The Spirit Behind Strategy

Spirit behind strategy

“This new century is a time of extraordinary complexity, opportunity, and risk”

– Tony Manning, Making Sense of Strategy


Where are we now? We are in a transition. We are probably in the only time on earth when having a strategy and not having a strategy is a good thing. Call it organised chaos! But if you are looking for ‘a method out of the madness’ it is still better to have the semblance of a strategy than otherwise. But where are we coming from?

We were coming from the realization that strategy, on its own, was not enough. Just before the economic crisis that toppled a lot of local and international economic theories, the world had come to realise that having a strategy wasn’t good enough all by itself, rather, the ability to execute was the deal breaker.

In pursuit of excellence in strategy execution, many organisations sought to develop SMARTER strategies, employed better skilled people and also grew operational efficiencies. And where are we headed? I feel the next frontier wouldn’t be the strategy-skill-operations confluence but the strategy-skill-spirit confluence. For us to elicit magical results or era-defining impact would require more than the consciousness of the mind that creates strategies, works operations and imbues skills.

We would require the magic of the human spirit to:

1) envision vistas unknown;

2) lock our hands tenaciously around uncertain futures; and

3) gain the palpitation of heart that is only felt by the brave who surprisingly conquer even though they had been ‘foolish’ enough to get into the ring with a foe that they knew nothing about.


Making Sense of Strategy

Tony Manning, in his book – Making Sense of Strategy – unties the knot around this issue so well that I have taken the liberty to quote copiously from it. According to Tony, “Every company needs a strategy. But in a world of constant surprises, competitive advantage often depends less on the choices (strategy) you make, than on what you do about them”

How you act can make the difference between winning and losing – between life and death? Often, you have to move before all the facts are in, or before you can think through things as thoroughly as you’d like. Effective execution is most likely when your goals, action steps and methods are clear. These come from strategy. But there’s another factor that’s increasingly important in these hyper-competitive times – the human spirit.


Where does the Spirit fit with Strategy?

If your company is to be a winner, your people must be alert to possibilities. They must also be passionate about what they do and enthusiastically invent their way into the future. It’s your job as leader to focus them on the right “hill,” but it is then up to them to apply their imagination and spirit to race up the value path and down the cost path. A lot is expected of them.

They must not only be ready and able to change at a moment’s notice, they must also apply great energy to making it happen. They must overcome all sorts of obstacles, cope with disappointment and failure, press on in the face of adversity and disappointment and find new ways to deliver value and cut costs in the face of rising customer demands, relentless pressure and shrinking deadlines. Work, in other words, is not all a breeze. Much of it is a chore and a bore”.

The Spirit as Receptacle for Ideas

In a “time of extraordinary complexity, opportunity, and risk”, everything rises on our ability to bring forth and execute game-changing ideas. But bringing forth ideas is an emotional and spiritual thing. You cannot force employees (successfully) to birth these types of ideas. At this point I am wondering how the idea of the ipod or the ipad could have been forced out of any employee. Or the idea of the Amazon’s Kindle series – because I wonder how a former online book retailer turned online general merchandise retailer was able to develop a best-selling e-reader/tablet. Pastor Sam Adeyemi asserts that “ideas rule the world”.

There is no time when this statement is as true as this time. Ideas are that specie of light that ignites upon our spirits causing the sprouting of sometimes illogical thoughts or notions. Or how do you explain the young man who got the idea to connect all our faces and called it Facebook and now is the 35th richest man in the world? Or the idea of electricity or the telephone or of having roads under water or of having trains that run at 217miles per hour (faster than a helicopter) and the list goes on?

If ideas aren’t most times illogical, ABC-TV wouldn’t have turned down the offer of The Cosby Show, which then started on NBC and went on to become the third-longest running U.S. comedy show with a predominantly black cast. How about this one? The boss of American toy giant Parker Bros wasn’t impressed when the inventor of the game Monopoly tried to sell him his new idea in the 30s. He claimed the game had “52 fundamental playing errors” which made it unplayable. Undeterred, Clarence Darrow, an unemployed Philadelphia heating engineer who devised the game, went into production himself. As a result, Parker Bros was forced to spend a fortune buying back the idea (ref. The internet)


The need for Spirit – Strategy Connection

If ideas are the competitive frontiers for today and the future, then our default approach would be to: 1) get more of it out of our employees and also 2) engage their spirits in its implementation. Let’s go back to Tony Manning again, “competitiveness demands both a clear strategy and a winning spirit. You should naturally strive for a strategy that’s superior to anything your competitors may dream up.

But even the best strategy in the world will have a short shelf life if it’s not driven by extraordinary human spirit. If your people aren’t passionate about your corporate quest, you’re unlikely to either get ahead or stay there. You can’t force people to perform [exponentially and consistently].

The best you can do is create a context in which they will apply their minds and their effort as volunteers, rather than conscripts;, in a context in which they want the same things as badly as you do and will bust a gut to get them. This is partly a matter of organizational culture (“the way things feel around here. It is even more a matter of climate (“the way things feel around here – and the way I feel about being here). As the following matrix from Tony Manning’s Making Sense of Strategy shows, companies need to balance strategy and spirit. Too much or too little of one or the other will hurt results.


Which kind of company is yours?

  • NO-HOPERS have no strategy, or it’s a lousy one, and their spirit is weak.
  • NERDS apply their minds to creating strategy that is precise and detailed. But they don’t have the spirit to drive it, so it doesn’t deliver the results they want.
  • PARTYGOERS are hugely spirited but lack strategy. They are busy, busy, busy, but because they’re directionless, they flap around and go nowhere.
  • PITBULLS are clear about where they’re headed and ferocious about getting there. They don’t mess around, call for more research or another meeting, or talk endlessly in the hope that they’ll get consensus; they just fix on a target and go for it;


Strategy VS Spirit Matrix

Missing the impact of Spirit on Strategy

It is possible to gloss over the impact of the human spirit on strategy. After you have heard of the virtues of strategic planning and you have gone ahead to create a strategy that’s precise and detailed, it is possible to miss out on the game-changing involvement of the human spirit. This is because there is a way that the strategy planning process imbues us with the feeling of invulnerability – a ‘we- are- already- there’ kind of feeling. We feel the next thing to do is to just share the work amongst everybody and then begin to monitor the implementation. Only to add the contribution of people (just like process) as just one of the prods for making the strategy happen.

Whereas what we should do is to ask ourselves, within the strategy-crafting process, how we can engage the spirits of all stakeholders, chief being our customers and employees. But for this treatise, my focus is on the employee. Have you ever wondered why one of the companies touted with one of the most robust strategy definition and execution capabilities in man’s recent history is also the one that has been dubbed, for the highest number of times, the Most Admired Company in the World?

I speak of none other than General Electric. Or beat this! The only other company that has held that title in more recent times and has held it for the most consecutive straight five years is also the one that has dazzled us in this century with a continuous flow of innovative industry, business and category redefining products and services – no other than Apple Inc. It would seem that these organisations understand that to achieve sustainable game-changing growth would require organisations to lock the spirits of their employees unto strategy. Just engaging their minds wouldn’t do.

All we would get from that is people who just do (at best) only what is required of them. In essence, the engagement of the hearts of your employees and thus their performance levels can make or break any organization’s strategy or business model – even if it isn’t immediately noticeable.


Locking Spirit unto Strategy

Clearly, our task is to integrate strategy and employee spirit into the development and implementation of corporate strategy. Anything less would cut short our ability to deliver on the opportunities that lie around us today. Tony Manning says “it’s tempting to see strategy and spirit as two separate issues. The one, after all, is about analysis and choices, the other about attitude. The first is a task (and as such can be delegated), while the second is a mindset that belongs to individuals and can be neither delegated nor commanded. But wait a minute; what if strategy were a widely shared responsibility? What if it were “everybody’s business,” and of concern to more than a select few? What if more of your people understood your motivations and intentions?

Strategy and spirit are two sides of the same coin – yin and yang. When people are involved in making strategy – when it’s “theirs” – they have a vested interest in its execution. If things change, they understand the background to the strategy and the nitty-gritty details, so they are able and likely to quickly adapt. What’s more, the very fact that they were included in such a vital exercise is sure to motivate them. So strategy lights up their spirit! The matrix shown illustrates why so many companies invest so much time, energy, and money in their strategies and get such dismal results. It also suggests that it’s time for a new perspective on creating and holding competitive advantage”.


How then do we lock our employees’ spirits unto corporate strategy?



And please this goes beyond being charismatic. This starts with a mindset that recognises that a connection must be made with people. I think it was John C. Maxwell who said that “leaders touch a heart before they ask for a hand” – what he refers to as The Law of Connection in his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. Tony Manning puts it this way: “The purpose of a leader is to create a context in which people will perform to their potential. This ‘mental space’ is where they discover and test themselves and where they reveal (or conceal) their magic.”

The Law of Connection continues: You can’t move people to action [sustainably] unless you first move them with emotion. You develop credibility with people when you connect with them and show that you genuinely care and want to help them. And as a result, they usually respond in kind and want to help you. Other things you can do are to:

  • Communicate with openness and sincerity – people can smell a phony a mile away. Authentic leaders connect.
  • Know your audience – when you work with individuals, knowing your audience means learning people’s names, finding out their histories, asking about their dreams.
  • Live your message and no double standards – practice what you preach. That’s where credibility comes from. Use the same standards with everyone – even if you have favorites, don’t show it. Be consistent.
  • Go to where they are – remove as many barriers to communication as possible. Try to be attuned to their culture, background, education, and so on. Adapt to others; don’t expect them to adapt to you.
  • Focus on them, not yourself – focus on others, not yourself. That is the number one problem of inexperienced speakers and ineffective leaders.
  • Believe in them – it’s one thing to communicate to people because you believe you have something of value to say. It’s another to communicate with people because you believe they have value. People’s opinions of us have less to do with what they see in us than with what we can help them see in themselves.
  • Give them hope – French general, Napoleon Bonaparte said, “Leaders are dealers in hope.” When you give people hope, you give them a future.



A period where people spend most of their time at work and our personalities are influenced so much by our workplaces, are also the time when people are in search of more meaning and purpose in their lives., It behoves on organisational leaders to create a culture that is built on inspiring values. So what are the shared and upheld values in your organisation? Do these values bear on a respect for people? Is it about making a difference? Is it about leaving a legacy? Is it about preserving the earth? Or is it just about making more money?


However you do it, whether by shaking a magic wand or whatever, organisational leadership must give a sense that “we” are all in this together. Even though organisations have their strata by way of work relationships, it is imperative that we disallow the sense of the existence of a dichotomy to fester. Sure, there are many ways to do this, and a few are: involve employees early in the strategy articulation process; trust them to do the job; give people more control over their own portion of the work; have largely understood and fair rewards; present a listening posture, etc. A listening posture not only listens but also gives the impression that he/she wants to listen. That posture says, “You and whatever you have to say matters”.



The first task of a leader is to provide a clear point of view – “There’s the hill we’re aiming at… these are the results we want … this is how we should conduct ourselves … here are our priorities … this is what we’ll do to get where we want to go. This is the context in which people work. The ongoing task is to focus and inspire them. We all know that “what gets measured gets managed.” But we conveniently forget that it’s only what is spoken about – constantly, passionately, consistently – that will be either measured or managed. Talk about the right issues in the right way to the right people, and extraordinary things happen; but get the conversation wrong, and you’re sunk.


We must show people that they are building castles and not sand dunes. That they are not just building a computer program called Windows but that they are helping to change the way the world does business. We need to show how mobile banking isn’t just another bank product but a way to give people freedom to do and be whatever they want to be. We need to sell a larger than life vision. We need to show them how their work is making Africa a more productive continent. We need to make a connection between their work and the salvation of the earth. Just remember that managers can’t engage people by making announcements. You cannot enforce passion. Neither can you legislate commitment. The key is to create a context in which individuals will volunteer their imagination and spirit.




  1. Chijioke Abiakwe says:

    Very well said. Its about time leaders in all walks begin to engage their constituents. Only in connecting spirits to strategy and follow through with execution can we build high performing teams and Organizations.