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Chaim Y. Botwinick

Strategic vs Tactical Leadership in our Jewish Day Schools and Yeshivot

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One of the most fascinating topics relating to the subject of leadership and corresponding leadership challenges, roles and responsibilities relates to leadership styles as well as actual leadership functionality.

The role and function of our Jewish day school/yeshiva heads of school and principals, not unlike other c-suite leaders, can be divided into three discrete and at times overlapping leadership functional styles and approaches. They include strategic leadership, tactical leadership and crisis leadership.

For the purposes of this blog, I will focus only upon strategic and tactical leadership; the topic of  crisis leadership will be addressed in a more detailed separate conversation.

Strategic Leadership vs Tactical Leadership:

Strategic leadership is about creating, identifying and allocating human and financial resources ahead, or in advance of an action. Tactical leadership on the other hand,  is about managing these resources during the action. The two defining words that differentiate these two leadership styles are “in advance and during”.

To use a sports metaphor, an effective  strategic leader is concerned about positioning others on the team in order “win the game” or to accomplish an important goal. They think through very carefully where to play the game, ensuring the right conditions for the game and how to win the game. They are equipped and even preoccupied with identifying where to play the game, and, only then do they build the team, and identify materials and tools that are required for the game.

This metaphor does not assume or imply that schooling or leading schools is analogous to playing a game. But it is illustrious of the challenge at hand.

Another example  can be seen through explorers who are planning or who are  attempting to scale a mountain. There is the strategic leader who plans the journey and route and than there is the  tactical leader  who ensures that the tools are in place for successful and effective scaling .

On the one hand, one can posit that both functions are essential and that one person can be positioned to provide both strategic and tactical leadership. The challenge however from a day school/yeshiva perspective is how do these two leadership styles manifest themselves in the day-to-day effective operation of a school.

Tactical leaders are preoccupied with the challenge of actually making strategy happen. They are in direct contact with their teachers and staff and ensure that the team is knowledgeable, skilled and posses the material, resources and tools in order to ensure a positive desired outcome.

Strategic leaders make their contributions before; and, tactical leaders make their contributions during or as the program, project or initiative is being implemented. For the tactical school leader, its all about implementation.

As we know, both  functions are essential in order to effectively lead a day school or yeshiva. In the ideal world, heads of school and principals must be both strategic and tactical in their positions. On the other hand, not all leaders are strategic and tactical at the same time. To be sure, each of us (self included), excel in one area to a greater degree than another. Moreover, these two styles of leadership motivate and inspire staff differently. Some of us are strategic thinkers and doers, others are more tactical and focus upon the specific requirements and demands for implementation. They are both essential, and at times equally as important; and are essential in order to move our schools forward.

Another example can be illustrated  by borrowing a page from traditional Strategic Planning.

A Strategic Plan is only as effective and impactful as its implementation. It is therefore imperative that a Strategic Plan possess an “implementation or  action plan”. Otherwise, the strategy sits on the shelf with no purpose, follow-through or sense of direction . To be sure, it been reported that sixty to ninety percent of Strategic Plans  never launch due to the inability of the company to implement effectively. The implications of this reality are obvious..

The Strategic Head of School/Principal:

Heads of school and principals who are strategic leaders and  thinkers, typically look at the school through big picture lenses, and make decisions that will impact the long-term success of their institutions.  They are concerned, preoccupied and fixated on  the school’s direction, where its heading as well as its vision, mission, and value proposition.

All heads of school and principals need to be proactive in their strategic decision-making process. This means never being complacent, apathetic, liaise fare. They must contentiously be thinking about the future of the school, its faculty and students in addition to the here and now. They must always be preoccupied with the vision of their schools and need to continuously help their teachers and staff buy into the vision, and stay focused on achieving goals.

If the day school or yeshiva  head of school views middot tovot,  Jewish values and textual literacy as a fundamental foundation of the school’s current and future vision and mission, then they (as strategic leaders) must continuously inspire, motivate and galvanize  faculty to support this culture. This holds true for all Judaic as well as general studies core competencies, curricular expectations and skills development. The leader must create a school culture that is continuously reminding the administration, faculty and parent body about the direction of the school, its hashkafa and culture.

This takes place by:

  • reviewing the school’s mission and vision statements at every faculty meeting;
  • ensuring that the school administration and all faculty are aware and support the mission, vision and culture of the school;
  • ensuring that parents, faculty, students  and board members are always reminded and informed regard the school’s mission, vision, direction and culture;
  • engaging the administration, faculty and board in conversations regarding strategic alignment – namely, is the school on the right track? And, if its not what is the strategy necessary to right-size the school and  to get it back on track?

The Strategic head of school or principal  must always be more proactive and active in their approach to  problem-solving and decision-making. They must continuously think about long term implications of their decision-making process and must always be able and ready to make mid-course corrections if and when needed.

One of the greatest challenges facing strategic leaders is there inability to change or mid-course correct  the mission, vision and direction of the school. They get stuck on the what with little regard  or ability to address the why and/or how.….even when the current strategy or direction is not necessarily working effectively.

This is where strategic leaders get themselves in trouble and more often than not may eventually lead to “executive jeopardy”,  institutional disconnect, mission creep and organizational  disfunctionality.

As we know, there will always be times when strategy must change, given new and emerging realities such as student demographics, financial stability, board and parental  expectation, to name a few. This is where the strategic leader must be resilient, nimble, flexible and open to change, if warranted.

The Tactical Head of School/Principal:

As in many organization, there are folks who are preoccupied with strategy (because that is what they do well);  and then there are  folks who excel in the “how to” – namely tactics.

The Tactical leader is somewhat less concerned about focusing on strategy but rather on how to effectively implement strategy ……essentially, the nuts and bolts and the details of how the school moves from point A to point B.

As just indicated, strategy in the absence of tactics never works, It involves an interdependent  relationship; one needs  to be dependent upon the other.

Tactical heads of school and principals are constantly consumed and  thinking about the most effective ways to implement strategies.

Several examples may include:

  • ensuring that the appropriate  curriculum and lesson/unit plans are in place and that faculty (without exception) are aligned with the school’s curricular goals and objectives;
  • ensuring that the school’s physical plant and classrooms are conducive to effective teaching and learning;
  • ensuring that class/course schedules are clear, concise and well distributed;
  • creating a teaching performance matrix which ensures high levels of teaching effectiveness, impact and teacher accountability;
  • ensuring that parents are continuously informed and updated regarding schedules, school programs, student progress  and events;
  • provides faculty and administrative staff with professional development opportunities; and
  • ensures that all tactics are aligned with the strategic direction, mission and vision of the school,

At first blush, one can say that both  these leadership styles and requirements represent the fundamental or rudimentary roles and responsibilities of heads of school and principals, On the other hand, its important to note that just as strategy fails due to the inability to implement, the same holds true for implementation. To be sure, tactical implementation become meaningless or superfluous in the absences of strategies. It is therefore imperative that both leadership challenges and constructs compliment each other.

End Note:

To re-emphasize –  strategy and tactics are interrelated. This means that in order for strategy to me meaningful, you need strong well thought-out and developed tactics. And likewise, all tactics must be grounded or anchored in strategy .

So one may ask the logical question…how do you develop these two skill-sets in one head of school or principal?

The response, although somewhat subjective,  suggests that the head of school and principal should possess both styles and traits. But, “should” does not always mean “does”.

In my experience as head of school, principal, leadership coach and mentor, I have found that tactics are more easily learned with experience and modeling than than strategy. Although one can be trained or coached to think more strategically about a  school’s  mission, vision, direction and value propositions, one needs a specific head-space, personality or mind-set to be able to think more strategically. The lack of strategic thinking does not  necessarily suggest a leadership flaw, but rather a limitation which may or may not impact of the leader’s effectiveness. It is for this very reason that many head of school/principal search committees focus more intensively on a candidates strategic thinking or conceptualization than on tactics, which all leaders are expected to posses on some level, depending upon experience in the field.

Having said that, a disconnect may occur when the candidate is a conceptualizer and strategist or visionary, but has absolutely no to zero experience or ability to know how move the needle forward on the gauge. In this case, it is essential that the head of school/principal be provided with professional development tools and opportunities in order to compensate for this deficit.

Its important to keep in mind that leading a Jewish day school or yeshiva in 2023 is one of the most challenging, difficult and arduous vocations in the Jewish nonprofit world. It requires a combination of strategy, tactics, skill, experience, patience and above all the capacity and ability to learn leadership skills when necessary or required.

There will always be those school leaders who excel beautifully  at both.of these challenges. But, for those who do not, they must learn fast and surround themselves with a school management or  leadership team who are equipped to help the leader develop strategy and translate strategy into tactics. This is where ego needs to be  back-seated and curtailed. We would all like to do it all.  But in reality, its not always feasible, possible or realistic.

At the end of the day, very few leaders (as just indicated), can do it all. It requires a cohesive school management team with a shared vision; and a collective ability to work as an effective team of instructional leaders.

Together in partnership, this reality can be realized. It just requires trust, collaboration, team-building and  a true willingness to share leadership responsibilities

(My next blog post will focus on “crisis leadership” – a very complex, difficult and at times stressful leadership responsibility).

About the Author
Dr. Chaim Botwinick is a senior executive coach and an organizational consultant . He served as president and CEO of the central agency for Jewish education in Baltimore and in Miami; in addition to head of school and principal for several Jewish day schools and yeshivot. He has published and lectured extensively on topics relating to education, resource development, strategic planing and leadership development. Dr. Botwinick is Author of “Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness”, Brown Books, 2011
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