked to come in on Saturday to complete critical projects that must be done to sustain profitability. Coming in on Saturday disturbs family time, and thus the two values compete – time at work to sustain profit versus time at home to sustain quality of home life.

These competing values aren’t easy decisions. And dealing with these decisions requires different skills than tactical problems, especially the ability to manage and occasionally even orchestrate conflict (the above competing value will bring up conflict with either the employer or the spouse and kids, depending on who wins out for time on Saturday). Very few leaders have developed these skills, because few people understand the nature of conflict (Red versus Blue) and the nature of competing values.
How do we know when the issue is transformational?

• You have a cycle of failure.
• Dependence on authority.
• Complaints are increasingly used to describe the current situation.
• Rounding up the usual suspects to solve the problem hasn’t worked.
• Increasing conflict.


About Dr. Jim Osterhaus

Dr. Jim Osterhaus is the Senior Executive Coach at Leighton Ford Ministries with extensive experience helping ministry leaders and organizations
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