President's Corner

Big Rocks and Leadership
By Christopher O. Gaines/School Administrator, September 2018

THE CONCEPT OF leading yourself before leading others always has resonated with me. Leading yourself means seeing yourself clearly, having a clear set of goals and standards — a clear direction for yourself that allows you to focus on what’s important in your life.

My fascination with the notion stems from my time in the Boy Scouts and the emphasis the scouts place on leadership and personal growth.

In Boy Scout advanced leader training, participants are taught that to lead yourself, you must set priorities and take care of what’s most important first. This idea is illustrated through an exercise that involves a bucket, a container of water, some sand and rocks of various sizes, including some really big rocks.

The goal is to fit everything — sand, water and rocks — in the bucket. If you begin by pouring the water into the bucket and adding the remaining items from smallest (sand) to largest (big rocks), you quickly realize not all the materials will fit. The key is to place the big rocks into the bucket first, followed by the other rocks, the sand, and finally, the water.

How does this illustrate the concept of leading yourself before others? The large rocks represent the things that matter most to us, like friends, family and relationships. In our roles as leaders, spouses, parents and grandparents, we must consider these priorities (big rocks) and place them in our buckets first.

After we fill our buckets with the big rocks, we can add the smaller rocks, sand and water to fill the empty spaces. The sand and water represent the extraneous noise and minutia in our daily lives — the things that consume time and resources but are of lesser importance.

Concentrating on the small items first might make us look busy, but we are probably not fulfilled and we certainly are not maximizing our leadership capacity — we don’t have time. Consequently, the important things might get cast aside.

We must make similar choices in the school districts we serve. Programs, services, people and things vie for our attention all day every day. To lead effectively, we must first identify and attend to the big rocks — the three or four things that drive the work of the district. Only then can we turn our attention to those less-important things that fill in the spaces.

Effective leaders know what’s important — the difference between the big rocks, the pebbles, the sand and the water. Those who have mastered the skill of leading themselves have clear goals, standards and a path forward, and they translate that skillful leadership into providing the same attention to the priorities in their district.

They also know that the priorities in one district are not necessarily the priorities in another. One district may be focused on closing the achievement gap, another implementing technology districtwide and still another providing alternative pathways to college and career. Skillful superintendents attend to their own district bucket before reaching out to help others.

Regardless of your district’s priorities, they must be sustained year after year. Like family, friends and relationships, these “big rocks” are the bedrock of the district, creating solid ground from which to build. Just as we work to keep our personal big rocks stable, so must we attend to the district’s — whether it’s a digital conversion, personalized learning, work around the 4 C’s, learning communities, student engagement or continuous improvement, we must keep our district focused.

By remaining focused on our big rocks and not the sand and pebbles, our chances of reaching our vision are more likely. Take care of those big rocks and your buckets can be filled.

CHRIS GAINES is AASA president for 2018–19. Twitter: @paddlingsupt