What Kind of Strategist Are You?

This is an occasional blog on subjects pertaining to leadership, strategy, coaching, leadership development, and everything in between. You can sign up using the form at the left/below. © 2018 McKnight-Kaney.

© 2016 Richard McKnight, PhD

© 2016 Richard McKnight, PhD

RECENTLY, WHEN I WAS TEACHING SOME EXECUTIVES THE LATEST CONCEPTS IN STRATEGY EXECUTION, I asked them, “What type of strategist are you?” They looked at me dumbfounded. I called on a couple of them to see what they had to say. One participant in the seminar, breaking the tension, wryly asked, “What are my choices?” Everyone laughed.

I proceeded to explain that you can reflect on your scores on just about any leadership test or assessment and be assured of knowing the answer to this question, and you'll know both your strengths and limitations as a strategist. This pattern has big implications for the type of results you achieve—and how you get them.

Of course, I’m talking about what behaviors characterize you in the strategy-making process, both your strengths and your limitations.

One assessment I often use in my workshops is The Life Orientation Survey, better known as LIFO. Depending on how you score on this test, you’ll be one kind of strategist or another. 

 The LIFO Survey reveals four sets of preferences. I describe them below. Ask yourself which is most like you? And bear in mind that many of us are one way when things are proceeding smoothly and one way when we meet opposition or are under stress. It pays to know who you under both circumstances because not all approaches to strategy-making and strategy-executing work all the time. The wise leader will know when their personal action and value preferences are not a good fit for the circumstances and call on others to weigh in at those times or step aside to let others lead.

The LIFO survey uses an acronym: HEAR, standing for the capitalized words in bold, below.

HARMONY-oriented strategists emphasize good relationships

Some of us can be counted on to look our for people during the strategy-making process and to implement strategy in an inclusive way. To use a cliche, we’re people-oriented. We are energizing in our approach, love a bold approach, and can be counted on to sign off on a strategy that supports others. As such, some of our strengths are:

  • Coming up with big, exciting ideas
  • Making being part of the group enjoyable
  • Solicits ideas from all
  • Testing ideas for harmony

On the other hand, we HARMONY-oriented strategists can have these limitations:

  • Smooth over disagreements that may be healthy to explore
  • Fail to reveal true opinions
  • Be too focused on not hurting people’s feelings, thus delaying or preventing key decisions
  • Lack confidence when people push back on their ideas.

EXCELLENCE-oriented strategists strive to do what’s right

Some of us value getting things done, but we throw a template over all action possibilities, one that screens for the most worthy, ethical actions and plot our course from there. We strive, as strategists, to do the most worthy, ethical thing. Thus, we EXCELLENCE-oriented strategist have these strengths:

  • Press for results that benefit others
  • Maintain high standards (not just get results)
  • Uphold high ethical standards
  • Assess strategic possibilities on the standards of what is best for all, what is fair, and what is right
  • Be as concerned for the process by which strategy is created as the content of the strategy (Is it inclusive? Fair?)

On the other hand, when under stress, we can have these limitations:

  • Become obstinate and self-righteous about the strategy or strategy creation process
  • Focus too much on feelings
  • Delay action to ensure all parties can be involved in the deliberations
  • Become impractical

ACTION-oriented strategists want results—now

If your strategic style is ACTION-oriented, you strive to get results over all else. Military officers, sports team coaches, sales VPs, and others whose works requires decisiveness usually prefer this approach. If this describes you, as a strategist, you probably have these strengths:

  • Quick to decide
  • Persuasive in your arguments
  • Confident in your opinions
  • Energizing to others

Now, turn the coin over. If ACTION is your style, you are vulnerable to what might be called “Action Bias.” In other words, you are apt to overplay your strengths—at least at times. This will likely show up in the form of these limitations:

  • Poor listening
  • Taking over meetings
  • Cutting people off who need to be heard
  • Jumping to conclusions when going slow is the wisest course

This is you if you are a person who jumps to the whiteboard or flipchart and makes a persuasive case whether you have the facts or not. Eager to get on with things, your action orientation can make you willing to distort the facts to make your case.

REASON-oriented strategists want a logical strategy

Face it: Some of us are now so much ACTION- or EXCELLENCE-oriented as we are facts and data-oriented. Our inclination as strategists is to go slow and we seek to be sure. The good news is that a strategy creation process that we're a part of honors tradition and upholds practical standards. In doing so, we tend to have these strengths:

  • Insist on data in decision making
  • Urge a systematic and step-by-step approach
  • Test ideas for practicality
  • Ensure that strategic ideas for fit with what’s worked in the past (tradition)

These strengths, under stress, though, can be overplayed, resulting in these limitations:

  • Analysis paralysis
  • Slowing down to a crawl to get all the data before decision making
  • Too much caution
  • Maintaining the past when the past needs to be set aside


Big decisions require more deliberation and more input because they stakes are higher. This adds tension to the system and can provoke conflicts, bringing our your limitations. 

Here are three guidelines to avoid the worst of your limitations as a strategist:

  • Know yourself: Which of the above orientations is most like you?
  • Be aware of the limitations of your usual strategic approach under stress.
  • Ask for feedback from others you trust, especially when tension arises: “Is my approach working here?” “What do I need to do differently?”
  • Know the triggers that provoke your limitations:
    •  If you're HARMONY-oriented, conflict will provoke your limitations.
    •  If you're EXCELLENCE-oriented, too little concern for people issues will provoke your limitations.
    •  If you're ACTION-oriented, delay will provoke your limitations.
    •  If you're REASON-oriented, lack of data or precedent will provoke your limitations.