Training Leaders to Think Strategically—What’s Missing?

Advances in personality and strength psychology need to be integrated into strategic thinking training.

“Thinking strategically” is an attribute boards stress in CEO selection. Senior executives also understand that there is a premium placed on professionals who add strategic value. If it’s generally accepted that this is an important skill for success, why does research show that only 7 percent of executives are viewed as strategic? Could it be that training misses the mark?

How is “strategic thinking” being taught today? Top business schools are substantially different in their approach—each has their preferred curriculum. In the corporate world, companies spend millions on training with the hope of developing strategic thinkers. But present day training is surprisingly similar to what took place 2,500 years ago in ancient Greece. An instructor presents; everyone listens to and studies the same material. This one-size-fits-all training approach is the fatal flaw.

Today’s behavioral science research has conclusively shown that people have unique core personality traits. These traits underlie and drive creative thinking. Think of great artists and writers. While they all have weighty subject matter expertise, each artist is unique. Each exhibits his or her proficiency differently. These artistic differences are because each artist or writer has a different personality, so they bring forth their creativity through that personality. Why should leadership training to think creatively and strategically be any different? It shouldn’t!

Research and best practice reveals that skills training needs to be developed around the innate characteristics of the individual and not modeled on an “ideal.” If it’s true that people perform best from their strength, a vanilla, conventional program that doesn’t individualize the curriculum to each personality type is meaningless. Unless the concepts taught align with and to your individual core strength, there will be no permanent change in behavior. Creativity springs from the unconscious. You create the highest abstract and intuitive connections through your dominant personality trait. Training must account for the fact that individual personalities drive how leaders add strategic value.

Cases in Point

Let’s consider two business legends to demonstrate our point.

Sam Walton is revered for reinventing retail strategy. Sam’s subject matter expertise was merchandising and partner management. But it was his No. 1, dominant personality trait that created the Walmart magic.

Sam Walton’s No. 1 personality trait was “emotional stability.” When a person’s No. 1 trait is highly evolved and mature, it leads to greatness. The distinctive behaviors from Sam’s principal trait of “emotional stability” were honesty, composure, subtle humor, and congenially. He had a fatherly wisdom and sense of fairness. His promise was that you will be treated with respect and live a better life by virtue of being a customer.

Sam Walton’s strategy was really selling trust. It was not his subject matter expertise that created this strategy. Rather, it was the activation and evolved maturity of his No. 1 personality trait, emotional stability, that guided Walmart to remarkable success.

Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, has a mythological story. Sergey’s parents left Russia because being Jewish inhibited his mother and father’s academic freedom. At an early age, he witnessed prejudice against his parents; this irrevocably shaped his personality. Sergey’s core competency/expertise is mathematics. In business, he is a philosophical visionary.

Sergey’s No. 1 personality trait is “open mindedness.” His individual expression of the open-minded trait is equality. This personality trait drove Google’s strategic vision. Google evens out the playing field by providing universal access to knowledge. The company’s mission is to make data accessible for everyone in a useful way. Again, we observe that it was Sergey’s No. 1 personality trait, open mindedness, that was the foundation for Google’s strategy of equality of knowledge. If Sergey had a different personality structure, there would never have been a Google.

These are two very different examples of how leaders thought strategically. The key is that both strategic visions aligned with the natural core strength and dominant personality trait of each leader.

What Can You Do?

So how do you become a more strategic thinker? First, know your personality-driven strength. This isn’t your subject matter expertise. Your strength is genetically embedded and was observed at an early age. It is your core personality trait’s behavioral expression. 

Ask yourself three questions and connect the dots between them.

  1. What were you good at as a child?
  2. What skill came easily and naturally to you?
  3. What activity do you enjoy so much that you’d do it for free?

If you thoughtfully answer these, you will better understand who you are and how you naturally think strategically.

Sam Walton loved selling and establishing trust as a youngster. He learned instinctively how to lower defense barriers to authentically connect. He enjoyed customers so much that there was no difference between a customer and a friend. Sergey Brin loved math. Math provided self-esteem and self-definition. He is an open-minded mathematical philosopher.

On the surface, it seems that Sam Walton and Sergey Brin have little in common. Upon closer analysis, it is clear that the corporate strategy for both of their mega-companies was driven by each leader’s dominant personality trait. Our point is that this is when the magic can happen for you. When you tap into your core strength, you add the ultimate strategic value.

The fact that only 7 percent of executives are viewed as strategic demonstrates how our education and training in this space has missed the mark. These numbers can improve but only if advances in personality and strength psychology are integrated into strategic thinking training. Otherwise, we will keep doing the same thing we have been doing for 2,500 years, and hoping for different results!

Dr. George Watts is chairman, and Laurie Blazek is president and CEO of Top Line Talent, a sales and leadership coaching firm that fuses brain science, positivity, and strength psychology into training that transforms careers. The company combines intimate consulting with scalable training. Visit and watch the 14-minute Test Drive.


Dr. George W. Watts is a nationally recognized author, behavioral scientist, and senior executive. His passion is to inspire people to believe in themselves by maturing their natural personality strengths. George is a frequent speaker and delivers acclaimed training programs throughout the world. He coaches CEOs on how to build formidable sales and leadership teams. Thousands of people, at all levels of leadership, have experienced his approach and commitment to teaching his powerful principles of professional development. George started his career as a sales trainer and rapidly moved into senior management positions. George has been a CEO of a mid-cap publicly traded company, and EVP of two large service companies. He received his doctoral degree in Counseling Psychology from the College of William and Mary, and is Foundation Board President for the Society for Psychologists in Management (SPIM). George is the co-author of Becoming a Strategic Leader and co-creator of the TLT Coaching Program. He has also written several books and numerous professional articles on leadership and talent management. Laurie Blazek has over 25 years of consultative selling and leadership experience as a Managing & Executive Director for several multinational banks including: JP Morgan, Citigroup and Bank of America. She has held senior positions in a wide variety of sectors including corporate and investment banking, and private banking. She also founded her own financial advisory firm; providing guidance and counseling to individuals and couples in budgeting, investment management and retirement planning. Laurie received an MBA with a concentration in Finance from DePaul University and a BS in Business from Illinois State University. She also holds a Certified Financial Planner designation. Laurie and George have traveled globally to deliver leadership development and sales training workshops. Laurie is a frequent writer and speaker on a variety of leadership and sales training topics. She has authored numerous professional articles and is the co-author of Becoming a Strategic Leader. She is also the co-creator of the Top Line Talent consultative selling skills program.