An interesting thing happens when you take a break from daily principalship. You notice things that previously you just took for granted.

It’s much like the famous analogy where a frog is being slowly cooked in an open pot on a stove top. The frog could obviously hop out at any time but doesn’t. Meanwhile, the water in the pot slowly gets hotter. The frog just sits there until it is too late because the heat increases very slowly and from the familiar safety of the pot, they don’t realise what is happening.

Having a sabbatical is like hopping out of the pot. From the outside you can see (and feel) how hot the water is. Your perspective changes and you are likely to realise a couple of things:

  1. I don’t want to get back in (because the water is too hot).
  2. I have to get back in (so how do I turn the temperature down)?

If our job didn’t require imagination, creativity, the ability to do emotional work, and all the other high level skills needed to lead our communities, it might be OK to slowly “boil” over our careers. It wouldn’t be good from a personal perspective, but a lot of us seem willing to accept personal sacrifice.

However, what makes that scenario unacceptable, is that it is not good professionally either. It diminishes our ability to do our jobs.

Someone who is consistently operating at, or slightly beyond capacity, will start to exhibit a variety of symptoms. They will find it hard to focus on the important work (people) and are likely to lose their creativity and positive energy. They will, simply put, be a less effective leader.

If nothing changes over a period of time, it is also likely that their health and personal wellness will take a hit. Disaster for the school and disaster for themselves.

With that grim little description noted, it becomes clear that the “heat” of the job needs to be managed, and as we’ve said before, it’s very unlikely that someone else will do this for you. You either have to take control of the dial or hop out of the pot.

. . .

Getting out is certainly an option. We tell our students that they will have multiple careers, that the only thing that we can be sure of is that change is a constant. If we believe this, surely the same applies to us – we are people who currently choose to lead schools.

However, life is seldom simple. There are bills to pay, responsibilities to meet, a long list of practicalities to consider. But perhaps the best reason not to leave, is because you are needed. Our world needs positive, strong, healthy leaders and where better to take up that challenge but where the future lives – in our schools.

So, I believe that we (at least most of us) need to move our focus to the second option. Turning down the heat.

With the perspective given by a sabbatical, I can see several ways that I can try and do this. We all have different aspects of the job that contribute more or less to our personal “over heating”, and I certainly have plenty on my list! The trick then is to prioritise.

One of the principles that business leaders use to maximise their effectiveness is the Pareto Principle¹, sometimes called the 80 / 20 Rule. It’s a rule that both Steve and I are trying to use when decision making. Simply put, 80% of the results of any human endeavour are caused by 20% of the effort. This 20% is the “low hanging fruit”; the factors impacting you that are easiest to change with the biggest potential benefit. In my case, I identified the following:

  • The way I handle email
  • How I get to the important work (or not get to it!)
  • Fitting regular personal fitness into each week

Your list may, or may not look similar, but you won’t know unless you find space to consider what you are doing with a clear head. I’m not suggesting that you need to trek to Nepal and sit on a mountaintop to work this out, but I do think you need time out of your school and no interruptions to clarify where your changes need to happen.

We will be sharing our “test dummy” findings as we progress and already know the path will have some ups and downs – I’m calling it an adventure!


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¹ The 80/20 Principle, Richard Koch, 1997

2 thoughts on “BOILING THE FROG

  1. Anonymous says:

    A great read David. I sit here at my desk trying to get the motivation to carry on with the mundane paper work our job demands. With 2.5 years as a principal, I look forward to the opportunity of a sabbatical. In the meantime, I will boil away

    • I hear you, but don’t keep boiling! Having handled your first 2 and a half years you are already amazingly resilient and successful. Now is the perfect time to turn the heat down so you can do this job better for as long as it suits you. Don’t under estimate what you have control of.

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