Strategic Leadership

School leadership should be futures oriented and strategically driven. Developing and implementing a strategy is a central task of any leader. 

There are many reasons why a school engages in strategic thinking:

  • You are at a particular time in your self-review cycle (every 5 years, 10 years, etc.)
  • A school might be in difficulty and needs to take stock, review and re-establish vision going forward
  • A very successful school might wish to plan next steps – e.g. consolidating initiatives, planning for new futures
  • Strategic planning may be a school board initiative: top down
  • School (or Board) in transition: new leadership
  • School in transition: analyzing demographics, economy

This page explores the definition of strategy and its link with vision and mission. It inquires how you can make the links between vision, mission and strategic plan visible.

The activities on this page are intended to be used with your senior leadership team and/or governing body.

Professional Inquiry

Our professional inquiry will explore:

  • What do you and your colleagues understand by the word 'strategy'?
  • How are your strategic plans created and what are they for?
  • What makes a strategic plan a good one?
  • How do you evaluate the effectiveness of your strategic plan?

Guiding Definition

Strategy: A strategic plan describes the ways to bring the vision about.

"'Strategic Thinking’ is the process by which an organisation’s direction-givers can rise above the daily managerial processes and crises to gain different perspectives …. Such perspectives should be both future-oriented and historically understood. Strategic thinkers must have the skills of looking ... forwards ...while knowing where their organization is now, so that wise risks can be taken while avoiding having to repeat the mistakes of the past." Garratt, B (ed), Developing strategic thought, McGraw-Hill (2003:2-3)

Henry Mintzberg gives a famous definition of strategic thinking as “seeing ahead”, “seeing behind”, “seeing above”, “seeing below”, “seeing beside”, “seeing beyond” and, significantly, “seeing it through”. He suggests that strategy is an interactive process with successful ones evolving from experience. 'Strategic Thinking as Seeing' in Garratt, B (ed), Developing strategic thought, McGraw-Hill (2003:79-83)

"Without a strategy we fill our time with ...

  • what we want, or
  • what we think the boss wants, or
  • by reacting.

Without a strategy, time and resources are easily wasted on piecemeal, disparate activities." (Marc Sniukas,

Activity 1: What do we mean by strategy?

  1. Individually or as a group read the following summary of Good Strategy, Bad Strategy.
  2. Highlight:
    (a) a sentence that helped you understand the paper,
    (b) a phrase that resonated with you - in a meaningful or provoking way
    (c) a word that stood out to you and captured your attention.
  3. Each person or group shares their thoughts with each other. What is highlighted? How did you make your choice?
  4. Look at your responses. What are the implications of your choices? Which common themes emerge? Which questions remain?

Good Strategy, Bad Strategy

Strategy is a word which has connotations of power and authority, especially when it is used alongside other related concepts such as strategic analysis and strategic thinking. Care therefore needs to be taken that the word and the strategic planning process is not misused.

The origins of the word strategy lie in the world of military planning. It referred to conducting a military campaign and maneuvering armies. More recently strategic planning has been used by businesses.

According to Mintzberg (1994), the word strategy has at least five interrelated meanings in general use. Strategy can be a:

  • a consciously and purposefully developed plan;
  • a ploy to outmaneuver a competitor;
  • a pattern in a stream of actions, whether intended or not;
  • a position defined either with respect to a competitor, in the context of a number of competitors, or with respect to markets; and as
  • a perspective, i.e. a certain mindset of how to perceive the world.

In Good Strategy Bad Strategy Professor Richard Rumelt describes the kernel of strategy being based on three aspects:

A diagnosis – to define certain aspects of the situation as a critical challenge.

A guiding policy for dealing with the challenge. Problem-solving and grappling with the situation – identifying, analyzing and addressing critical issues to forward progress. Also means ruling out vast array of possible actions.

A set of focused and coherent actions on most important things to do to surmount the challenge (policies, arguments and actions), and consider opportunities.

Strategy is ...
  • An insight: “A great deal of strategy working is trying to figure out what is going on.”
  • A craft: “Strategy is the craft of figuring out which purposes are both worth pursuing and capable of being accomplished.”
  • A choice: “Strategies focus resources, energy, and attention on some objectives rather than others.”
  • An opportunity: “The first step of making strategy real is figuring out the big ‘aha’ to gain sustainable competitive advantage – in other words, a significant, meaningful insight about how to win.”
  • About action – about doing something.

Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy Bad Strategy (2012)

Alternatively you could hear Richard Rumelt speak about Good and Bad Strategy by watching the following video:

The dimensions of strategy

As a leadership team it is important to have a shared understanding of what you mean by strategy. There is sometimes a misunderstanding that strategy is exclusively about strategic planning - a rather linear process that is suitable to stable environments but not that flexible in the midst of change. A more creative way of understanding strategy is to see it as a way of thinking and creating the future. In this sense strategy is about strategic thinking, a strategic perspective and strategic capability and capacity.

One model of looking at strategy is through the following six strategic dimensions:

Activity 2

As a group read about these six dimensions in Success and Sustainability: Developing the strategically-focused school (Davies, B et al, NCSL) pages 6-13.

  1. Individually read one dimension each. 
  2. CONNECT - how is what you have read connected with what you already know?
  3. EXTEND - what new idea(s) extended your thinking in a new direction?
  4. CHOOSE - a quote from the section you have read that is relevant for your context and explain how
  5. CHALLENGE - what questions does this raise for your own strategic thinking?
  6. Share as a group.

    Activity 3: Applying Strategic Questions

    Strategy is about deliberately trying to shape the future by asking some key questions.

    • What is the big picture? What are emerging trends? What does the intermediate and long term future look like?
    • What challenges do we face?
    • Who do we want to become? Why? 
    • Where do we want to go? Why?

    Use a collaborative mind mapping tool such as Mindmeister to explore these questions together.

    Activity 4: What's the link between Vision, Mission and Strategy?

    Strategy is the way of bringing your vision about.

    The Strategy House[1] below provides a framework for you to link your vision, mission and strategic goals.

    Use the learning in this session to complete the framework for yourself.


    1. ^ This model has been designed by the consultancy firm Berlineaton
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