What is a strategist?

sun-tzu-statueAs you know, a memorial statue of an individual typically means they’ve done really important stuff during their lifetime.  In other words, they have made a significant contribution to an industry, a cause, or even society as a whole. So the statue is a tangible recognition of their work.

The statue shown here is of someone who has made a big contribution to the fields of warfare, strategy and performance.  Who is it?  His name is Sun Tzu, a highly respected military leader who lived in ancient China from around 544BC to 496BC. Sun Tzu is also the author of The Art of War.

In case you haven’t heard of it, The Art of War is a highly influential book on warfare, which outlines Tzu’s principles of effective military strategy and tactics.  The book is a modern-day best-seller, despite the fact that it was written over 2000 years ago.

Just to give you an idea of how influential Sun Tzu is, The Art of War is part of the literary collection the US Army keeps and, “During the Gulf War in the 1990s, both Generals Norman Schwarzkopf. Jr and Colin Powell employed principles from Sun Tzu related to deception, speed, and striking one’s enemy’s weak points.” (1)

Successful sports coaches such as Phil Jackson (NBA master coach) and Steve Hansen (New Zealand’s World cup winning rugby coach) are practitioners of Sun Tzu’s strategy principles. And Luiz Felipe Scolari, who coached the Brazilian Football team to victory in the 2002 Football World Cup, made The Art of War required reading for all his players.

In business, Sun Tzu’s followers include Larry Ellison (CEO of Oracle), Jack Welch (former CEO of General Electric), Evan Spiegel (CEO of SnapChat), and Indra Nooyi (CEO of PepsiCo).  Further, at the Wharton School’s MBA programme, The Art of War is one of the first books students receive when they commence their studies.

My copy of The Art of War is more than 20 years old, and many pages are weathered and decorated with notes and highlighter pen.  Yes, there are some golden learning nuggets in Sun Tzu’s book, so if you don’t have it already, you need to go and get your own copy of The Art of War.

In terms of overall influence, what Sun Tzu has done is highlight the importance of strategy and applying effective strategy principles.  And he has highlighted the importance of the strategist.

So what is a strategist?  How does a strategist work?  What skills does a strategist need?  And how can a strategist benefit you?  Let me answer these questions for you.

What is a strategist?

According to the Collins dictionary, a strategist is, “Someone who is skilled in planning the best way to gain an advantage or to achieve success.”(2)  And, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a strategist as, “a person skilled in strategy: a person who is skilled in making plans for achieving a goal: someone who is good at forming strategies.” (3)

To elaborate on the definitions, a strategist wears a number of hats including analyst, troubleshooter, brainstormer and planner.  And, the role primarily involves:

    • Getting clarity around a problem or situation
    • Gathering relevant information and market intelligence
    • Analyzing challenges and problems by applying traditional and visual/design thinking principles and tools
    • Identifying points of competitive advantage and weakness
    • Establishing clear, realistic goals
    • Brainstorming and creating strategies and evaluating them using probability and risk/reward tools
    • Designing and creating strategic plans

Over the last decade or so the importance of the strategist has become more widely recognised in business.  Indeed, in a 2008 article titled The Rise of the Chief Strategy Officer, authors Tim Breene, Paul F. Nunes and Walt Shill wrote that companies were increasingly hiring Chief Strategy Officers (CSO).  At the time the CSO was a relatively new position, but as pointed out by the authors:

Companies are starting to add CSOs to their management teams for a variety of reasons. First, CEOs need the help: Complex organizational
structures, rapid globalization, new regulations and the struggle to innovate, among other challenges, make it ever more difficult for CEOs to be
on top of all parts of the business, even when it’s something as important as strategy execution.

Further, the nature of strategy itself has changed during the past decade. Strategy development has become a continuous process, and successful
execution therefore depends more than ever on rapid and effective decision making.(4)

Smart business leaders understand that strategy analysis and development is not a once-a-year business exercise.  It is, as stated above, a continuous process. And a key person who can add significant value to that process is a highly qualified and skilled strategist.

Educational pathway, strategy models and tools

The educational pathway for the strategist is usually through the business school route.  Strategy and strategic management is a core component of an MBA program, and it’s where students get a good grounding in all aspects of strategy, including:

  • Competitive advantage and positioning
  • Business and portfolio analysis
  • Governance, ethics and culture
  • Brand strategy
  • Business-level, functional and corporate strategy
  • Monetization strategy
  • Sales and marketing strategy
  • Team performance and HR strategy

As part of their education and development, strategists will become familiar with and learn how to use strategy tools and models such as this traditional strategic planning model.


Others will build upon the models and even develop their own, like these models I’ve created:



The personality and thinking style of the strategist

More important than the educational background in my view is the thinking style and personality of the ideal strategist. This was highlighted in a Harvard Business Review article, What Makes a Great Chief Strategy Officer, where the authors outlined five archetypes or behavior patterns of a strategist:

Our analysis revealed five archetypes of strategists…In each one, the strategist’s role becomes more than the sum of its parts, which shows the importance of strategists developing a set of “signature strengths.”

Three of the archetypes we discovered will likely be familiar: Architects look for industry shifts and try to understand their companies’ sources of competitive advantage. Visionaries are experts at trend forecasting and innovation. Surveyors also look for trends, but their brand of trend spotting focuses on long-range topics, such as regulatory or reputational risk, that have the greatest potential to change the industry. In short, they are the people with their eyes on the horizon.

The other two archetypes are less focused on the most traditional parts of the strategist’s role. Mobilizers spend much of their time building what one CEO called a “higher organizational IQ on strategy.” A mobilizer at one aerospace company, for example, focuses on building capabilities across the organization by training key staff on how to create a business plan—a skill that’s necessary for crafting clear, well-informed strategic proposals. And fund managers, as the name implies, are experts at optimizing corporate portfolios.(5)

To expand on the archetypes outlined above, research on personality type has helped to identify the personality traits of a strategist.

According to the Myer-Briggs Type Indicator, one of the world’s largest personality tests based on psychiatrist Carl Jung’s theory of psychological types, the strategist has what’s known as an INTJ personality type. To elaborate:

It is commonly found that Strategists are more prone to possess a combination of 4 specific personality traits, which includes Introversion, iNtuition, Thinking and Judgement forming the acronym INTJ. However, this combination of personality traits is known to be very rare amongst people, making strategists to be very sought after especially by major firms. (6)

A detailed overview of personality type can be found on the Myers-Briggs Foundation website.(7) But here, a summary of the four letters I-N-T-J which make up the personality of the strategist is:

Introversion (I)

The strategist is introverted – as opposed to being an extrovert – and:

  • Is “reflective” or “reserved.”
  • Is comfortable being alone and doing on their own or with a few close friends
  • Does a lot of their thinking inside their heads.

Intuition (N)

The strategist is highly intuitive and likes to play with concepts and ideas.  A strategist is very curious and:

  • Solves problems by leaping between different ideas and possibilities.
  • Is interested in doing things that are new and different.
  • Is able to “see” the big picture and is very strong in pattern recognition

Thinking (T)

Thinking in this context refers to how objectively or subjectively a strategist thinks and makes decisions.  In this respect the strategist:

  • Enjoys technical and scientific fields where logic is important.
  • Likes to analyze pros and cons, and looks at logical explanations, solutions, and decisions to most everything.
  • Can be seen as too task-oriented, uncaring, or indifferent.

Judging (J)

The final initial refers to how orderly and organized the strategist is.  It does not refer to whether or not one is judgemental.  Overall, the strategist:

  • Likes to have things decided.
  • Is task oriented.
  • Likes to get work done before playing.

According to David Keirsey, an authority on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, strategists (he refers to them as masterminds), are a rare breed and comprise just 1-2% of the population.(8)

What a strategist can do to help you

In terms of benefits, a skilled business strategist can help you:

  • Identify attractive target segments
  • Position your products, services, and business more effectively
  • Develop better, more attractive products
  • Pinpoint causes of under-performance and failure
  • Raise entry barriers to stop or slow down competitors from copying you.
  • Come up with new and better ways of doing things
  • Develop a counter attack to a competitor’s product introduction
  • Pre-empt a competitive attack on your business
  • Develop creative brand initiatives
  • Improve sales team performance.
  • Champion your strategy to your team and stakeholders
  • Pinpoint internal weaknesses you may have overlooked
  • And more…

Ultimately, a good strategist will make you money, save you money, reduce your headaches, give you more wins and help improve overall performance levels.


1. Wikipedia profile of Sun Tzu. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sun_Tzu

2. Collins dictionary definition of a strategist. https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/strategist

3. Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of a strategist. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/strategist

4. Breene Tim, Nunes Paul & Shill Walt. (January 2008) The Rise of the Chief Strategy Officer.  Accenture Outlook

5. Birshan Michael, Gibbs Emma & Strovink Kurt.(May 2015) What Makes a Great Chief Strategy Officer. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2015/05/what-makes-a-great-chief-strategy-officer

6. Wikipedia summary of a strategist. http://www.Wikipedia.org/wiki/Strategist

7. Meyers-Briggs Foundation. http://www.myersbriggs.org/

8. Keirsey, David. Portrait of the Mastermind. http://www.keirsey.com/4temps/mastermind.asp