Posted on: 12/04/2021

Being strategic: Know where you’re heading (Dr Tracey Stead)

You have to be forward-looking; it’s the quality that most differentiates leaders from individual contributors…

James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner: The Truth About Leadership

Leadership requires us to know where we are heading, scan the horizon and plan for the future. If we intend to lead others, then we must have an inspiring vision with which to motivate and explain ‘The Why’ of what we (and they) are doing. If everyone is pointing in the same direction, it can save time, confusion and conflict. In this Bridging Session with Tracey Stead, members of the FLF Development Network explored how taking different viewpoints help us become more strategic in approach.

Tracey explores three viewpoints in this blog:

  1. Looking back
  2. Looking down
  3. Looking around

Viewpoint 1 : Looking back from the future

Imagine a positive view of yourself five years from now… a date that’s far enough away that you could have already had a significant impact with your leadership (on yourself, on others, on your research) but not so far away you don’t recognise the world around you (the technology is the same – there aren’t flying cars and household robots).

You’re at a conference, surrounded by your collaborators and peers, and you bump into an old colleague who asks, “What’s new since we last met back in 2021?”

How would you respond?

When you imagine yourself to be in 2026 looking back from there to 2021, how would you answer these questions (take some time to actually journal your responses):

  1. What are the most important aspects of what you’ve done and how you have been (in life and work) over those five years?
  2. What have been your key outcomes? What impact have you had on lives, the environment, society? What has changed in the world because of you and your work?
  3. What are the key outputs of which you are most proud? What is the tangible evidence of what you have achieved? Papers, people, products, events, ideas etc.?
  4. What has been your impact on, or contribution to, your peers, colleagues, department or discipline area? Your friends and family? How would they describe you?
  5. To have achieved all this, what has had to change about your beliefs, behaviours, thoughts or actions?

Answering questions like these helps us become more strategic by shifting our focus forward out of our current activity. Standing in the future, believing we have achieved success, and looking back at those successes helps us get out of our own way and reflect on the things that helped us to get there. When we stand in the present looking forward and thinking of all things we need to do there is a tendency or temptation to only see obstacles or problems.

The FLFs in this Bridging Session found it’s not necessarily easy to do this but is well worth the effort:

  • Exhausting at the thought of it, but rewarding.
  • Really useful, feel like I need to do it more often.
  • I can definitely see that it is valuable but confess I find it really, really hard!
  • It is very helpful. Motivating.
  • Useful to force me to get off the wheel and reflect.
  • It helped lift me out of current challenges/struggles and look forward/get excited about my project again.
  • Thought provoking.

Why not use this viewpoint…?

  • …to connect with and communicate your future vision. Use this shift in perspective with the people you are leading… “Let’s imagine we are there, now let’s think about how we got here.”

Do you find this kind of thinking difficult?

You’re not alone if you do.

We need to build this ‘muscle’ and practice to train it. Having a vision and articulating it is a skill to learn… so we need to train ourselves, and expect it to be difficult to start with.

Still finding it hard? Then look at role models and mentors… what have they done that you admire? Ask them how they got there. What can you ‘borrow’ to add to your own vision?

For young leaders, it can be difficult to envision the future, and few devote any time to this discipline. This can be a barrier to success.

James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner: The Truth About Leadership

Viewpoint 2 : Looking down from above

Research can feel ever expanding, with opportunities and challenges appearing all the time. Plans can go off track, more interesting things come up, we answer one research question and several more replace it, we read a paper and then realise there are ten more that we want to read. As FLFs we are in demand, our colleagues want to involve us in their ideas and opportunities. So how do we keep our goals in mind and orient ourselves amongst a multitude of everyday tasks?

In another shift of perspective, stop, rise above (much like being in a helicopter!) and look down asking yourself, “What is going on here?” Getting a clearer view of what’s happening right now, will help you regroup and carry on planning.

Use these questions to help you take stock of the now.

  1. What is your aim or objective? Think of something you’re aiming for in 6-12 months such as writing a paper, developing a member of staff, or putting together proposal.
  2. What is your current progress score in achieving that objective (out of ten) and why?
  3. What is enabling progress? Think of all the things that are helping you to succeed.
  4. What is getting in the way of progress?
  5. If I had a magic wand I would…
  6. What should continue happening?
  7. What must stop happening?
  8. What must start happening (or happen differently)?
  9. To be successful in implementing these things I need support/interest/contribution from… When and how will you communicate with them?
  10. My biggest priority is… What cannot wait?

Download the PDF stock take diagram

An essential skill in leadership is actually being able to communicate with yourself – so writing down what is spilling around in our heads in this way forces us to be honest with ourselves.

Just touching on this task for ten minutes, the FLFs in the Bridging Session uncovered insights into their current situation which will help them plan next steps:

  • I found this is a really useful prompt for breaking down barriers to a task.
  • [It’s helped me] question specific mindsets.
  • [I need to] protect team members.
  • [I need to prioritise] work on decisiveness – it’s slowing me down on a few things.
  • COVID messes with what my priorities should be.
  • I need to give PhD students/PDRAs more ownership over “my” fellowship ideas to run with them.
  • [My] main issue was my lack of prioritisation and getting sucked into other things – taking me away from the main goal.
  • [I need to] allow more time for forward planning.
  • I am one of the things getting in the way of progress (e.g. procrastination, focusing on obstacles rather than the big picture etc.)
  • [I need to] be kind to myself and accept that the landscape has changed and that this change is outside of my control. This does not prevent strategic thinking.

Why not use this viewpoint…?

  • …as a personal stocktake for ten mins every week or fortnight, or each quarter in more depth
  • …in student/supervisor relationships – ask students to complete the questions in advance with the focus, “How is your progress on your PhD?”
  • …with research collaborators, bring responses to meetings to share and discuss
  • …alongside the Triage Test to help you assert your priorities – see our Triage Test blog post from earlier this year

Viewpoint 3 : Looking further and broader

As we more forward, towards our vision and into our leadership, we need to reflect on what in the wider landscape might affect us and our progress towards our goal.

When we are very early in our research careers, we can be very successful ‘minding our own business’ and getting on with developing skills and generating outputs. As we become more senior, transitioning into leadership and spending more time in our ‘helicopter’ looking toward the horizon, we must get into the habit of being much more aware of the challenges and opportunities that surround us – politics (and Politics), policies, other people’s strategies, international events etc. All could help or hinder our success.


Being strategic means getting into a position where we know about these broader horizons – working out what we can take control of and planning how to redirect our strategy – then sharing this breadth of awareness with the people we work with. We need to find ways to turn the things coming up in this wider landscape into positive influences on our progress rather than negative, or to change our strategy to navigate around the immovable obstacles.

A useful and well-known tool is the PESTLE technique – a generic business tool developed to facilitate strategic thinking and horizon scanning – to explore political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental considerations.

Download a PDF of the PESTLE technique

With so many horizons to scan, we need to become as switched on as possible without spending time we don’t have keeping up-to-date. Where might you need to broaden or adapt your reading and conversations to do this? Think about what you can build into your daily routines so you are equipped to know what is coming? Here are just some ideas from the discussions and comments in the workshop:

  • Delegate – ask someone in your team to read a concordat/policy from a funder or your host institution and feed back what it means for your research group.
  • Get to know people on boards and committees and ask them for insights.
  • Connect with senior faculty and have strategic conversations in the corridor.
  • Regularly check the news webpage of governmental departments related to your research.
  • Befriend/follow someone who’s a Twitter-devotee.
  • Get involved in Government Select Committee reviews and calls for expert evidence.
  • Explore policies and agendas in the countries where you will be collaborating.
  • If you’re new to the UK research landscape, get to know how research works in this country. This guide from Imperial College London may help.

Why not use the PESTLE viewpoints…?

  • …to uncover what might influence the success of your research plan
  • …as a horizon scanning exercise with collaborators
  • …with students/postdocs who are planning a long period of research
  • …Why not do a PESTLE analysis of your FLF?
Share this post: