Being Ruthlessly Strategic

By Rich Harwood

Just a couple of days ago I was in beautiful Iowa—home to our first 2020 presidential contest—where I led the “Summit on Stepping Forward.” Suzanne Mineck, CEO of the Mid-Iowa Health Foundation, wanted to bring the Summit to Iowa after attending the 2018 Harwood Summit at Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, DC. I jumped at the idea! 

Suzanne convened a remarkable group of 75 community leaders, and a key topic they wanted to discuss was how they “show up” for work and life. The discussion turned to people’s fears of being pulled in all directions; concerns about being publicly shamed for decisions and failings; fatigue from too much work; anxiety about “imposter syndrome”; frustration about promising too much and delivering too little. 

Sound familiar? I don’t think any of us are exempt from such concerns. Importantly, they go to the heart of how we make choices. And so many of us find ourselves averse to making the hard choices before us. Many times we feel in a bind over them. There are times when we don’t see them. 

There are good reasons for this. For instance, in having to make choices, we don’t want to disappoint others. Or, we don’t want to favor—or be seen as favoring—one group over another. Sometimes, unwittingly, we fall into the trap of trying to be all things to all people. Making choices can be exhausting. 

But here’s the thing: If we want our work and efforts to be relevant, significant and impactful to the communities and people we seek to serve, then we must make hard choices. Otherwise, what we do may sound good, even do good, but still not be on-target to what we set out to achieve—nor to what we need to do. 

My plea is that we become more ruthlessly strategic in the choices we make. I know the word “ruthless” has a ring of harshness to it. When connected with the word “strategic”—as in “ruthlessly strategic”—it can conjure up images of someone being cold and calculating. But to me the phrase is a call to be clear-eyed and on-purpose. It is a call to be more intentional. 

Being ruthlessly strategic means making the intentional choice to turn outward to our community so we always have people in our line of sight; understanding a community’s context so we can effectively align our efforts to the actual reality on the ground—not the reality we wish existed; finding those who are truly “ready to roll” and partnering with them, not spinning our wheels with others; doggedly re-calibrating our efforts as we learn what’s working and not working. It means triaging our favorite but ineffective efforts. 

Everyday each of us is already making choices, and so many of them are driven by unexamined assumptions and business as usual. But these choices matter nonetheless and they shape our impact and effectiveness. To be ruthlessly strategic is to care – to care so deeply about what you are doing that you are willing to make the hard choices that give you the best shot at succeeding and staying true to your purpose. 

What does it mean for you to show up in your work and life? It’s a choice you get to make.