This whitepaper was originally written by Founders Tom Gilmore and Larry Hirschhorn and then revised with Principal Barry Dornfeld. We describe some of the dynamics particular to leadership strategic planning in higher education. We emphasize the “loosely coupled” structure of a university, the autonomy of schools and departments in these organizations, their “church-state” cultures (faculty-administration), and the critical importance of engaging faculty and staff in these processes.

We reviewed some of the significant pressures that colleges and universities faced then, some of which they are facing now with new challenges as well, though the strategies and skills needed to lead considering these challenges endure include:

  1. Recognize that support (and thus authority) derives from sensitivity to the needs of the existing system.
  2. Create space to build leadership.
  3. Authorize leadership colleagues as surrogates.
  4. Never underestimate the organization’s resistance to change.
  5. Highlight strategic themes and reiterate them constantly as if they were a stump speech.
  6. Never underestimate the importance of designing the table and who is sitting around it.
  7. Put your money where your mouth is.

These strategies—helpfully fleshed out in the whitepaper—are ones that work best in the kind of complex, multi-stakeholder environment in which higher education operates.

We would be interested to learn about what strategies you have found successful, please share with us at If you found this helpful, please share your with your networks.