Cage-busting doesn’t tell leaders what to do.
It helps them see with fresh eyes and lead accordingly.
Frederick M. Hess
Ajourney of a thousand miles starts with a single step. But taking that first step requires knowing where the heck you’re trying to go. Here’s a simple exercise I often use when working with school and system leaders:
You’re in Washington, D.C. You need to get to Los Angeles.
Question: How fast can you drive there? Go.
Give or take, it’s about 2,500 miles. What inevitably
happens is that folks turn to their smartphones to figure out
the distance and then calculate how long it will take to drive.
Most estimate three to four days. Then the more aggressive
go to work. They figure out that they can do the drive with
friends, eat in the car, and get there in 45 or 50 hours.
Frequently, though, one or two people will have a different
answer. Instead of casually assuming that they should drive
from D.C. to L.A. just because I said so, they think about the
purpose of the trip. Not seeing any reason to drive, they decide
the point is to travel from D.C. to L.A. They hop online and
find the quickest flight, a nonstop that will get them there
in five or six hours. They’re focused not on instructions but
on solving the problem. This requires blasting past routines,
assumptions, and mental traps that plague even the most
acclaimed schools and inspiring leaders.
Leadership always entails two complementary roles. One is
coaching, mentoring, nurturing, and inspiring others to forge
dynamic, professional cultures. This half often absorbs the
whole attention of those who tackle educational leadership.
Lost in the discussion is the second half of leadership—the
cage-busting half, in which leaders upend stifling rules, policies, and routines to make it easier for successful professional
cultures to thrive.
Bring a Beginner’s Mind
It’s tough to cultivate the cage-busting mind-set. For one
thing, leaders are surrounded by colleagues who are used to
the cage. For another, they’re surrounded by experts who
claim to already know what needs to be done. For instance,
many authorities continue to cite a paper that Mid-Continent
Research for Education and Learning published in 2003.1 It
identified 21 leadership responsibilities thought to be associated with student achievement. These included celebrating
school accomplishments, being directly involved in designing
curriculum and assessment, having quality contact with
teachers and students, challenging the status quo, leading
new and challenging innovations, and ensuring that staff are
aware of the most current theories and practices. Leaders can
get so intent on all of this that they get overwhelmed.