George Lucas Educational Foundation
School Leadership

Staying Mission Focused as a Leader

School leaders can resist the urge to micromanage by focusing on the most important goal: helping students and teachers succeed.

January 4, 2019
A teacher and an administrator looking over some paperwork together
©iStock/FatCamera

I was restless the night before the information was released, imagining scenarios from the most glorious to the most grave.

When I arrived at my office the following day, I closed the door and dove into an hours-long data analysis session, coming up for air only intermittently.

Getting my school’s standardized test scores after my rookie year as a principal was a nerve-racking experience I won’t soon forget. While I never overemphasized test data as a metric for my own performance—or the performance of my colleagues, teachers, and students—I was well aware of the importance placed on these reports by others, including my superintendent and members of our community at large.

The results were neither dire nor amazing; in fact, they were just what I thought they would be. They were, after all, just small pieces of a bigger picture. And yet I found myself worrying about the scores for weeks on end. I wanted the data to look better. I was worried about how it would reflect on my school.

In the end, the conversations about scores came and went, but my responsibilities as a leader—to help students and teachers succeed—remained consistent. In hindsight, I realized that I should have kept this—and not the test results—at the forefront of my mind all along.

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Letting Go Is Essential for Success

The need to let go of outcomes is one of the most difficult—and necessary—lessons I have learned as a leader. The act of surrendering control over both large and small aspects of my school’s work has been frightening and exhilarating. While letting go is challenging, I’ve found that it’s necessary for both professional growth and the success of the school as a whole.

School leaders must design and oversee numerous programs, committees, assessment structures, and schedules: The list of essential tasks is endless. Each professional responsibility has the potential to mire a leader in overanalysis and micromanagement. However, over-attachment to outcome, while normal, is counterproductive as it can stifle a leader’s growth and impede a school’s progress. Schools are organic environments in which a host of factors interplay with and build on one another. If a leader wishes to create a school that is harmonious, energized, and productive, they must embrace this.

The Power of Surrender

Learning to manage internal and external expectations so you can stay focused on the overall mission is key to letting go of the urge to fret and micromanage. School leaders should keep in mind that the heart of our job as educators is to help students fully realize their potential—and schools’ culture and instruction are what we use to get them there.

Some things we try will exceed expectations, while others will leave us disappointed. It is imperative that we keep the big picture in mind and adopt an attitude that supports thoughtful exploration and celebrates continuous progression rather than one preconceived outcome.

Trust is a key ingredient in this process. As a leader, you must have faith in those around you. If you trust that everyone is working hard and is invested in a shared mission, you will be much more prepared to let go.

We must always bear in mind the things we shouldn’t let go of: professional pride, collaborative engagement, and integrity. Additionally, we should never mistake letting go for apathy or carelessness, since letting go allows us to engage in critical tasks and conversations.

It is also important to note that there are innumerable areas that require a dogged relentlessness if we wish to have a great school. If, for example, students are not meeting targets for growth in language arts, it’s essential to address this through data analysis, collaboration, instructional planning, and curricular initiatives. The same can be said if technology integration is missing the mark or the school culture does not foster a love of learning.

Keep the End Goal in Mind

In the novel Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace wrote, “Everything I ever let go of has claw marks on it.” I can certainly relate to this sentiment. Letting go is never easy, but trying to holding on is even more difficult—and, in the end, is impossible anyway.

The naysayers will always be there. The internal voice of self-doubt will certainly scream out for attention. Let them go too.

In the end, one true question will remain for all educators: Did you give your best effort for the students you serve? If the answer is a resounding yes, you have hit the bull’s-eye dead on. Relax and let the rest of it go.