Tactical Leadership vs. Strategic Leadership: Which Management Style Are You?

By Cathy McCullough

Strategic vs. Tactical Leaders

dateMon, Jan 24, 2022 @ 12:00 PM

We read a lot these days about strategic leadership and tactical leadership (as we should). Leaders find themselves up against a multitude. Strategic vs. Tactical Leadership in Managmentof scenarios and situations, all of which they’re supposed to magically handle correctly with the suitable methods for each situation. When you study leadership, you quickly discover the massive complexity that surrounds it. So let’s take just one slice of strategic vs tactical leadership and dissect it for your own reflective thinking about what kind of leader you tend to be and the pros/cons surrounding each of these tendencies. 

We'll look at the slice of leadership: the tactical leader vs. the strategic leader. Both are needed, but when you’re trying to lead a team (or teams) of people toward a common endpoint and/or if you’re trying to grow a company, understanding the differences between these two management styles is imperative. Without a sense of understanding around your own leadership tendencies, you can’t move the needle on much of anything, let alone work towards achieving a strategic plan or objective.


Tactical leaders are, without question, needed in your organization. Without them, the daily work that needs to get done probably wouldn’t get done - they make tactical decisions on how things get done. The great debate with this is that many people say there’s no such thing as a “tactical leader.” “Tactical leaders” are managers, not leaders. While I see that logic, I still think that effective leadership is needed at the tactical level (but that’s another blog entirely). For now, let’s stick with tactical leaders as our terminology for this blog, and we'll discuss tactical management in more detail another time.  In this case, tactical meaning (of a person or their actions) showing adroit planning, aiming at an end beyond the immediate action.

The advantage of tactical leaders is that they focus on the literal tactics, or maneuvers, that are needed to get what needs to be done—done. It’s a relentless daily focus on checking off tasks. They can manage and maneuver through critical incidents and always try to shift things around to maximize efficiency. Their approach to work is one of logic, which is supported by an underlying rationale that supports that logic. Another advantage is a focus on the short-term management of a business, with multiple skip level meetings to get a broad view of the different departments. Major strides in what gets done today are given attention, commendation, and celebration to produce a tactical advantage.

The disadvantage of tactical leaders is that they can lose sight of the vision—of where the company wants to go. They don’t always lead people around them to understand that longer-term picture, and because they like the efficiencies that established systems and processes bring to the company, they aren’t masters of change management. They like what’s currently working and this environment allows a manager to just push harder on the gas pedal that they are currently using and are make tactical decisions efficiently and effectively.  Great leaders are able to motivate people towards a universal vision, as well as giving them the tools and skills required to get them done.  Leaders gain the respect of their team when they can be strategic and tactical, and you can practice the skills to create a better balance. 

Strategic Leaders, on the other hand, are always thinking about the long term implications of what they’re doing. As a result, their work is almost always determined by the bigger picture, the longer-term vision around what we’re doing today—and how what we’re doing today links to a future state.  In this business environment the leader can choose the best tactics for the situation, rather than doubling down on the standard procedure and allows for strategic management.

The advantage of strategic leaders is that they focus on the longer-term vision and they plan accordingly. As a result, they have an almost natural preference for solving problems, removing roadblocks, and figuring out what needs to change. Their eye is always roving toward the competitive environment so that shifts can be made in real-time vs. after the fact. They tend to relish the strategic discussions that surround a vibrant environment where transparency and open expression are celebrated.  This allows the manager to choose the tactics or methods for each situation that arises and allows the manager to choose the best available option so overcome the challenge.

The disadvantage of strategic leaders is that they can focus almost too much on future intent. While that can be inspirational, it can lead to change for the sake of change. This disruption can force a disconnect, then, to the relevance of today’s work as key components for building the bridge to the future. Strategic leaders also can get “lost” in their vision and lose sight of current reality.

Disheartening to strategic leaders, too, is that research tends to show us that the majority of what’s celebrated in a company is the shorter-term gain and accomplishments. There’s not much consistent talk around vision or the company’s future growth strategies, or  3-5 year strategic plan. Instead, what’s celebrated are shorter-term reactions and responses to here-and-now business issues and challenges, which can leave strategic leaders feeling as if they’re standing all alone.

There are ways you can identify the kind of leader you tend to be (and the kind of leaders on your team). Here are a few strategic leadership examples and tactical leadership examples as food for thought.  Developing leadership takes time and a deeper level of emotional intelligence, the chart below is a great place to get started.  If you need additional leadership development, drop us a line and we'll see if it makes sense to work together.

Strategic Leadership Examples

Strategic vs. Tactical Leadership Discussion

Here are some examples of tactical vs. strategic discussion: 
Tactical Leadership Talk Strategic Leadership Talk
  • Talk to Fred about that.
  • Who else might you involve to help work on this? From your perspective, what’s are some potential solutions?
  • The company wants you to complete this initiative.
  • What might be the implications, both positive and negative, for the company if this initiative is successful? What are the implications for the company if it’s not successful? What considerations or thoughts do you have about how we can move this initiative forward?
  • Let’s do it this way…
  • How might the team go about jump-starting this initiative? What might be your highest-level contribution to this initiative? What are the Individual Priorities that need to be set in order to achieve this initiative?
  • The first step should be for the team to…
  • How might this team have the greatest impact relative to this initiative? How do team members see their roles and contributions?
  • We aren’t getting the results we wanted, so I think we need to do XYZ.
  • What are we going to do to get the results we want? What are we learning as this initiative unfolds? What roadblocks need to be corrected or removed so we can succeed? Who needs encouragement to get on board with this? How can we expedite that person’s engagement?
  • I know he’s negative, but just go to him and ask him!
  • How might you consider approaching him, since you anticipate he’ll be negative? What might you present to him so he might feel more vested in the project?


Strategic vs. Tactical Leadership Behaviors 

Here are some examples of tactical vs. strategic behaviors:
Tactical Behaviors Strategic Behaviors
  • Involves self in a number of projects because…who else will do it?
  • Leads from a ‘near distance;' provides coaching and guidance when and as needed
  • Has a lot of day-to-day management tasks to do (because no one can do them better…)
  • Is a master delegator; spends time to prepare people for success; delegates without abdicating
  • Does both of the above because s/he’s too busy to teach someone how to learn; just easier to “do it myself”
  • Hires people with the expectation that they will learn and grow their talents; prepares people to assume higher-level projects and responsibilities
  • Rushes into and out of meetings ‘on two wheels’
  • Has a weekly “Meeting with Myself” to prepare for strategic meetings s/he needs to be a part of
  • Usually works a lot of hours in any given day or week
  • Believes in creating space in life for what’s important on multiple fronts—personally and professionally
  • Works hard
  • Works differently
  • Holds people appropriately accountable; has given definition to what, specifically, success looks like
  • Asks: How is this making us more efficient?
  • Asks: How is this making us more effective?
  • Focuses more on day-to-day tactics
  • Focuses more on the longer-term strategy
  • Focuses more on systems and processes
  • Focuses more on vision and the company’s overall strategic intent
  • Planning is an ongoing part of a strategic leader’s DNA. S/He thinks 3-5 years out by brainstorming with the team where we’re headed as a way of creating Winning Moves that define the company’s future; creates an Annual Plan that builds the bridge from today to tomorrow; has Quarterly Planning Sessions to tweak, adjust, converse, etc.
  • Guides strategic endeavors with the use of spreadsheets
  • Guides strategic endeavors by keeping Quarterly Priorities front-and-center on a dashboard; measures progress via Weekly Meetings
  •  Engages in Weekly Status Meetings
  • Focus and sense of accomplishment is toward the external environment
  •  Frequently reflects on his/her leadership impact and influence; believes in life-long learning, of which self-understanding is a part; focus is more inward

To scale and grow your company, work to find the leadership balance between strategic leadership and tactical leadership, as both leadership qualities are important. If you lean toward being a strategic leader, then create your Leadership Path of Progress for validating the importance and relevance of what’s currently happening around you, as these tactics and tasks are needed in order to build a strong foundation for growth.  Good leaders are able to find the right balance between the two and use their communication skills to get the most out of their team members.  Tactical management is one of the tools that they use to get the most out of their people, but it works best when paired with strategic management to align the team around a future vision.

But consider that most team leaders tend to migrate towards a tactical leadership style. If that’s the case for you, then create your own Leadership Path of Progress for growing your language and behaviors around strategic leadership. This is important because strategic leadership is where you’ll find that you can influence, inspire, and engage those around you the most - not just problem solve.  This is highly effective in the ongoing talent war to attract and retain top talent.

Need some help getting started?  Rhythm Systems has cost effective programs that can help you so that you can execute your strategy and achieve your growth goals with an accountability culture!

Download Free Strategic Planning Template

Looking for more information about Tactical Leadership? Check out our additional resources on strategic vs tactical leadership (Tactical meaning operations driven):

The Five C's of Team Accountability

Five Key Leadership Skills Every Leader Must Master

Seven Lies about Leadership You Need to Stop Believing

You Have a Corporate Strategy. So... What's Your Leadership Strategy?

Leadership Means Learning from Mistakes

Develop Accountable Leaders & Teams


Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images
Editor's Note: This post was originally published June 18, 2017, and has been updated.

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Cathy McCullough


Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images