Strategy in educational
leadership: in search of unity
School of Education, Faculty of Education and Arts, University of Newcastle,
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to examine knowledge of strategy within the ﬁeld of
educational administration. It is intended to be the basis for future empirical research and inquiry into
strategy in education by suggesting alternate ways of deﬁning and researching strategy.
Design/methodology/approach – The study examines the contemporary context of educational
administration, the evolution of strategy as an educational construct, its deﬁnition and need within
educational administration. Using this information the author identiﬁes key conceptual and
methodological issues in current research.
Findings – The paper ﬁnds that knowledge of strategy in education is incomplete and muddled
because research and writing in the ﬁeld have approached strategy from a narrow and conceptually
Research limitations/implications – The advancement of knowledge in the area will only
advance with alternate conceptualisations and methodological approaches.
Originality/value – Rather than merely review literature, this paper proposes a redeﬁnition of
strategy as an educational administration construct, focusing on key features not words and actions.
The hope is that fellow scholars and practitioners will continue to question and focus on the key
features of strategy and the issues that confront them.
Keywords Management strategy, Leadership, Educational administration
Paper type Conceptual paper
Strategic leadership is a critical issue relevant to school leaders that has largely been
overlooked, particularly in Australia, in current educational leadership literature. In
comparison with other academic disciplines, strategy is a young ﬁeld. However,
strategy as a ﬁeld of research has grown substantially in scope and inﬂuence over the
last few decades (Boyd et al., 2005). There were very few empirical studies on the
strategic leadership processes or strategic leadership behaviours prior to the mid-1980s
(House and Aditya, 1997). Literature concerning the processes through which
managers make strategic decisions, and to a lesser extent the behaviour of such
managers as leaders’ has only recently emerged (Jackson and Ruderman, 1995).
Unfortunately there is only a small body of theoretical literature with weak consensus
and low levels of productivity (Boyd et al., 2005). The discussion of strategic leadership
is still meagre and the domain of studying strategic leadership is relatively diffused
and uncharted (Cheng, 2002). There is a bias in existing literature towards strategy
formulation (the analysis of strategic content), while limited attention is given to the
implementation of strategy (the analysis of strategic process). The emphasis is on
prescriptive writing in the ﬁeld, with an under-concern for description, analysis and
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
In search of unity
Received February 2007
Revised September 2007
Accepted November 2007
Journal of Educational
Vol. 46 No. 3, 2008
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
understanding combined with deﬁnitional and a conceptualisation problem of what is
strategy (Pettigrew, 1988).
Despite the relative infancy of the inquiry into strategy and strategic action, the role
of strategic leadership in schools has earned greater signiﬁcance as a result of the
international trends towards school-based management, the changing socio-political
environment in which schools operate and the subsequent paradigm shift in the role of
school leadership (Eacott, 2006a). Crowther and Limerick (1997) describe strategic
leadership as one of the ﬁve prominent leadership approaches that have acquired
credibility in contemporary educational management theory and practice. Eacott
(2006a) stresses that the need for effective strategic leadership in schools is imperative
if schools are to continue to meet the needs of their communities.
This paper is not a comprehensive review of strategy in education. Rather, the focus
is on the evolution of, need for, and future challenges for the concept in educational
leadership. These are discussed with the hope of suggesting new directions that will
push the ﬁeld forward by exploring conceptual and methodological issues. The
substantial argument of this paper is that our knowledge of strategy in education is
incomplete and muddled because the majority of research and writing in the ﬁeld have
approached strategy from a narrow set of epistemological foundations.
Deﬁnitions of strategy
The practice and concept of strategy have many varied meanings, yet it remains
closely related to planning and planning models. Fidler (1996) wrote that the word was
beginning to appear in educational management literature in the 1990s, but it was not
clearly deﬁned and appeared to mean little more than a general reference to the longer
term. The word “strategy” is now applied to almost every management activity to add
misleading rhetorical weight (Beaver, 2000). This had devalued and misrepresented the
concept and is damaging to both theory and practice. In addition, it has cast doubt over
what constitutes strategy.
Tsiakkiros and Pashiardis (2002, p. 6) draw attention to the word strategy and its
origin from the Greek word strategos, which means “a general and the leader of the
army”. This is arguably why much of the literature assigns strategy and strategy
development to an individual within an organisation. For example, Johnson and
Scholes (2003, pp. 147-8) deﬁne a strategic leader as:
... an individual upon whom strategy development and change are seen to be dependent.
They are individuals personally identiﬁed with and central to the strategy of their
organisation: their personality or reputation may result in others willingly deferring to such
an individual and seeing strategy development as his or her province.
Very few scholars within the ﬁeld of educational leadership seek to deﬁne the concept
of strategy. It remains elusive (Fidler, 2002) and somewhat abstract (Ansoff, 1965).
Quong et al. (1998) describe it as one of the most frustrating, paradoxical and
misunderstood concepts in leadership literature. Frequently the term is used to
describe a range of activities (Davies, 2004a) but most often it is explicitly linked with
planning (Bell, 1998, 2002). Many of the deﬁnitional concerns with strategy begin with
its use in the corporate sector. Bush (1998) argues that schools are too different to
commercial companies in the nature of their business for direct sharing of concepts.
Kelly (2005) argues that business leaders develop strategy, whilst principals develop
people. However there has been some discussion relating to the deﬁnition of strategy
within the educational context.
Jones (1987, p. 9) articulated a need for strategy in schools through “the ability to
articulate a coherent framework or philosophy, a set of over-arching goals which mean
something to the members of the whole school community”. This deﬁnition alludes to a
more conceptual deﬁnition of strategy that is not necessarily tied to written planning.
However, it could be argued that the deﬁnition implicitly implies planning to be central
Sanyal and Martin (1992, p. 1) deﬁned a strategy as “the determination of the basic,
long term goals and objectives of an educational system, the adoption of courses of
action and the allocation of resources necessary for carrying out these goals”. This is a
systemic level deﬁnition that remains closely tied to the original conceptualisation of
strategy in business sector.
El-Hout (1994, p. 55) says, “strategy is very much a state of mind, a way of
addressing and making important organisational decisions on a daily basis”. He adds,
that strategic thinking “is not just concerned with what, but with why, not objectives,
but paths and relationships, not checklists but processes” (El-Hout, 1994, p. 61). This
deﬁnition removes the direct link between an individual and a plan from the concept.
Unfortunately, this insightful deﬁnition was not followed up with any further work.
Filder (1996, p. 1) suggests that strategy is concerned with “the long-term future of
an organisation”, but later added, it was “planning a successful future for your school”
(Fidler, 1996, p. 19). Whilst originally remaining abstract with the construct, Fidler
quickly implies the link between strategy and planning. This effectively creates two
aspects of strategy, the ﬁrst to do with future direction and the second with planning.
Quong et al. (1998, p. 10) deﬁne strategy as “selecting a destination, ﬁguring out the
best way of getting there, then explaining how you have arrived”. This deﬁnition of
strategy begins to implicitly link strategy with the role of planning.
Watson and Crossley (2001, p. 117) describe strategy from an alternate perspective,
emphasising that how a school’s strategy is put together and operated, reinforces or
challenges meaning among organisational members. They state that:
Strategy is not neutral or valuefree, but emerges from a melee of organizational vested
interests, personal agendas and ambitions, and the utilization of power. From this perspective
a reliance upon the concept as an inherently rational and logical process, and a bulwark
against the ambiguity of organizational life, is not only problematic but highly questionable.
Leader (2004) stresses, that strategy is a proactive rather than reactive means of
translating decisions into actions. Davies (2003, p. 295) stated that strategy was “a
speciﬁc pattern of decisions and actions taken to achieve an organization’s goals”. He
emphasised however, that strategy and strategic planning were not synonymous
activities. In 2004 he added that strategy might consist of two sub-concepts, one about
the broad major dimensions of the organisation and the other that deals with the
medium to longer term. He suggested that instead of being associated with a linear
plan, strategy might usefully be thought of instead as a perspective, as a way of
looking at things. It provides the template against which to set short-term planning
Returning to the conceptual deﬁnitions of strategy, Kettunen (2005) states that
strategy implies the movement of an organisation from its present position, described
by the mission, to a desirable, but uncertain, future position, described by the vision.
In search of unity
There has simply been no agreement on a single deﬁnition of strategy within
education. This is arguable because strategy in education research is multidisciplinary
(Brown, 1997) and interdisciplinary (Schendel, 1994; Watson, 1997). This pluralism
inherently is subject to the criticism that it does little to foster paradigm development.
However, strategy in the educational leadership context is a ﬁeld of practice and
application, where practitioner trends lead the way and scholars are left to play catch
up to understand the continually changing context. This renders the ﬁeld unlikely to
ever be governed by a single paradigm. However, what is needed is a conceptual
understanding and articulation of the fundamental features of strategy to refocus
research and daily educational practices. Whereas previously (Eacott, 2006a) the
author has deﬁned strategy as:
leadership strategies and behaviours relating to the initiation, development, implementation,
monitoring and evaluation of strategic actions within an educational institution, taking into
consideration the unique context (past, present and future) and availability of resources,
physical, ﬁnancial and human.
Current thinking is that strategy should be viewed as choosing a direction within a
given context, through leadership, and articulating that direction through management
practices. Within this view, there are many elements of strategy, some under the
leadership dimension and others the management dimension. Work can then be
assigned to either strategic leadership or strategic management or both.
Identifying the key features of strategy as an educational administrative concept
removes the need for a prescriptive working deﬁnition of “what is strategy?” This is an
essential step towards addressing the misunderstanding of strategy and criticism of
the concept as an educational leadership construct.
The evolution of strategy
The development of the concept of strategy as an explicit tool for leading and
managing an educational organisation is of recent origin in both theory and practice
(Eacott, in press). To understand why this origin is so recent, there is a need to examine
the school and the school system as organisations.
Schools are large, formal institutions, established by government departments,
institutions such as churches or formally incorporated bodies of private citizens with
an interest in a form of education (Vick, 2002). Many school systems have developed
into highly centralised bureaucracies (Gamage, 1993) frequently with teachers’ unions
with a traditional mindset that education is best run from the centre (Dimmock, 1995).
However, educational administrative restructuring efforts over the past two decades
appear to be part of an attempt to make the management of schools more efﬁcient,
accountable and responsive to government policies by introducing corporate
management approaches from the business sector, devolving responsibility to
regions and schools and placing greater emphasis on educational outputs (Harman,
1991). Governments and education departments are now expecting school principals to
possess a practical knowledge of change management, entrepreneurialism in resource
acquisition and commercial standards in school accountability (Dempster and Logan,
Strategy ﬁrst began to appear in the educational administration literature in the
1980s. However, there was very little prior to 1988 (Fidler, 1989) when the UK passed
the Education Reform Act, making it mandatory for all schools to have a development
plan. In a recent review of literature on strategy in education, Eacott (in press) found
that 90 per cent of the literature emerged following this date and over 60 per cent of
works originated in the UK. This legislative change in the UK led to a voluminous
literature for the scholar and practitioner on “how to” create a development plan.
During this peak period of interest (1988-2000), there were many studies undertaken by
distinguished educational management scholars, however the focus became very
narrow, primarily on the planning process to the exclusion of other aspects of strategy.
The word “strategy” evolved so many meanings that it became debased and
overused (Beaver, 2000). A large proportion of work claiming to be “strategic” in fact
represented tactical areas and means to secure operational effectiveness (Drejer, 2004).
The planning and programming of the supplementary activities appears to have
emerged as “the whole” of strategy (Mintzberg, 1994). Bell (1998) argued that
“strategy” and “planning” became synonymous. Practitioners, consultants and
academics apply the term “strategy” to almost every management activity. Franklin
(1998, p. 313) observed:
The word strategy is bought out under the cover of darkness when writers and speakers,
theorists and managers are looking for a more impressive word than “important”. The idea of
strategic objectives sounds much more impressive than the idea of business objectives on
their own. The idea of a business policy sounds second-rate to the idea of a business strategy.
The idea of strategy and its common usage has reiﬁed the term so that no self-respecting
scholar or manager fails to engage in strategy to other apparently more mundane issues.
Insightful academics realised that many of the concepts and analytical tools used
during the formative years of strategy in education research (1988-2000) were not
sufﬁcient. However, recognising that there is a need for a new paradigm is a critical
ﬁrst step, but ﬁnding one that ﬁts emerging needs is a tedious task. In a 2004 special
issue of School Leadership and Management (Vol. 24 No. 1) edited by B. Davies, leading
scholars including B. Davies, Dimmock, Walker, Caldwell, Leithwood and Fullan
among others explored strategy from alternate perspectives. This issue highlighted the
need for scholars and practitioners alike to see strategy as more than the pursuit of a
plan. Dimmock and Walker (2004) criticised contemporary strategy research for its
tendency to connect strategic thinking to improvement planning; the undue attention
and focus currently given to particular indicators and criteria as underpinning drivers
of strategy and strategic thinking; the tendency for recent literature on strategy to
neglect the relevance of the cultural context of each school.
The shift in thinking continued with the National College for School Leadership
(NCSL) in the UK-funded project Success and Sustainability: Developing the
Strategically Focused School (2005) co-ordinated by B. Davies, B.J. Davies and Ellison.
Through this project and related publications (Davies, 2003, 2004a, b, 2006; Davies and
Davies, 2004, 2006), they developed a comprehensive framework for strategy in schools
comprising strategic processes, approaches and leadership. It produced a series of
behavioural characteristics that effective strategic leaders display. Central to these
ﬁndings was the idea that strategic leadership is not a new theory, but an element of all
educational leadership and management theories (Davies and Davies, 2006). Strategy
as a concept was a dimension of all theoretical positions.
In contrast to this emerging school of thought on strategy in education, developed
through educational research, is a re-emergence of models developed in the corporate
In search of unity
sector. Numerous articles (Bell, 2003; Bishop and Limerick, 2006; Davies and Coates,
2005; Kettunen, 2005) have explored the application of concepts and analytical tools
from the corporate sector, such as the Balanced Scorecard or Triple Bottom Line. In
this aspect, strategy in education is in a “pre-paradigmatic state” (Kuhn, 1970, p. 10)
where rival schools of thought, methodology, and solutions are offered to researchers
and practitioners (Franklin, 1998).
By placing the body of knowledge in an historical context, a number of useful
conclusions can be drawn (Mercer, 2001; Milliken, 2001). One of the main factors to
emerge is a better understanding of why speciﬁc research methods have been used to
understand a problem. A central mindset in the ﬁeld of educational administration has
been the quest for the essence of leadership, a distinctive set of characteristics
possessed by effective leaders (Evers and Lakomski, 1996, 2000) and this has shaped
our understanding of strategy in education. People and social phenomena are more
complicated than our simple models or theories allow (Waite, 2002) and the know-how
of leadership shaped by practical situations (Evers and Lakomski, 2001) has placed the
specialisation of strategy in education in a state of intellectual turmoil.
The need for strategy
Grifﬁths (1985) has raised concerns regarding the unquestioned adoption of terms from
the corporate world into educational administration. Thomas (2006) also warns of the
seduction of jargon from elsewhere in the ﬁeld of educational leadership. Kelly (2005) is
critical of the role of strategy within education and Bell (1998, 2002) strongly opposes
the current strategic planning processes in education. Others have challenged the
ability of strategy to meet the needs of educational organisations (Bell and Chan, 2005;
Mulford, 1994; Rice and Schneider, 1994), while Forde et al. (2000) consider it to be an
overrated feature of good leadership. Common to these criticisms of strategy, strategic
management and strategic leadership is the central argument that schools are about
learning and teaching not corporate management and that corporate models remove
the leaders attention away from instructional leadership. This core assumption is
Schools are traditionally viewed as under-led and under-managed organisations
characterised by their core business of teaching and learning (Bain, 2000, Dimmock,
2000; Dimmock and Walker, 2004; Weick, 1976). While instructional leadership and/or
pedagogic leadership (MacNeill and Cavangh, 2006) remain the core business of school
leaders, strategy is the mechanism for aligning all aspects of the school’s operations in
the pursuit of a common goal. Therefore, the two roles are interdependent.
The traditional view of organisations and strategy is to see the organisation as the
machine that turns resources into products, and strategy as the instrument for
positioning the focal organisation in the industry and marketplace (Løwendahl and
Revang, 1998). Unfortunately the self-taught educational leader or even the teaching of
strategy within the academy and through consultants is generally from a mechanistic
perspective or what Levac
´and Glover (1997, 1998) term “technicist-rational”
approach. This approach presents strategy to school leaders as a mechanistic pursuit
towards the production of a plan. The underlying assumption of strategy and the
strategic leader of schools are viewed as “strategic rationality” (Finkelstein and
Hambrick, 1996, p. 337). The rationality paradigm is the basis of theories in planning,
public policy making, microeconomics, organisational learning and even contingency
theory (Scheerens, 1997). From this perspective, the leader’s task is to identify
techno-economic opportunities and problems, systematically search for alternatives
and make choices that maximise the performance of the organisation. This perspective
forms the basis of the criteria from which school development plans in the UK are
assessed during inspection (Broadhead et al., 1996; Cuckle et al., 1998a, b; Cuckle and
This view of strategy is extremely narrow and conceptually ﬂawed. In most
organisations, much of the manager’s time and attention is given to efforts designed to
make the day-to-day operations as efﬁcient as possible. The primary reason given for
this is that inefﬁciencies in daily operations negatively impact on the performance of
the organisation. However, organisations depend much more for their long-term
success and survival on improvements in their effectiveness (that is, on how well they
relate to their environments) than on improvements in their efﬁciency (Hofer and
Schendel, 1978). Drucker (1954) stated that it is more important to do the right things
(improve effectiveness) than to do things right (improve efﬁciency). This suggests that
an organisation doing the right things wrong (that is, is effective but not efﬁcient), can
outperform the organisation doing the wrong things right (that is, are efﬁcient but not
effective). This serves as the over-riding need for strategy within an educational
Strategy is the key to aligning all school management processes (Fidler, 1989).
Through effective strategy, the educational leader can deliberately and purposefully
align the organisational structure with the work of the people within the organisation
in consideration of organisational performance. It focuses on the creation of meaning
and purpose for the organisation (House and Aditya, 1997) and provides an analytic
framework to guide managerial practice (El-Hout, 1994). Strategy is the avenue to
escape the ad hoc, fragmented, piecemeal approach to institutional management
adopted by less effective leaders.
Rumelt (1979) contended that the kind of situations that call for strategic thinking and
analysis are those that are ill structured and therefore difﬁcult and ambiguous. Weick
(1989) argued that it is impossible to construct a theory that is both accurate and
simple. As previously discussed, strategy is multidisciplinary, and despite being
present in educational settings since the mid 1970s (El-Hout, 1994) and the literature for
over 25 years, it still remains strongly associated with rational approaches to corporate
management. This has signiﬁcantly impeded the evolution of strategy as an
educational administration construct.
Much of the literature on strategic management and leadership takes a “best
practice” approach, identifying the conditions for the successful implementation of
strategic management programs (Brown, 2004). Arguably, this is the result of
conceptualising “strategy” as a tool for leading and managing an organisation. The
original emergence of strategy in educational administration literature was under the
title “school business administration” (Jordan and Webb, 1986). It was seen as an
analytical framework taken from business and applied within education. In many
ways, little has changed. While researchers are beginning to explore more holistic
views of strategy (Davies, 2006; Dimmock and Walker, 2004; Eacott, in press; National
College for School Leadership, 2005), attempts are still being made to adapt corporate
In search of unity
developed models into educational settings (Bell, 2003; Bishop and Limerick, 2006;
Davies and Coates, 2005; Kettunen, 2005). Until the focus of research is removed from
the development and implementation of strategic management processes, there will be
little construction of a meaningful deﬁnition of strategy in education for scholar and
The proposed conceptual framework for strategy in education which forms the
basis of this paper’s proposed path forward has been developed from research and
writing in a wide range of contexts, some of which have been indicated. It draws on:
.Research on strategic leadership, change and planning in educational settings by
Crandall et al. (1986), Fidler and Bowles (1989), Glover (1990), Davies and Ellison
(1992, 1997), Pashiardis (1993), Goldring and Pasternack (1994), Fidler (1996,
2002), Middlewood (1998), Cuckle et al. (1998a, b), Bush and Coleman (2000), and
more recently by Davies and Davies (2006).
.Research undertaken on strategy in the corporate sector by Rumelt (1979),
Schendel (1994), Finkelstein and Hambrick (1996), Løwendahl and Revang
(1998), Papadakis et al. (1998), Lengnick-Hall and Wolff (1999), Westphal and
Fredrickson (2001), and Boyd et al. (2005).
.Work on strategic thinking and actions by Mintzberg (2003), Boisot (2003),
Caldwell (2004, 2006), and Fullan (1993).
.Criticism of the application of strategy in education by Mulford (1994), Rice and
Schneider (1994), Bell (1998, 2002), and Bell and Chan (2005).
.Previous work in the current research program by the Eacott (2004, 2006a, b,
2007, in press, forthcoming)
.Analysis of work-based practice by the author while working as a school
executive in a number of schools over the past decade.
.The outcomes of a series of workshops with over 300 principals, members of
school executive, experienced teachers and graduate students on “the strategic
role of educational leaders” in which the proposed framework has been explored
Consistent features to emerge from this extensive body of work are that the strategic
role of the educational leader comprises of ﬁve inter-related dimensions represented in
Figure 1. This ﬁgure emphasises that the strategic role of the educational leader is not
linear, but a dynamic and iterative process. However, it cannot be stressed enough that
the process of strategic leadership is iterative and movement can occur within any
feature of the process at any time.
Envisioning requires the principal and school community to think about the future
of the school. When an enrolling parent walks into the school, the staff and other key
ﬁgures within the school should be able to articulate what the school is striving for and
what parents can expect throughout their child’s time at the school (Eacott, 2006b).
To undertake the process of envisioning requires critical reﬂection and reﬂective
dialogue. This reﬂection needs to form the foundations of strategic thinking, moving
the debates from the day-to-day to the future of the school and building in time to
discuss and debate where the school is heading. Essential to this process is building
metaphors or images of the desired future and ensuring that there is a shared
conceptual or mental map of how to get there. There are many different versions of
how a school can establish a strategic direction/vision (see Eacott, 2006a), however
what is important, is the meaningful involvement of key stakeholders.
This leads into the feature of engaging. Research on effective schools has shown
that parental involvement in decision making and activities positively correlates with
increased satisfaction and support for the school (Gamage, 1998). Similarly, staff
participation is linked to job satisfaction, morale and building trust and conﬁdence in
leadership (Timperley and Robinson, 2000).
Engaging requires the school community to have strategic conversations, while
often led by the principal, this does not have to be the case. These conversations build
on critical reﬂection, establish purpose for actions and encourage a culture of reﬂection
and dialogue on strategic matters and the future direction of the school. Involving as
wide as group as possible provides richer source of data on the school to inform
discussion and debates and if done well, gives others the feeling that their contribution
is important, recognised and can make a difference. Effective engagement of others
allows for the support, development and/or mentoring of other strategic leaders within
In search of unity
Once the school has a strategy, it becomes the guiding framework for all decisions
within the organisation (Eacott, 2004). Decisions made at the organisational, staff,
student and community levels need to align with the overarching strategy of the
institution (Eacott, 2006b). The systems and structures designed at the organisational
level, for example meeting structures; communication systems; and decision-making
models, need to reﬂect the institutions strategy. The professional learning
opportunities that are offered to staff, pedagogical practices and annual reviews
need to meaningfully reﬂect the overarching strategy. The expectation of students and
their role within the organisation needs to reﬂect the basic premises of the strategy. In
essence, the school’s strategy becomes the blueprint for action (Fidler, 1989) or the
touchstone to keep the school focussed.
There are three inter-related levels within the articulating dimension: oral, written
and structural. Oral articulation involves not only articulating the institutional
vision/direction, but also bringing it to life through conversations and dialogue (Davies
and Davies, 2006). Written articulation involves distinguishing between daily
operations and strategic operations and articulating in writing, a small set of
deliverable objectives that the institution can achieve and focus efforts. Structural
articulation requires the school to be aligned (e.g. curriculum teams or strategic priority
teams) in a manner that is consistent with the strategic direction and integrated into all
aspects of organisational life. Dimmock and Walker (2004) discuss this concept from
the perspective of the learning centred organisation. An alternate lens for this is
Implementation is primarily concerned with how the school’s strategy can be
witnessed. Its central aspect is translating strategy into action, establishing
frameworks and ensuring that they become actions. Building on from other features
implementation requires that staff understand the school’s strategy and maintain a
commitment to enacting that strategy. However as with the debate in change
management over change versus quality improvement, it is imperative that strategic
actions aim to signiﬁcantly improve current operations by developing the capabilities
of others. The timing of implementation is also important. Actions may be sequential
or parallel, but desirably, the principal will initiate changes when the school needs
them and before external constraints or conditions dictate them.
Because of the iterative nature of strategy as a process, monitoring and evaluation
are two crucial elements to effective implementation. The educational leader needs to
be constantly asking themselves and others, Where are we now? Where to next? How
will we get there? How will we know when we get there? (Eacott, 2006a). There is a
need for a transparent system of data collection to enable effective monitoring and
predetermined points of evaluation. Pivotal to the success of this dimension of strategy
is developing the analytical skills of others to ensure thorough evaluation. Essential
elements of this dimension include: systematic monitoring procedures; continuous
monitoring; evaluative judgments; and evaluation of the effectiveness of the strategy.
A key feature of the proposed framework for strategy in education is that it is not
about strategic leadership or strategic management. Rather than becoming involved in
a debate over leadership and management, this framework suggests that the strategic
role of the principal is just that, a strategic role. An examination of popular leadership
theories leads to an array of strategic actions. Further to this argument is the notion of
the “educational strategist”. Having moved beyond the strategic leader or strategic
manager construct, why not see the role of the school principal as one of educational
strategist, where leadership behaviours and management processes are targeted
towards the enhancements of the school’s educational programs and most importantly
student development. This suggests that the principal can draw on knowledge,
understandings and skills from anywhere (including the corporate sector) so long as
they are implemented in a manner that is consistent with the purpose and core values
of the school. It is here where the principal can have the most signiﬁcant inﬂuence on
the development of students.
The advancement of any scientiﬁc ﬁeld of inquiry depends on the soundness of the
research methodologies employed by its members (Ketchen and Bergh, 2004).
Reﬂecting on papers presented at the 2005 Australian Council for Educational
Leadership Conference and his role as Editor of the Journal of Educational
Administration, Thomas (2006, p. 11) states:
The phenomenon of leadership is, once again undergoing one of its periodic, sustained
examinations: deﬁnitions of leadership, components of leadership, correlates of leadership,
and so on, are occupying more and more journal space and more and more conference time.
Yet, therein, lies an emerging danger. Just as the trait approach to leadership in decades past
succeeded in identifying a plethora of individual attributes or characteristics fundamental to
successful leadership contemporary studies threaten to engulf us with their own tidal wave of
Strategic leadership is no exception. Eacott (in press) provides a comprehensive
overview of methodological issues in the strategy in education literature between 1980
and 2005. He identiﬁed a wide range of methodologies used but stressed that most were
retrospective (Elliot, 1999), conducted after the outcomes were known. Van de Ven
(1992) pointed out, it is widely recognised that prior knowledge of the success or failure
of a strategic change effort invariably biases a study’s ﬁndings.
Researchers carefully design their studies to observe strategy/strategic leadership
in such a way that is “consistent with their deﬁnition and theory” (Van de Ven, 1992,
p. 181) of strategy/strategic leadership. Therefore while criticism remains that strategic
leadership research relies on sterile archive and survey data (Finkelstein and
Hambrick, 1996) if investigators’ concept of strategy is limited to the mechanistic
pursuit of a plan, then document analysis of the plan and survey of the planning
process is most appropriate.
Research is inextricably linked with theory; therefore, the misconceptions and
ambiguities surrounding theory are reﬂected in the “interpretation of the meaning and
purpose of research” (Hoy and Miskel, 2001, p. 6). Considering that research has tended
to follow practitioner trends (e.g. the spike in research following the Education Reform
Act, 1988 in the UK), strategic leadership research has been limited in its selection of
unit of analysis to that of a plan or a planning process. Recent trends seem to suggest a
move towards an integrative perspective of strategic leadership in education, yet there
still remains a requirement for a number of content and methodological reﬁnements
(e.g. a move away from small-scale case studies; the analysis of strategic leadership
behaviours and practitioner perspectives) to further inform the debate.
As research has focused on a plan or the planning process, the unit of analysis for a
large number of studies has been the plan or the planning process to the exclusion of
In search of unity
other strategic activities. Some have attempted to study the process from a teacher
perspective (e.g. O’Donoghue and Dimmock, 1996), middle managers perspective
(Leader, 2004), or that of the school community (Jones, 1991). There have been attempts
to identify aspects of strategic leadership or planning that are effective (Crandall et al.,
1986, Glover and Levacic, 1996a, b) or even prescribe strategic actions with a positive
affect on school performance (Caldwell, 1992, 1998; Giles, 1998; Pashiardis, 1993;
Warnet, 1994). However, the impact of these works has been constrained by the narrow
focus of their unit of analysis.
The rich diversity of methodologies present provides a useful guide for designing
future studies on strategic leadership in schools. However, a research design cannot be
undertaken without a clear conception of what strategic leadership in schools means to
the researcher and what theory or theories of strategic leadership are expected to guide
the study (Chakravarthy and Doz, 1992). The methods of inquiry applied by
researchers shapes the range of results and theories that are likely to emerge (Harris
and Beatty, 2004). Small-scale case studies (e.g. Brown, 2004; Forshaw, 1998; Glover,
1990, Hatton, 2001; Hutchinson, 1993; Jones, 1996; Mather, 1998; Saker and Speed, 1996;
Thody, 1991; Wallace, 1991; Watson and Crossley, 2001; Wong, 2005) offer valuable
insights and illuminate ways of working, but cannot probe or address certain critical
It is evident that scholars studying strategy in educational institutions employ a
variety of different theoretical perspectives. This is not surprising, given that there is
limited empirical work on strategic leadership and additional concerns relating to the
conceptual deﬁnition of strategic leadership in the literature. Harris and Beatty (2004)
draw attention to the considerable conceptual overlap amongst theoretical positions or
models of leadership present in contemporary works. Strategic leadership is present in
all theoretical perspectives (Davies and Davies, 2006; Eacott, 2006a) and we are a long
way from developing any paradigmatic focus in this sub-ﬁeld (assuming the ﬁeld is
A path forward
A core assumption in this discussion is that the terms “strategy” and “strategic” are
used by scholars as proxies representing different meanings, concepts, or dimensions
of the leadership and management of educational institutions. Such meanings have
included holistic perspectives, types of systems and structures, types of
decision-making styles and timeframes of actions. In response to these varied
meanings, this paper proposes the need to conceptualise key features of the strategy
The raison d’e
ˆtre of strategic leadership and management is to increase our
understanding about the determinants of organisational performance and explain how
leaders and managers can create superior performance (Meyer, 1991). To achieve this,
we need to establish a theoretical base for scholars. However, establishing a theoretical
base from which strategy in education researchers can draw to specify testable
relationships remains a critical task. Yet, developing a solid theory base would
facilitate scholars’ efforts to form signiﬁcant streams of research as part of the
pathways to additional legitimacy for strategy in education research and the
development of a widely recognised paradigm.
Ireland et al. (2005) offer a framework for establishing theory building in strategy.
Table I provides an adapted version for theory recommendations for strategy in
The challenge is to address important research questions that capture the attention
and motivation of “scholars and practitioners alike in the merits of studying them”
(Van de Ven, 1992, p. 181). Currently our knowledge of strategic leadership is limited
and is mostly based on normative or descriptive studies and on assumptions most of
which remain untested (Papadakis et al., 1998).
Several prominent contributors to the ﬁeld of school effectiveness research have
recently made a plea for “more theory” (Mortimore, 1992; Slater and Teddlie, 1991;
Stringﬁeld, 1995). Theorists have the largest impact with “simple, powerful, plausible
explanations that seem to basically underlie phenomena” (Krathwohl, 1993, p. 649).
Scheerens (1997, p. 287) adds that theorising means “going beyond the statement of
factors that work and also beyond the modelling of relationships between factors in
order to lay bare underlying explanatory principles”. Developing that theory however
requires working back and forth between abstractions and a phenomenon (Krathwohl,
To achieve this requires the undertaking of multiple frames of reference (Van de
Ven and Johnson, 2006). Undertaking multiple independent thought trials facilitates
good theory building (Weick, 1989). Mixed methods studies offer the potential to build
substantial theoretical understanding within the specialisation of strategy in
education. By this we mean not merely the use of one method to follow up on data
from another method, but a truly integrative investigation of a phenomenon drawing
on multiple methods. Tashakkori and Creswell (2007a, p. 4) deﬁne mixed methods
research as “research in which the investigator collects and analyses data, integrates
the ﬁndings, and draws inferences using both qualitative and quantitative approaches
General theory development Explicate the how, why, and when of relationships
among a set of variables
Specify necessary assumptions for testable
Deﬁnitional issues Deﬁne strategy in the way it is being used in schools
Specify the boundaries of the chosen deﬁnition of
strategy in schools
Applying theories from other disciplines Articulate main assertions and assumptions of the
Discuss applicability to strategy in schools
Discuss how the assertions/assumptions remain the
same or change when used to form theory-driven
testable relationships dealing with strategy in
Strategy-speciﬁc theories Expand on theories of the strategic school leader and
of strategic opportunity
Continue to focus on ways to appropriately develop
speciﬁc theories about strategy in schools
Source: Adapted from Ireland et al. (2005)
for strategy in education
In search of unity
or methods in a single study or a program of inquiry”. However, the fundamental issue
of the degree to which researchers genuinely integrate their ﬁndings has not been
addressed to a signiﬁcant extent (Bryman, 2007). To better address this issue, it is
suggested that researcher use a mixed methods question (Tashakkori and Creswell,
2007b) that forces the two sets of ﬁndings together. They describe three means of
(1) write speciﬁc quantitative and qualitative questions followed by an explicit
mixed methods question;
(2) write an overarching mixed methods question that is then broken down into
separate qualitative and quantitative sub-questions; and
(3) write questions for each phase of the study as it evolves.
The major beneﬁt of mixed methods designs is that they allow for research to develop
comprehensively and as completely as possible (Morse, 2004). They provide better
(stronger) inferences, with the opportunity for presenting a greater diversity of views,
as it is possible to answer conﬁrmatory and exploratory questions simultaneously
(Tashakkori and Teddlie, 2003). It is advantageous to a researcher to combine methods
to better understand a concept being tested or explored (Creswell, 1994). In addition,
through the co-ordination of multiple perspectives, the robust features of reality can be
distinguished from those features that are merely a function of the theoretical
framework used (Azevedo, 1997). Foskett et al. (2005) call for more mixed methods
studies in educational leadership. Interestingly, Gorard’s (2005) meta-analysis of
educational leadership and management journals in the UK found no reports of mixed
Drawing on the current body of literature it is possible to ﬁnd numerous deﬁnitions
for strategy and strategic in the ﬁeld. Yet a fundamental question that remains to be
investigated is the deﬁnition or perception of practitioners. In doctoral work being
conducted at the University of Newcastle, Australia, Eacott proposes two fundamental
questions: “How do practitioners deﬁne strategic leadership in educational settings?”
and “How do they enact their strategic role?”. Drawing loosely on the principles of
grounded theory (Strauss and Corbin, 1990) he proposes to develop a ground up theory
of strategic leadership in education that can then be compared with a literature
developed model (Figure 1).
There is a well-established school of thought arguing that there exists a
considerable gap between espoused theory and practice. Redeﬁning “strategy” and
“strategic” in the educational context at the key features level by drawing on scholarly
inquiry in the ﬁeld and practitioner perspectives provides the opportunity to establish
the construct within the ﬁeld and set the parameters of inquiry.
To advance, the specialisation of strategy in education must cumulate knowledge
regarding theories that help explain organisational performance and prescribe ways
that managers can adjust strategies to improve organisational performance (Carlson
and Hatﬁeld, 2004; Rumelt et al., 1994). Contemporary researchers in educational
strategy do not start with “clean theories, they have amalgams of assumptions,
concepts, ideas and like” (Grifﬁths, 1998, p. 36). Consequently a wide set of theoretical
perspectives are present in the literature (Eacott, in press). Lengnick-Hall and Wolff
(1999) highlight that deciding what theoretical perspective to describe or predict
strategic circumstances, actions and consequences is a persistent challenge in the ﬁeld
of strategy research. Elenkov et al. (2005) describe three main theoretical perspectives
used in the study of strategy: upper echelon theory, full range of leadership
(transformational, transactional and laissez faire) and visionary leadership.
With the large number of retirements expected among the current stock of
educational leaders in the next decade, upper echelon theory (Hambrick and Mason,
1984) is of particular interest. The central logic of Hambrick and Mason’s (1984, p. 193)
argument is that organisational outcomes need to be viewed as “reﬂections of the
values and cognitive bases of powerful actors in the organization”. The basic premise
of strategy research has been that senior executives play a dominant role in strategy
formulation. The personal background and prior experience (e.g. gender, age, tenure,
functional track, formal education) of executives is increasingly recognised as affecting
strategy (Westphal and Fredrickson, 2001). Neumann and Finlay-Neumann (1994) add
that the leader’s personality is likely to have an important impact on both
organisational success and growth.
Upper echelon theory has been criticised for linking demographic variables with
organisational performance as it creates a “causal gap” (Priem et al., 1999) or an
“organizational black box” (Lawrence, 1997). What is suggested here is that rather than
linking organisational outcomes with demographic variables, we link the demographic
variables to leadership actions (Eacott, 2007). Inquiry into the demographics of
educational leaders provides two signiﬁcant inter-related beneﬁts. For the scholar, it
may offer increased power to predict an organisation’s outcomes (behaviours, structure
and performance). Second, for those who are responsible for the selection and
development of educational leaders there may be greater insights into why different
leaders enact their strategic roles differently.
Through the re-deﬁnition, or establishment of a widely accepted deﬁnition of
strategy combined with appropriate research designs (balancing the deductive nature
of quantitative methods with the inductive nature of qualitative) drawing on
theoretical perspectives from both within and outside educational leadership is an
essential precursor for developing a strategic educational leadership theoretical
perspective and bringing unity to the construct.
The substantial argument of this paper is that our knowledge of strategy in education
is incomplete and muddled because research and writing in the ﬁeld have approached
strategy from a narrow and conceptual ﬂawed position. Educational leadership as a
ﬁeld is removed from “normal science” characterised by organised forums and
scientiﬁc journals facilitating communication between researchers. It is a ﬁeld of
inquiry dominated by a pragmatic, empirical approach (Scheerens, 1997). The
cognitive development of the ﬁeld remains at the discovery-orientation rather than
empirically-oriented studies. There remains a major struggle in the relationship
between disciplinary research (educational leadership) and the separate domains of
strategy research, the view of strategy as a construct and the balance between criticism
and exploration of strategy.
Rumelt et al. (1994, p. 1), suggest that “at any time a ﬁeld of inquiry’s frontier was
deﬁned by a set of fundamental issues or questions facing it”. This paper is intended to
be a foundation for future empirical research and inquiry into strategy in education by
suggesting alternate ways of deﬁning and researching strategy. The overarching goal
In search of unity
in redeﬁning strategy has been to propose key features not words and actions. The
hope is that fellow scholars and practitioners will continue to question and focus on the
key features of strategy and the issues that confront them.
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In search of unity
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