Strategic leadership: The essential skills
Leadership Development

Strategic leadership: The essential skills

Uncertain times call for adaptive strategic leaders. Six key skills are necessary for leaders to effectively navigate the unknown and think strategically.
Samantha Howland, Paul J. H. Shoemaker

This article recently appeared in the book HBR Guide to Thinking Strategically (Harvard Business Review Press, January 2019).

The storied British banker and financier Nathan Rothschild noted that great fortunes are made when cannonballs fall in the harbor, not when violins play in the ballroom. Rothschild understood that the more unpredictable the environment, the greater the opportunity—if you have the leadership skills to capitalize on it.

Through research at the Wharton School and our work involving more than 20,000 executives to date, we have identified six skills that, when mastered and used in concert, allow leaders to think strategically and navigate the unknown effectively: the abilities to anticipate, challenge, interpret, decide, align, and learn.

Each has received attention in the leadership literature, but usually in isolation and seldom in the special context of high stakes and deep uncertainty that can make or break both companies and careers. This article describes the six skills in detail. An adaptive strategic leader—someone who is both resolute and flexible, persistent in the face of setbacks but also able to react strategically to environmental shifts—has learned to apply all six at once.

Do you have the right networks to help you see opportunities before competitors do? Are you comfortable challenging your own and others’ assumptions? Can you get a diverse group to buy in to a common vision? Do you learn from mistakes? By answering questions like these, you’ll get a clear view of your abilities in each area. The self-test at this article’s end will help you gauge your strengths and weaknesses, address deficits, and optimize your full portfolio of leadership skills.

Strategic leadership: The essential skills

To read the full article, see “Strategic leadership: The essential skills,” which first appeared in the January–February 2013 issue of Harvard Business Review.

About the authors

Samantha Howland is the senior vice president for human resources at GateHouse Media.

Steven Krupp ( is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Philadelphia office and a member of Heidrick Consulting and the CEO & Board Practice.

Paul J. H. Shoemaker is the founder and former CEO and chairman of Decision Strategies International and former research director of the Mack Center for Technological Innovation at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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