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The Three Levels of Leadership

February 28, 2011

One of the challenges many managers and leaders face is in understanding the distinctions between levels of leadership. Though there is a common basis of theory and practice, the requirements of tactical leadership are quite different from those of strategic leadership. In addition, there is a whole level of leadership – operational – that many people don’t even realize exists.

Tactical Leadership

Tactical leadership is concerned with the here and now, with short-term decisions and risk management for immediate gains. At the tactical level, leaders must balance the needs of team members with the needs of the mission or situation. This often involves negotiating and cajoling followers to cooperate so as to achieve the aim. It also means creating an environment where they are willing to make sacrifices or contribute to the team because of a felt loyalty to the leader and other team members.

Strategic Leadership

Strategic leadership is concerned with the long-term purpose and goals of an organization, movement, or institution. A strategic leader is vying to create a viable organization that will be capable of functioning in all circumstances, that is resilient and, even better, robust in the face of threats and obstacles. Strategic leaders may use transactional punishments and rewards to achieve their organizational aims, but these usually only have a short-term effect, and can even be counterproductive in the longer term. This is why it is much more effective and efficient to build strategic leadership on the basis of transformational factors.

Operational Leadership

Operational leaders are the unsung heroes of organizations. Why? Because they build the structures and systems that allow the strategic leader(s) vision and objectives to be achieved, while providing a framework for inspired action by the organization’s tactical leaders. In other words, they create systems to support the values of the organization and its leadership and to encourage a culture and behaviour patterns that are congruent with these.

© 2011 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with full and proper attribution.

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Richard Martin
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