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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

John Henry Is Not a Role Model: Four Tips for Edu-Leaders

By Rick Hess — June 15, 2012 2 min read
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I’m getting close to finishing up my Cage-Busting Leadership book for Harvard Ed Press (it’ll be available this coming February). One point that comes up again and again as I work on the text and talk to school and system leaders is the degree to which we’ve encouraged a leadership culture where leaders have felt they demonstrate their mettle by the number of hours they work and the number of meetings they take. This comes, I’m convinced, at a big cost to their ability to think, reflect, and learn.

In talking to these leaders, I find myself thinking of the tale of mighty John Henry, who swore he could shovel through a mountain faster than a steam-powered hammer. Big John won all right, but the effort killed him. Johnny Cash memorialized the tale in “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer,” singing: “If you bring that steam drill round, I’ll beat it fair and honest, I’ll die with my hammer in my hand.”

Leaders need to look at John Henry as a cautionary tale--not a role model. Leaders should indeed work hard and lead by example. But way too many K-12 leaders work ridiculous hours, slogging through breaks and weekends. That’s self-defeating. Transformative leadership entails setting a vision, managing relationships, clearing obstacles, ensuring accountability, and creating a culture. This requires energy and engagement; it suffers when leaders are scattered adrenaline junkies or exhausted husks. Four tips to keep in mind:

Remember that your time has value. It’s crazy for leaders to treat their own time as disposable, yet too many leaders seem to let their schedules get filled with a hodgepodge of meetings, hand-holding sessions, and ceremonial obligations, with insufficient regard for value or import. A relentless schedule burns you out, denies you time to reflect or strategize, and stops you from learning and reading. I’ll lay serious money that any reader can slim down the hours they work by ten percent or more without sacrificing anything of grave import.

Ask “How important is this?” Leaders need to prioritize. Remember, if you’re working eighty hours a week, you’re already skipping the meetings, appearances, observations, and everything else you could’ve done if you worked ninety. It’s okay to say, “No.” Too many leaders allow their schedule to fill with whatever grab-bag of meetings, obligations, urgent requests, and distractions pop up rather than asking, “Is this the best use of my time?”

Cage-bust your calendar. Can’t figure out where to save time? Bring a cage-buster’s sensibility to bear. If you’re a principal and can’t find enough time for observations or coaching new teachers, the problem isn’t lack of time--it’s how you’re using time. How much time do you spend refereeing spats someone else can resolve? How much time are you spending on evaluation paperwork that an assistant principal or employee relations manager could potentially handle?

It’s a marathon, not a sprint. The cage-busting mantra is to work smarter, not harder. No matter how noble John Henry’s effort, he wasn’t there the next day. Success built on your insane schedule and personal charm will prove fleeting. Educational leadership isn’t a mad dash, it’s a marathon. Keep that in mind this summer and as you start to plan for the coming year.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.