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RHSU Classic: John Henry Is Not a Role Model, 4 Tips for Edu-Leaders

This month marks the 10th anniversary of Rick Hess Straight Up, making it a propitious time to revisit some favorites from the past decade. For each of the Top 20 which run this month, I've offered a quick reflection or thought as to why it remains a personal favorite.

Nearly 20 years ago, I penned a piece for Educational Leadership titled "The Case for Being Mean." The point was that accountability usually helps not by making people work "harder" but by pressuring leaders to ask hard, uncomfortable questions. Unfortunately, we seem to have gotten this backwards when it comes to schooling. In particular, the "Accountability Era" entailed precious little flexibility, tolerance for missteps, or support for school and system leaders seeking creative solutions. Instead, the entire post-NCLB period was defined by calls for educators to keep their heads down and grind, while leaving the creative problem-solving to a bunch of talking heads. This bizarre state of affairs inspired my 2013 book, Cage-Busting Leadership.  Now, on to number 4, originally posted on June 15, 2012.

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 10 percent or more without sacrificing anything of grave import.

Ask "How important is this?" Leaders need to prioritize. Remember, if you're working 80 hours a week, you're already skipping the meetings, appearances, observations, and everything else you could've done if you worked 90. It's OK 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.

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