Strategic Thinking at the Top

Expertise in strategic thinking is not the product of innate ability and pure serendipity. It arises from specific experiences (personal, interpersonal, organizational and external) which occur over 10 or more years.

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Strategic thinking is generally considered important to a company’s performance.1 Indeed, some have advocated for companies to develop the strategic thinking of their executives as a core competency. But how exactly should organizations accomplish this? Past studies on the subject have been limited, typically focusing on singular teaching methods, experiences or planning processes.2 As such, the research has yielded little insight into the broader picture of how individuals tend to acquire expertise in strategic thinking. What types of work experiences, for example, are more important than others, and do they need to follow any specific chronology?

To answer these and other questions, I conducted a study that identified executives who were considered the top strategic thinkers in their industry.3 (See “About the Research.”) The study then investigated the totality of experiences (educational, job related or other) that contributed to the high ability of those individuals. In addition, the research investigated the different ways in which the executives acquired their expertise in strategic thinking — a process that typically took more than a decade.

About the Research »



1. J. Mason, “Developing Strategic Thinking,” Long Range Planning 19, no. 3 (June 1986): 72–80; N.B. Zabriskie and A.B. Huellmantel, “Developing Strategic Thinking in Senior Management,” Long Range Planning 24, no. 6 (December 1991): 25–32; I. Bonn, “Developing Strategic Thinking As a Core Competency,” Management Decision 39, no. 1 (2001): 63–71; and E. Essery, “Reflecting On Leadership,” Works Management 55, no. 7 (2002): 54–57.

2. M. Easterby-Smith and J. Davies, “Developing Strategic Thinking,” Long Range Planning 16, no. 4 (August 1983): 39–48; D.L. Bates and J.E. Dillard, “Generating Strategic Thinking Through Multi-Level Teams,” Long Range Planning 26, no. 5 (October 1993): 103–110; and P.M. Senge, “Mental Models,” Planning Review 20, no. 2 (March/April 1992): 4–10, 44.

3. E.F. Goldman, “Becoming an Expert Strategic Thinker: The Learning Journey of Healthcare CEOs” (Ph.D. diss., George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development, 2005), Dissertation Abstracts International UMI No. 3181551.

4. H. Mintzberg, “The Fall and Rise of Strategic Planning,” Harvard Business Review 72, no. 1 (January 1994): 107–114.

5. L. Heracleous, “Strategic Thinking or Strategic Planning?” Long Range Planning 31, no. 3 (June 1998): 481–486.

6. H. Mintzberg, “Patterns in Strategy Formation,” Management Science 24, no. 9 (May 1978): 934–948; P. Hanford, “Developing Director and Executive Competencies in Strategic Thinking,” in B. Garratt (ed.) “Developing Strategic Thought: Rediscovering the Art of Direction- Giving” (London: McGraw-Hill, 1995): 157–186; and J.M. Liedtka, “Strategic Thinking: Can It Be Taught?” Long Range Planning 31, no. 1 (February 1998): 120–129.

7. E. Jacques and S.D. Clement, “Executive Leadership: A Practical Guide to Managing Complexity” (Arlington, Virginia: Cason Hall & Co., 1991).

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