Growing Through the Grind: 5 Strategies for Staying Focused in a Chaotic Environment for Principal Leaders

by | Oct 6, 2021 | 0 comments

12 min read

As avid beach lovers and goers, we often look toward nature and how it relates to leadership. There are so many correlations and lessons that can be learned, as long as we are willing to take a closer look than what meets the eye. Our favorite spot here in Delaware is Coin Beach, located just across from a kayaker’s dream, Savages Ditch.

Like so many fascinating and harrowing sea stories, the Shipwreck of the Faithful Steward ran aground after it pushed inland due to storms. Eventually it capsized, taking the lives of 181 passengers. The ship was full of coin-filled barrels that were deposited into the ocean and are said to wash ashore in heavy storms, giving the shoreline name, Coin Beach. Every fall, on the East Coast, we are hit with some incredible storms that range in force and aggression, all with the power to change the course of a ship at sea.

Although we may not be in an actual hurricane as we lead our schools, Covid19 can easily be categorized for the education community as a Category 5. It’s creating what feels like chaos, making our normally difficult challenges even greater and sending us spinning with less of a focus than we would like to have in our roles as school leaders. 

The critical question that we all must ask amidst the pandemic is this: how do we keep our boat–our schools and districts–on course? The short answer: goal setting. At the surface, this may seem trite. But, well-developed, meaningful, and integrated goals serve as beacons, guiding us through any stormy weather. They offer direction, a sense of calm, and even peace. 

The issue is that it’s not enough to just write down your goals on paper and hope the power of the universe brings them into existence. And, trust us, we believe in the infinite potential of our human meditative and cerebral capabilities. That said, ambitious goals are only unstoppable after you write them down and then take action to reach them, no matter the circumstances ahead of us. 

There’s no doubt that the current times are a grind, maybe even chaotic. Yes, teaching and leading in schools through Covid19 is…wait for it…unprecedented. We honor that as the truth, and we also know that leading schools in times of change is nothing new. Michael Fullan wrote Leading in a Culture of Change (the first edition) in 2001. This means that there are proven strategies for making sure that you continue to grow when work and life are a grind and that we have to learn to remain focused, even when the chaos looms. The strategies below are meant to help you during Covid and beyond. 

Putting Your Vision to the Test 

The first thing that leaders should do is ask 4 simple questions regarding their vision:

  1. Does the statement communicate what you desire to accomplish? 
  2. Does the statement communicate who you want the work to benefit?
  3. Does the statement communicate why it is important for stakeholders?
  4. Does the statement convey your purpose or the purpose of the organization?

Again, we want to acknowledge that in many ways the conversation regarding the importance of a school’s or organization’s vision is misguided and artificial. We aim to correct that by offering that the vision of an organization is the fulcrum for decision-making and the basis for accountability.  Figure 1 is a quick way to put your school or district’s vision to the test and determine which side of the chart it lives. Is it hokey and too wordy or is it concise and inspiring? Vision statements should reside in the hearts and minds of those within the organization, not just on a wall or letterhead.

Figure 1

As you can see in Figure 2, we use Google, Facebook, Patagonia, and Nordstrom to demonstrate very vivid vision statements. You might like or dislike the purpose of these organizations, but their statements encapsulate their essence. They do what they say and they say what they do. That’s how a highly effective vision statement should be–both in terms of what we’re communicating with the statement and how much accountability it holds for keeping us centered when times seem disastrous. 

Figure 2

Leading with Your Values 

Richard Shell told us that leaders need to be resilient when they face a value-conflict scenario in life. Inevitably, leaders will be tested with decisions that could go against their core beliefs. Dr. Shell said that when people face challenges to their integrity, they need to ask one simple question: what would a person of conscience do? And, a good answer isn’t to flee or fight back. That’s too basic of an instinct. Our response should be to stop and listen to our own internal sense of right and wrong. 

But even without a value-conflict at hand, we consistently encounter situations that may not align with our core values. Consider the core value that “We always do what’s best for kids,” something that many schools and school leaders espouse, and, yet, we’re often challenged by circumstances where doing what’s best for adults seems like the right decision even if it isn’t ultimately the best outcome for kids. Not that these decisions would cause harm, but adult-driven outcomes are in direct conflict with the value that we claim to uphold. 

Leaders should regularly come back to their values to guide their daily work, and we need to review these values as often as possible when the ship seems to be sinking. These areas of focus should also be where we place our emphasis for growth, especially when things get tough and our strength as leaders is tested. Look at your core values this week, and find a professional learning experience that aligns to them so that you’re not just going through the grind but actually growing through it. 

Don’t miss our interview with Richard Shell in an upcoming episode of our OneThingSeries podcast. Until then, check his book, The Conscience Code.

Determining Urgent Versus Important 

Establishing a worthy vision that is anchored in core values helps with this third strategy for staying focused–determining and working within the important spaces. School and district leaders know the constant push and pull between spending time on important priorities versus being interrupted to handle many of the urgent issues that arise daily. This reality reinforces President Eisenower’s quote: “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

The challenge is in how we prioritize our day to ensure that we are working on the important all the while effectively managing the urgent. The urgent issues will never disappear, and if they are not handled correctly, they can potentially wreak havoc on an organization, which is why the Eisenhower Matrix below is critical. We like how Check and Click Technologies designed the graphic because it illustrates the action and inaction that the leader should take based on the scenario. 

Determining whether the work is urgent or important as daily tasks arise allows us to maintain our focus on the critical long-term success of the organization. Doing so allows leaders to weather the urgent items in the short-term to be able to decide the best path forward–such as delegating the task–correcting course to refocus on the important. Along with the use of the matrix, we suggest that school leaders ask themselves two key questions when new tasks arises: 

  1. Does this new task need to be done right now? 
  2. Does this new task need to be done by me?


Assessing Full Versus Fulfilling

Coupled with determining urgent versus important in terms of how we spend our time, especially when the day feels like a grind and the environment seems chaotic, is the notion that we need to assess whether our workday is full or fulfilling. The reality is that creating a fulfilling work environment for yourself and those within your school or organization is the hallmark of an effective leader. Busy and effective are too different things. We all can get caught up in the race from meeting-to-meeting without truly making a difference in what matters most–student learning and well-being in our schools. 

We have heard from leaders who use a retrospective reflective approach by taking a look at their week on Fridays to assess how busy they were versus how much of an impact they had. We flip that to a forward-focused examination of your calendar. Instead of using Friday to assess the week that just passed, use that time to assess the upcoming week. A great tip we learned from John Maxwell in Thinking for a Change is to look at your calendar 40 days out. As Maxwell puts it, “that way, I get a jump on the month and don’t get surprised.” 

Use this as an activity to delegate and restructure any upcoming meetings. Make sure that the work you’re engaged with as a leader is going to be about 1. your vision, 2. the people and programs (what’s working and what’s not), and 3. innovation for change and future development. Sticking to these three buckets will have the best chance at making sure you stay away from the administrivia that can hijack your time, allowing you to be effective and, most important, feel fulfilled. 

Attending to the Most Important Spaces 

You can only have so many priorities so they need to be limited. One way to keep the main thing the main thing when everything seems chaotic is to ask yourself what the most important spaces are in your school and whether or not you’re spending the majority of your time in that space. The answer to the first part of the question is not likely to be the office, the cafeteria, or the playground, yet school leaders often find themselves in these spaces for a large chunk of their day. The clear right answer is the classroom, with teachers and students. That should drive us to want to be there as often as possible to be in touch with those doing the teaching and the learning. 

But wanting to be there–the classroom–is not enough. Strategies like time-blocking are a great start, but that also is not enough. The best way to attend to the most important spaces is to have a system in place, designed as a fool-proof way for you to visit every teacher every week. For example, last month, we focused on SEL as a key driver in our schools with getting to classrooms and making connections with staff and students a central activity.  

Your plan should involve seeing all of their blocks of instruction throughout the month and doing so on different days of the week. You’ll need a Google Sheet or what we call “a big board” to draw out your map; when the system is in place and the time is blocked on your schedule, this daunting task is manageable, no matter what storm is brewing. 

We can’t say enough about leaders spending time in the most important spaces of any organization (maybe a future blog post, stay tuned). This is the backbone of a positive culture and a management structure for being around when people are doing their best work. Not only does it provide critical insight into what folks are doing on a regular basis, but it allows us, as leaders, to lift the people through authentic recognition and praise. If you don’t have a working system for visiting classrooms, we need to hear from you because we can help. 

Putting your vision to the test, leading with your values, determining urgent versus important, assessing full versus fulfilling, and attending to the most important spaces in our schools are the five most practical and direct ways to keep you growing through the grind and focused when things feel out-of-control. The essential role of a leader is to attend to her own growth while staying focused on the health and direction of the organization. You can’t do that if your own day is as unruly as the times we’re living in. Using the strategies in this blog will ground your work and get you back to calmer waters. 

As always, let us know what you think of this with a like, a follow, or a comment. Find us on Twitter, YouTube, iTunes, Facebook, & SoundCloud. And, again, if you want one simple model for leading better and growing faster per month, follow this blog by entering your email at the top right of the screen.

TheSchoolHouse302 is about getting to simple by maximizing effective research-based strategies that empower individuals to lead better and grow faster.

Joe & T.J. 

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