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  • Writer's pictureMatt Garris

Competing Visions of Strategic Leadership (Academic)

The following post is adapted from my personal academic coursework.

The term “strategic leadership” carries slightly different connotations across various fields, but many might agree that it refers to the art of establishing big-picture, long-range goals for an organization. Strategic leaders are often seen as the vision casters—those who gaze the farthest into the organization’s future and paint the picture of what that future can look like for those within the organization. While this understanding is not wrong, it is incomplete. Strategic leadership is more than merely communicating a vision or making long-term plans. The existing literature contains information on the definition, development, and efficacy of strategic leadership, and can lead one to better comprehend strategic leadership’s meaning and application in the real world.

When attempting to develop an understanding of any concept, it is helpful to be aware of one’s existing paradigm and preconceived ideas relating to it. In the case of defining “strategic leadership,” my experience comes primarily from seven years of enlisted service in the United States Marine Corps. The Marine Corps acknowledges a hierarchy of four interrelated levels of warfighting, the lowest three of which—tactical, operational, and strategic—exist within the Marine Corps.

Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1 describes the strategic level of warfighting in the following terms: “The highest level is the strategic level. Activities at the strategic level focus directly on policy objectives. Strategy applies to peace as well as war. We distinguish between national strategy, which coordinates and focuses all the elements of national power to attain the policy objectives, and military strategy, which is the application of military force to secure the policy objectives. Military strategy thus is subordinate to national strategy. Military strategy can be thought of as the art of winning wars and securing peace. Strategy involves establishing goals, assigning forces, providing assets, and imposing conditions on the use of force in theaters of war. Strategy derived from political and policy objectives must be clearly understood to be the sole authoritative basis for all operations.”

Stated in noncombatant language, the Marine Corps defines strategic leadership as the art of establishing strategic goals within the scope of political and policy objectives; acquiring, allocating, managing, and utilizing the resources necessary to support these goals; and leading a team to achieve these goals. Put even more simply, strategic leadership means identifying the best possible outcome, finding or creating a path that leads to this outcome, and leading the organization to realize this outcome.

Ruffner argues for a shift away from defining leadership as a personal characteristic which is limited to an individual or small group of leaders within an organization. He believes that “developing leadership capability and capacity demands much more than the historically myopic view centered on only a chosen few.” Instead, Ruffner advocates for developing leadership behaviors across the entirety of the organization. He believes that doing so allows an organization full of leaders “to remain supple in the face of often conflicting demands.” While Ruffner never specifically defines strategic leadership, one can ascertain from his article that he supports a team-based approach to setting and implementing strategic goals.

Singphen et al. define strategic leadership as “a theory that describes processes of the organization’s direction setting, creating and implementing strategies into practice to achieve the objectives of the organization,” This is an interesting definition because it refers to strategic leadership not as an art, behavior, or position, but as a theory. Unfortunately, the authors do not state the theory or offer a clearer definition of strategic leadership.

Coetzer et al. discuss strategic leadership in terms of the functions of the strategic leader. They state that “Strategic servant leadership is divided into two main functions, namely (1) to set, translate and execute a higher purpose vision and (2) to become a role model and ambassador.” The authors explore this definition in greater detail as it pertains to the methodology of their research.

The definitions from each of these sources are similar to one another in their focus on long-term outcomes and big-picture vision. They all reference certain activities or functions associated with strategic leadership and all of them acknowledge in some way the importance of being able to translate and execute established goals. Where these definitions diverge from one another is in their approach to defining strategic leadership. Ruffner sees strategic leadership as a pattern of behaviors, Singphen et al. view strategic leadership as a theory describing organizational processes, and Coetzer et al. identify it as a set of functions performed by an individual or team. These definitions vary in substance (behaviors, theory, or functions) and subject (members of an organization, the organization itself, or leaders of an organization). However, it is of note that these differences are not impossible to reconcile. In fact, one may argue that these differences only serve to enrich and strengthen the shared understanding of strategic leadership.

Based on the reviewed data, the definition espoused by Coetzer et al. fits best into my existing viewpoint. My personal definition would be as follows: Strategic leadership is the art of establishing, translating, and executing long-term goals within the scope of the organization’s stated aims. Within a work setting, strategic leadership requires the leader to be well-informed about the organization’s current state, how it arrived there, where its momentum is taking it, and how to steer and drive it toward the best possible outcome. The strategic leader must identify this best outcome, find the best path to reach it, and then inspire the rest of the team to move together along this path toward this outcome.


Coetzer, M. F., Bussin, M., and Geldenhuys, M. (February 24, 2017). The functions of a servant leader. Administrative Sciences 7(5), 1-32.

Ruffner, Brian (October 1, 2016). Transcendent leadership development. Leadership Excellence, 10-12.

Singphen, T., Poopayang, P., Siphai, S., and Charoensuk, P. (March 28, 2019). Strategic leadership factors of school administrators influencing the effectiveness of small-sized schools. International Journal of Educational Administration and Policy Studies, 11(3), 20-28.

United States Marine Corps (1997). Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1.


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