It’s the Strategy, Stupid…or How Did I Get Here? DeMarco Banter…


I’m sure all the “old” folks out there recall the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid.” In the realm of leadership… we might look at this infamous phase in a deeper and slightly new light.  While on a U.S. National Level…. it appears to still be about the economy (more or less, COVID, etc)… but on a an even greater– more macro level….and for all leaders…it’s the Strategy, Stupid!

“It’s the economy, stupid” is a slight variation of the phrase “The economy, stupid” which James Carville had coined as a campaign strategist of Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign against sitting president George H. W. Bush.

Carville’s original phrase was meant for the internal audience of Clinton’s campaign workers as one of the three messages to focus on, the other two messages being “Change vs. more of the same” and “Don’t forget health care.”

Clinton’s campaign had advantageously used the then-prevailing recession situation in the US as one of the campaign means to successfully unseat George H. W. Bush. In March 1991, days after the ground invasion of Iraq, 90% of polled Americans approved of President Bush’s job performance. Later the next year, Americans’ opinions had turned sharply; 64% of polled Americans disapproved of Bush’s job performance in August 1992.

So…20 years ago… it was the strategy…(and maybe a little bit of the economy)

TalkingHeadsClip7One thing we don’t seem to teach our leaders is strategy development. Over the years, many leaders have implied it simply does not matter. There is a notion that if you are a powerful leader…why does strategy really matter…it’s just a paper drill.  BUT…there is indeed a very intimate connection between leadership and strategy. I recently asked a group of captains (leaders, 26-32 years of age) at a professional development forum (SOS) and received a similar response…strategy, mission, vision…they just don’t matter–Well, if that is true…as a good friend of mine, David Byrne says…how did we get here?

Great leaders must first be strategists and that is indeed one responsibility that can never be delegated. It does not matter how big the organization is–or is not. Forging strategy requires very basic questions…like why does our organization even matter? If it disappeared tomorrow–would anyone notice?  Why would ANYONE want to be a part of the organization? For an organization to thrive…it must be doing something distinctive–what is your organization offering? Yes…this is important even in a massive bureaucracy like the US Government…

An organization’s purpose defines what it contributes and what it intends to accomplish. Strategy provides the compass for the organizations and points to where we want to go.

UnknownStrategy is not a problem with a fixed solution–strategy MUST be fluid and malleable–and it must be responsive, especially in the crisis, complexity, and confusion (C3) we live in today. Without a strategy, without a purpose… the unit is adrift and left to respond to every ripple in the C3 waves. As leaders it is indeed our responsibility to decide where our organization will commit and where it will not.

As a strategist leader we must oversee the crafting and redrafting of our organization’s strategy…we must adapt to contingencies, identify opportunities, respond to changes….the strategist chooses the direction, decides on a best course of action, and takes responsibility for the above decision. Is that why so many leaders decide not to have a strategy? What if we choose poorly? But as a leader….only you can answer the question–does your organization matter? If a leader can not answer the above questions…how can we make crucial decisions that in turn drive the organization forward…and our subordinates…and our customers…and our stakeholders….in the end they will all suffer for a lack of decision and direction.

Leader…you must wrestle with this…tackle the purpose of your unit…search for the differences that matter, define your system of value creation, and pull that together into a statement and strategy that your subordinates can point to and follow.

Now align the organization with its purpose. Mindmaps help…of course I have seen mine ripped apart, ridiculed, and in one case used as a “going away” gift…not sure what to make of that, except everyone knew where we were going and how we were going to get there…as a leader, that is your job.

Draft a mission of purpose statement that reflects what the organizations job is today…what do you do?

Now…where do you want to go? How will your unit get better…where will it be in a year, 2 years, 5 years… write that down…this is your vision.

What are your priorities that will help your unit reach the above vision?

What are your goals on the path toward your vision?

At times we spend way too much time making these projects look pretty or pithy… just write it down, stare at it…it will come to you–and when it does, your subordinates will thank you. They all want to contribute…but they need to know where you are going.

Finally…this is all subject to change. Your strategy must be dynamic and adaptable…leading strategy is a nonstop responsibility. Leaders don’t have to provide all the answers by any stretch…but they have to provide guidance…they have to serve as the organization’s champion…and bear responsibility for decisions that define the unit…while at the same time remaining open to always rethinking the fundamentals….

As the organizational leader…and as a strategist–it is yours to be the guardian of your organization’s purpose… and if you don’t get the strategy right…everything else you do is at risk…are you ready?


We don’t always get this right by any stretch, but we have to try. If there are any questions please shoot me an email or comment and we can provide examples of what has worked for us in the past…every organization and situation is different. There are also some notes, drafts, and documents we have used at

Or for more… check out The Strategist” by Cynthia A. Montgomery 

4 Replies to “It’s the Strategy, Stupid…or How Did I Get Here? DeMarco Banter…”

  1. Hi Bill,

    Thanks for bringing this up. It is funny-odd that SOS students think strategy doesn’t matter. That ought to be a big red flag to USAF leadership. One of my comments after SOS back to the faculty many years ago was that we needed to spend more time on strategy, the art of warfare etc and less time on the proper formatting and authorship of the memorandum for record while at SOS. We also knew that most of us would not get the time from their squadron, group, or wing commanders to discuss strategy on any sort of a regular basis. It was PME or bust for those strategy discussions unless and until we got a job working in a “5 shop” somewhere. Clearly more emphasis is needed on the development of strategic thinking earlier in the leadership development process.

    Perhaps today’s SOS students have arrived at the notion that strategy, mission, and vision don’t matter because they actually pay attention to what is going on around them at the unit level and at a national level, and they have arrived at that conclusion because what they see and and experience does not translate into a coherent appreciation of, or application of, strategy at their level. I am quite sure that the lack of a transparent national strategy for defense, or any other nationally important issue for that matter, with regard to the current national budget drill hasn’t helped any. This is all the more so if any connection to what the current batch of company grade officers are doing is absent or tenuous at best.

    Real leaders will make those connections apparent and take the time to break down what is going on to make connections. Whether that connection is to the national defense strategy, or something a bit closer to home such as fixing the amount of time the unit deployment process takes, sortie generation issues, or whatever doesn’t matter. What matters is that the strategy is present and everyone knows what the strategy is. That discussion begins with people like you starting that conversation at SOS and hosting this blog. Thanks for taking those steps.

    A logical next step would be for local commanders and their company and field grade leaders everywhere to have a chat and discuss what is important to fix at the unit level etc. The key questions to ask the boss are, what is important to fix, and what does success look like? Ask yourself what can you do to help take that issue off the boss’ plate. As you think through the answers from the boss and what you might be able do to help, don’t forget to ponder the management risk aspect. Yes, I am talking about ORM here, but from a higher level. An acceptable level of risk in the solution set is very important to the overall effort. Take the time to identify and mitigate foreseeable risks to success and take advantage of any opportunity that pops up that can help achieve the goal. Doing so will maximize your chances to succeed. A friend of mine has been quoted as saying, “Failed projects hurt people.” He’s right. My personal experience is that all to often people end up there because they didn’t get the risk management part right. So find out what is important and build a plan for success. Then go forth and conquer.

    To the searchers out there, take charge of your own destiny. Set your own strategy — don’t wait for one to be handed to you unless you really are interested in surrendering the initiative. Personal level strategy is where the idea can be most powerful. It is about setting medium to long term goals and figuring out how to achieve those goals. Covey said begin with the end in mind. There have been plenty of other strategies in my life apart from those that were work related or “issued” to me. Those strategies have involved family life, personal improvement, and finding a second career. Currently, I work on developing project management skills and improving piping. These are part of a personal strategy to make me more effective at my job and increase the personal happiness factor in my life. Both of those strategies include tools such as practice, quality instruction, and soliciting and acting on feedback from those that are much better than me.

    Here’s to looking forward to a new year better than last year!



    1. Agree Ben…you know our EMTF/CC back in the day required me to bring him the AMOS Mission and Vision statement…along with a plan/strategy on how to make it so….hence the AMOS flight plan, it was a very helpful exercise. But you are right leaders will look to where their bosses are focused,if the boss is focused on minutiae…OPR/EPR close out dates, flu shots, etc…everyone will focus there and forget the big ticket items.

      You have to know where you are going. It was a good convo at SOS once we got past some of the bogus “filler” msn and vision stuff out there, we all have seen the ones I’m talking about…fluff.

      Thanks Ben…great points

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