Strategically thinking and planning

Leaders ensure that the organisational vision, goals and expectations of staff, learners and whānau are shaped in ways that engage the organisational community (staff, learners, whānau, community stakeholders) in a meaningful way. 

This will mean that what is constructed is shared, will motivate, and will keep the organisation improving in line with a strong moral purpose, desiring the success of each and every one of their learners.

They keep abreast of both emerging ideas and new evidence, and changes in policies and legislation that have a bearing on what the organisation can do, and bring that knowledge into their strategic thinking.

They provide insightful reports of progress and identification of any problems that enable candid discussion to inform changes in practices or resources as needed.

Educational leadership capability framework, Education Council, 2018

This page summarises some thinking and research related to this capability. It is not a comprehensive or definitive background to the capability.

This leadership capability and a second in the framework – Adept management of resources to achieve vision and goals – are closely linked to two of the dimensions of leadership practice that most impact student outcomes identified in Robinson (2009): establishing goals and expectations, and resourcing strategically.

Strategic cultures

Strategic leaders realise that what is good enough for now will not remain so. They are forward looking and futures orientated.

(Davies, 2006, p63)

A multi-year research project in the UK in the early 2000’s (Davies, 2006) looked at schools whose success was attributed to a culture based around strategic management practices.

It found that these strategically-focused schools strive to:

  • develop a short-term and a strategic perspective
  • enhance their strategic processes
  • deploy a variety of strategic approaches
  • enhance strategic leadership throughout the school
  • define strategic measures of success.

They have a culture that learns from its mistakes and collaborates to design its future direction. People think and talk strategically about what they see and what they do. They share an understanding of the strategic frameworks and models they are acting within and they look out for problems and opportunities that might arise.

“Setting strategy is not an event followed by implementation. It is a learning process.” (Center for Creative Leadership)

What strategic leaders do

Strategic leaders enable short-term objectives to be met while concurrently building capability and capacity for the long-term.

(Davies, 2006, p11)

Leaders make strategic choices


  • reflect on information, insights and inspiration they have gained
  • think about possible future scenarios  
  • assess all the options and their risks
  • determine what is the right thing at the right time.

Choosing when to make a significant strategic change is as critical to success as choosing what change to make. Leaders need to balance what is desirable with what is possible. This is a highly challenging area of decision making for leaders, one that is often further complicated by having to abandon other areas of activity to create the capacity needed. Leaders make these decisions by examining the choices through the lens of their values and principles. (Davies, 2006)

Leaders involve others in strategy


  • conceptualise what a new way of operating would look like
  • create rich pictures of the future that energise people
  • use frameworks, maps or models to build understanding and commitment
  • lead the school community in processes to define how to get there
  • help others to become more strategic.

Leaders use formal and informal strategic conversations to generate discussion throughout the school community and encourage a strategic perspective. They show appreciation for strategic ideas and also plant seeds and identify passions in individuals to build and distribute strategic leadership. They keep everyone aware of emerging trends.

Leaders set goals

The best evidence synthesis on school leadership and student outcomes (Robinson, 2009) concluded that principals can influence student achievement through establishing goals and expectations.

In appendix 8, it sets out the knowledge, skills, and dispositions implied by and embedded in this leadership dimension.

In summary these are:

  • can set goals: has knowledge of goal-setting theory
  • can identify what goals to set: makes decisions about the relative importance of various learning outcomes; envisages and expects achievement of more challenging goals
  • can gain commitment to goals to ensure a coordinated teaching approach: demonstrates how goals are credible, timely and attainable; identifies and listens to barriers and strategises solutions.

Leaders link strategy and action


  • spend as much time on the how as the what
  • link the desired outcomes to the moves required to realise them
  • identify the best thing they can do now, given the capabilities and constraints, to advance the strategy
  • focus on strategic ends but adapt when circumstances change
  • address barriers.

Leaders don’t just look at where the organisation needs to head, they also know where it is now and where it was in the past. This enables them to identify the actions needed and take wise risks, avoiding previous mistakes. (Davies, 2010) They think through what needs to happen to achieve organisational and instructional coherence. They have a documented theory for improvement that links the goals and strategies (Robinson, 2017).

I think at different levels. My levels are:

  • the moral purpose that informs why we actually do the things that we do
  • visionary thinking, which I define as being long-term and idealistic, that’s where we would like to head for
  • strategic, which is more medium-term realistic steps towards that vision
  • school development planning, which is fairly short-term operation for specific events and activities.”

(Secondary headteacher, cited in Davies, 2006, p7)

Examples of planning

From the Enabling e-learning website

Planning for change – Woodend School

Collaborative planning – Pakuranga College

Developing skills of strategic thinking

There are many definitions of strategic thinking. One that seems particularly relevant for schools is: 

“Strategic thinking focuses on finding and developing unique opportunities to create value by enabling a provocative and creative dialogue among people who can affect a company’s direction.” (Center for Applied Research, cited in Haycock, 2012)

Strategic thinking involves continuous learning. Here are just some ways you could look at developing your skills.

Broaden your perspective

  • make time for strategic thinking – time where you put your thinking cap on
  • watch the trends and anticipate how they could affect your context
  • question assumptions, yours and others’ – why is it like this?
  • seek people, tools and interactions that can help you think differently
  • explore alternative arguments and positions, so you understand the whole picture and see specific projects and ideas more holistically.

Connect the dots

  • observe your organisation to understand how things fit together in practice
  • look for the interrelationships between different parts of the whole
  • look at how your plans or ideas fit into the bigger picture
  • clarify your decision-making criteria, so you can manage inevitable ambiguity.

Communicate well

  • suspend judgment and listen empathetically to different views
  • ask others to explain their thought processes
  • shape your verbal and written communications around the strategic message 
  • use face-to-face time for higher level discussions, leaving operational issues to email or other forums.

Reflective questions

  • Have you tried asking someone about what they see as your strategic strengths and weaknesses? Who might you ask?
  • What do you have in place to grow your staff's or team's strategic capability? Is it making a difference? How?
  • How prominent is developing and implementing strategy in the way you prioritise and plan your time? 

Related pages

Planning and reporting: school charters – guide

Theory for improvement – tool

Tū Rangatira: Māori-medium educational leadership

This capability features strongly in the whenu (key roles of leadership):

  • He kanohi mataara – the visionary

Tū rangatira (English)

Tū rangatira (te reo Māori)


Bowman, N. (2016). Four ways to improve your strategic thinking skills. Harvard Business Review.

Center for Creative Leadership. What’s your strategy for doing strategy?

Davies, B. Davies, B. and Ellison, L. (2006). Success and sustainability: Developing the strategically-focused school. NCSL.

Davies, B. Davies, B.J. (2010). The nature and dimensions of strategic leadership. International Studies in Educational Administration 38(1).

Haycock, K. Cheadle, A. and Karla Spence Bluestone. (2012). Strategic thinking – Lessons for leadership from the literature. Library leadership and management, 26:3/4, p4

Robinson, V. Hohepa, M. and Lloyd, C. (2009). School leadership and student outcomes: Identifying what works and why. Best Evidence Synthesis iteration [BES]. Ministry of Education. 

Robinson, V. Bendikson, L. McNaughton, S. Wilson, A. and Zhu, T. (2017). Joining the Dots: The challenge of creating coherent school improvement. Teachers College Record, 119:8,1-44

Image credit: Joshua Coleman, Outside of the box, on Unsplash

Tell a colleague | Back to top