If you are today’s CEO, you are in a position that requires tenacity, strength, and internal fortitude. You are also in a place that requires a roadmap: your first step as CEO will be to hire a business plan writer to put the complex elements of your business into place. In spite of gathering the essential information into a plan, there are other outlying skills that are often identified in leaders and CEOs, such as strategic thinking and execution. While it seems that these may share head space, we’ll examine in the following whether or not they are of equal importance or if one skill is of greater value and significance than the other.

Let’s admit it upfront. CEOs and other industry leaders are expected to have all the skills within the long list of skill sets. When hired, the expectations by staff members are often hopeful, looking for a turnaround experience like no other or exponential growth that signals a franchise ahead, with the accompanying achievement of optimal levels of profitability and long-term growth. Hardly anyone, when first meeting a CEO, internally decides that the CEO most likely holds only one or two of these critical skills. Everyone hopes for all skill sets to be included in this one brain because, after all, this is the CEO. After a short span of time, it becomes evident that the CEO does not carry every skill on the list; but carries a few of them with excellence and verve.

So, which skills are critical for today’s CEO? Gallup, Inc. (2023) recognizes several skills, including executing, influencing, strategic thinking, and relationship-building. Where does the CEO focus a gaze when these skills seem equally critical in the examination? We suggest that the CEO, who represents the future of the business, is to apply strategic thinking primarily, followed by execution secondarily. What construct leads to this platform?

First, a CEO must be a visionary because the CEO represents all that is ahead within a business or company. While the present may receive a glancing nod, the future is where the CEO is to live. Strategic thinking must remain in this space with the CEO because strategy is indicative of looking ahead rather than “thinking on one’s feet” at the last moment. A battle plan instituted at the last moment does not generally succeed. Therefore, strategic thinking may be the clear winner in this juxtaposition between the two skills.

In the same manner and with the same level of intensity, the CEO must be an executing officer of a business on the move. The strategic thoughts must lead to actionable redirection, scaling movement forward, retreat, or other alternatives that clarify motion. In that execution, the CEO is acknowledging the present tense of the action and taking leadership of it. This is the most important element of execution: someone (the CEO) takes accountability for the process and end result.

Gallup (2023) states, “Leaders with dominant strength in the executing domain know how to make things happen. When you need someone to implement a solution, these are the people who will work tirelessly to get it done. Leaders with a strength to execute have the ability to “catch” an idea and make it a reality.” This statement suggests the CEO is all about action in the present tense and indicates that the CEO knows how to execute to achieve the end results desired because this leader inherently “knows how to make things happen.” The appearance of present activity, work, and knowledge combine to propel the skill of executing to dominance in the CEO.

According to Gallup (2023), “Leaders with great strategic thinking strengths are the ones who keep us all focused on what could be. They are constantly absorbing and analyzing information and helping the team make better decisions. People with strength in this domain continually stretch our thinking for the future.” With this decisive statement, the critical elements of strategic thinking reach ahead, outpacing the execution of those thoughts. Strategic thoughts are complex, not random, so the activity and results are clearly defined in this skill, as well as in the executing skill.

To parse this evaluation into a purposeful one, the conclusion is that strategic thinking is the primary skill for today’s CEO: the strategic purpose is always in front of the execution. While the execution is crucial for getting the work done, it must follow as the secondary skill and serve as the first skill of strategic thinking. Today’s CEO has much to consider in the past, present, and future of the service of today’s business. If strategic thinking takes root, it appears that executing and the desired results flourish.