Baby - pexels-photo-113717Last week I wrote about the need to look ahead.  Today, I thought I would amplify my thoughts considering recent news reports without mentioning the specific actions but looking at the difference between tactical thinking and strategic thinking.

Tactical thinking is focused on the here and now or what’s close.  Strategic thinking is focused on long-term or what’s over the event horizon.  It’s the difference between what we can see and what we can’t see.

Tactical thinking is needed to deal with what’s immediately before us.  And it’s not inherently wrong.  Our ancestors didn’t need to consider long-term ecological diversity when the saber-tooth cat was about to pounce and have them for dinner.

Strategic thinking is dealing with the needs we’ll face the day after tomorrow – or twenty years from now – or even 400 years.  Yes, there are people who focus out 400 years!  But is it really necessary to think about anything that will happen 20 years from now, let alone 400 years?

It should be obvious that I’m a fan of strategic thinking, so the answer is yes.  But why?

I’ve written about tactical decisions that appeared to be brilliant but which resulted in devastating consequences – the Israeli push across the Suez Canal in the 1973 war, in particular.  But let’s go back to a little ditty I learned in high school for an illustration.

One night of pleasure.
Three months of pain.
Three days in a hospital
And a kid to name.

When you are in the throes of passion, you’re thinking tactically – how to get to second base, then third and finally home.  But the consequences of that moment of pleasure literally has consequences out 20 and even 400 years.  Because that kid will need a 100,000 diaper changes, food, education, countless trips to the doctors, soccer practice, scouts, birthday parties – the list is endless.  The strategic – the long-term – considerations are considerable.  But few will be considering them in the moment.

So, it is in business and government.  We are rewarded for the immediate – what have you done today?  Whereas the solutions implemented that prevent long-term problems are seldom recognized or appreciated.  Most of the present problems the American society faces with homelessness stem directly from the decision requiring the mentally ill to be released from institutions.  That decision wasn’t wrong, but that decision didn’t do anything to help solve the real problem of mental illness.  Instead, it dumped the problem on the police without providing them the resources or training to deal with the mentally ill.  It’s a tactical decision that resulted in a strategic problem.

This is where leadership is a requirement.  The police officer on the street can’t solve the societal problem of homelessness – they are charged with public safety and order.  The sergeant or police chief can’t solve the problem.  Mayors can’t, neither can governors or legislators – by themselves.  Because we live in a democracy and not a dictatorship where one person gets to decide.  But they can start by providing attention to the problem and finding others to help develop a dialogue that will allow society to come to a consensus.  And this is where the leadership starts.

But first the problem must be seen.  And that is the where real leadership starts, when one individual sees a problem that everyone ignores.  Blacks having to ride in the back of the bus wasn’t a problem that anyone saw, until Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat.  Then the question became, why would a black woman give up her seat for a white man?

And yes, there will be opposition.  Why create waves when you can just go along peacefully?  This is where the other component of leadership must answer.  That other component is compassion.

If a person is incapable of considering the impact of their actions on others, that person is considered a deficient person – in extreme cases, a sociopath.  This is not to say that a normal person won’t make decisions that hurt people, but it will be in the context of a greater good.  The decision of President Truman to drop the atomic bomb on Japan is an example – he traded 200,000 deaths for 1,000,000.

So, real leadership will identify a problem, consider the impact of the problem, seek potential solutions and then develop support for executing a program to solve the problem with the least negative impact.  In other words, strategic thinking is required to solve problems because you have to look beyond the immediate problem to see the consequences of your actions because your solution will cause tomorrow’s problems.

Unfortunately, in the age of Twitter the likelihood of societal leaders exercising strategic thinking decreases because the results aren’t immediate.  Instead we have actions taken that will increase the problems of tomorrow both in number and intensity.

So, what can one do?

The pessimistic answer is to incorporate the negative into your planning – every problem – unemployment, homelessness, hunger, economic inequality, wars, refugees, terrorism – will get worst.  This will force individuals to hunker down, create walls, isolate themselves and look upon others with fear and suspicion – everyone for themselves and their tribe.  To think tactically.

The optimistic answer is to examine our situations and exercise our right to speak out – to point out the problems and what potential solutions exist.  We move beyond ourselves with compassion to see what others are experiencing and how we can reduce the hurt because, in the long run, that will create more joy for all.  We must think strategically.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus used the comparison of the actions of a priest, Levite and a Samaritan – despised by the Jews – to illustrate the behavior that makes one a good neighbor.  Yes, behavior, not nationality, religion, sex, or age.

To be a real leader requires that one behave with compassion and foresight – to think strategically before acting tactically.  Because even the most brilliant tactical moves won’t erase strategic blunders.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.