Busting Cages, Not Heads, for Better School Leadership

By Amy Wickner — February 21, 2013 3 min read
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In Cage-Busting Leadership (Harvard Education Press, 2013), Rick Hess aims to rework the language of leadership and reframe thinking in the educational context. Hess, a popular opinion blogger on, has compiled observations and lessons from years of working with school and district leaders into this compendium of practical advice for educators. Hess’ term “cage-busting leadership,” in opposition to “cage-dwelling” passivity, describes the powerful leadership style he feels is underused but within reach. Drawing on diverse examples, he defines the concept not only by what is, but also by what it is not. He exhorts leaders to recognize that they “have far more freedom to transform, reimagine, and invigorate teaching, learning, and schooling than is widely believed.”

According to Hess, many of the difficulties educational leaders experience stem from their misuse of language. He argues that popular concepts in the field—terms like collaboration, consensus, capacity, coaching, and culture—are little understood. To effect change, he says, educators must exercise control over education leadership language in every context. Hess spends a chapter on the need for precise word choice and sentence structures for getting to the root of what’s going wrong and what could be better. The umbrella of “better language” covers everything from avoiding the word “can’t,” to asking the right questions, to reading research and contracts carefully and without over-simplification.

Hess runs into a bit of trouble juggling analogies to gambling, Zen Buddhism, barfights, and The Art of War. In fact, Cage-Busting Leadership frequently breaks its own rules about language clarity. Each chapter is so full of oblique examples that it can be easy to lose sight of the main thread. The stories can be stem-winding and repetitive or out of context and only loosely connected to the point at hand.

Hess emphasizes that educators should know the letter of the law (or collective-bargaining agreement), investigate the specifics of problems, and set concrete objectives. He also points out that opportunities abound for bending, breaking, skirting, or ignoring rules that don’t make sense. For example, he argues that federal regulations cause schools to maintain funding and staffing silos, and recommends creative ways to move employees and money around. Whether or not you agree that regulation is to blame, it’s possible to make the case—as Hess does not—that keeping departments siloed has a detrimental effect on school culture, professional learning communities, and all of those other leadership concepts that Hess finds squishy or overused. The more staff are grouped homogeneously, the fewer opportunities they have to learn from each other, develop horizontal loyalty, and build a host of similar connections and relationships that are commonly understood to be good for business and good for the workplace.

Hess returns repeatedly to his frustration with the widespread resistance among educators to closer involvement with the private sector. Interestingly, while he has previously advised entrepreneurs to treat education as an unusual field by marketing themselves as “thought leaders,” he spends large portions of Cage-Busting Leadership telling a presumed audience of educators that they are not exceptional. In fact, one of the main prongs of Hess’ argument is that conceiving of education as an “exceptional field” holds many back from fully capitalizing on opportunities and resources that could help them lead effectively.

Of course, this approach is not guaranteed to work—Hess makes it abundantly clear that he’s offering ideas and rules of thumb, not a blueprint for leadership success. Anyone sitting down to read Cage-Busting Leadership would do well to keep this in mind, and to think of the book as a snapshot of work in progress. This volume is intended not as a recipe for results, but as a conversation-starting handbook for figuring out what works.

Cage-Busting Leadership was released Feb. 12, and the American Enterprise Institute hosted a live-streamed launch event. Interested readers can preview the book and watch related video interviews at theAEI and Harvard Education Press websites. Hess will read from the book at SXSWedu in March. Additional previews of material covered in the book are available in an article penned for a recent AEI Outlook, recent blog posts on Rick Hess Straight Up, and in a forthcoming commentary in Education Next.

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.