Driver A

Strategy As Learning

Structure daily operations as continuous learning

Learning leaders build systems where every strategy is treated as a hypothesis implemented and constantly tested to meet the individualized needs of every child, family, and community. When new or unexpected conditions, challenges, or ideas emerge, they are quickly flagged and addressed. The system’s structures are flexible enough to meet evolving needs; the culture communal enough to generate shared ownership of every system responsibility, failure, and success.

Rejecting the myth of the complete leader, leaders function as “learners in chief,” both by orchestrating learning across the system and by actively participating in it. 

Dig in below to learn more about Strategy as Learning, explore learning leadership in practice, and reflect and take action to improve your own work!

Leaders in successful organizations move away from static, hierarchical, and siloed organizational schemata and rewire their systems so they function as hives of continuous individual and collective improvement. Creating this system requires learning leaders who both facilitate and participate in learning, applying to their leadership strategy and system design the same scrutiny they apply to the activities of other stakeholders in their system.

To build this system and become this leader:

Learning leaders select, customize, and build capacity around a continuous improvement-based learning methodology (e.g., The Model for ImprovementResults Oriented Cycles of Inquiry, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s approach to improvement science, Kaizen, Six Sigma) that treats each strategy, large and small, as a hypothesis—from the organization’s strategic plan to an individual’s strategy for enacting their responsibilities.

Continuous improvement extends beyond the siloed problem-solving common in education, through which leaders apply improvement methodology to discrete problems of practice or short-term initiatives. Authentic learning leaders structure—and support all stakeholders in treating—their entire system, each of its components and strategies, and all forms of daily practice as experiments in how to accomplish the system’s goals and achieve equity. 

The improvement methodology becomes the means for drawing out the expertise of a broad cross-section of stakeholders, generating a common vision, creating a structure for embedded and sustained customization and improvement, and instilling a common language for collaborative learning. 

Armed with their learning methodology, learning leaders architect dynamic organizational structures that embed Strategy as Learning into the daily operation of the organization. Learning becomes a core function rather than an unwieldy add-on to other work—and when challenges emerge, leaders look first to flaws in system design, not to “bad” or “incompetent” system actors.

Learning leaders design and build systems that look and function like dynamic networks. They move away from static, hierarchical, and siloed organizational schemata toward flatter, more collaborative and dynamic designs that allow stakeholders to operate as a coordinated learning community, adapting quickly to challenges and changes in conditions, learning from one another’s successes and failures, and advancing toward shared goals more quickly.

In these dynamic, learning-oriented systems, the role of leadership changes. Leaders are no longer positioned as central experts, strategists, shot callers, and directors of learning, but instead as fully participatory and integrated “learners in chief.” Leadership teams become learning command centers or hubs, leveraging their central vantage point to facilitate improvement activity across the system.

Learning leaders foster a culture to match their improvement methodology and learning-driving structures. Transformative change requires that stakeholders across the system feel collective responsibility for progress toward the system’s shared vision—equity at scale. 

Fostering a learning culture starts with a radical redefinition of what it means to succeed. Rather than relying on traditional definitions (e.g., performance related to lagging outcomes, compliance with preset rules), learning leaders  measure success by a new metric: individual and collective progress toward goals. The system and individuals improve even when high standards are met. Highfliers and leaders become those who learn quickly, customize well, and support others in doing the same. 

Learning leaders demonstrate a fierce commitment to shared vision, values, and goals. They act as moral agents, challenging positional leaders, entrenched ways of working, and elements of strategy that are not serving the system’s most marginalized students and communities. 

In systems that treat strategy as learning, leaders set the conditions for all members of the organization to collaboratively seek answers to one question: “How can we do better today than we did yesterday?” Leaders at Partners in School Innovation and the High Tech High CARPE Improvement Network exemplify this style of leadership.

Learn more about their work in the case studies below!

Learning leaders commit to ongoing reflection and iteration on system design and leadership practice in order to support continuous system improvements in service of equity.

The following activities support consideration of and action to improve your own leadership practice related to Strategy as Learning.

This self-assessment outlines key indicators of learning leadership and aligned system design in teams, networks, and organizations. 

As a leader, complete the assessment in collaboration with members of your leadership team, reflecting on (1) the degree to which each mindset, behavior, or practice is present in your system and (2) how your leadership team has supported or inhibited uptake. Use your answers to identify areas of strength and growth and to measure improvement over time.

Download a PDF or an editable copy of the assessment.

As Isobel Stevenson recommends, boil down your learning methodology and process to its core components, keeping application of the learning process at scale as your North Star.


  • Is the methodology simple and user-friendly? Accessible to all users? Stripped of jargon? Designed and communicated as intuitive principles and processes, rather than rules? Aligned with other principles of liberatory design?

  • What core questions should users ask and answer during each step of the learning methodology? 

  • Which processes, templates, and routines are necessary? Which are optional but helpful? Which might you discard? 

Reference the High Tech High (HTH) improvement method diagram and Partners in School Innovation’s Results-Oriented Cycle of Inquiry (ROCI) one-pager as examples. 

Consider whether your system is designed to make learning and doing inseparable. 

  • In what ways, if any, do ground-level stakeholders engage in strategy development in your system?
    • What pipelines do you have in place to funnel ground-level insight from implementation into strategy? Are there any leaks in your pipes? How could you adjust the structure of your system to fix those leaks? 

  • Make a list of the formal and informal learning spaces in place in your system. How is the work in those spaces connected? What might you do as a leader to strengthen connections? 

“To belong is not just to be a citizen or member in the weakest sense, but to be able to participate in co-creating the thing you belong to.”

John A. Powell1powell, j. a. (2020). Bridging or breaking? The stories we tell will create the future we inhabit. Nonprofit Quarterly, 14.

Consider: How conducive is your system’s culture to ongoing learning in pursuit of ever better? 

  • Have you co-developed shared values with stakeholders? If not, get started. Don’t rely on your system or organization’s formal values (if you have them). You’re looking for the organic values that define your daily interactions, work, and culture. Identifying these norms should feel intuitive to community members. 

    • What makes your system, team, or organization unique? In communities with strong shared identity, you will often hear people say, “That’s such a [community name] thing.” What are those qualities and quirks in your system?

    • What qualities of your community have made or will make it possible for you to learn, grow, and improve together?

    • What norms, ideas, and feelings do you value and want to continually keep in mind? 

For a formal values articulation exercise, use Step 3.1 in the Workbook to collaboratively assess your own leadership practice and system design against the Leading Through Learning principles.

  • When and how have you been explicit about your own leadership practice, reflecting on how it contributes to system success and failure? 

  • Have you encouraged and supported stakeholders in recognizing their emotions and translating them into actionable knowledge? Have you modeled this approach in your own behavior?

What's next?

Driver B Foster democratic participation

Driver C Measure process and results to drive equity and improvement

Driver D Build a democratic knowledge management cycle

Companion GuideDevelop Your Theory of Leadership