3 Traps That Keep K-12 Principals From Reaching Your Goals

3 Traps That Keep K-12 Principals From Reaching Their Goals

Each September when I ask principals what their goals are for the upcoming school year, many of them talk about wanting to be better instructional leaders.  They want to get into classrooms more often.  They want to use faculty meeting time for professional learning.  They want to have meaningful conversations with faculty about instructional strategies they are using.  

However, by the time April and May roll around, these same principals are exhausted from all the management things that have gotten in the way of their good intentions!  The list is endless: roof leaks, discipline issues, parent complaints, Board member visits, etc, etc, etc.  They never found time to consistently focus on instruction like they wanted to.  

They do this by falling into at least three different traps:

  1. They treat every challenge that comes their way as their responsibility, and deserving of their time.  They sometimes mistakenly believe that if they can’t solve all the problems, people will think they are not up to the job and they will lose respect from the staff.  
  2. Someone comes to them with a challenge that they have experience with and that seems easy to resolve.  So they begin to help out and often end up taking over the whole responsibility rather than letting the work stay with the originator.  Before long, they collect a whole lot of “monkeys” that aren’t their own!  
  3. They gravitate to what Ron Heifetz from the Harvard Kennedy School calls “Technical Challenges” — the ones that have policies, procedures, or known solutions.   And they put off handling “Adaptive Challenges” — those which are connected to values or traditions and which call for new learning and attitude or cultural changes.  The problem is, it is the Adaptive Challenges which are most important to navigate well, in order to build trust, respect, and influence.    

How do you break this cycle of unexpected interruptions that end up making you feel like you are constantly putting out fires instead of being the instructional leader you dream about being?  

What I see happening to many principals is that they have not learned a way to sort out the Important-but-Not-Urgent tasks from the Urgent-but-Not-Important ones.  

Great leaders learn how to sort the myriad of tasks that demand their attention each day so that the Important-but-Not-Urgent tasks get their attention.   

President Eisenhower had a great way to handle this challenge.  He called it the Eisenhower Box.   Each day as new demands emerged calling for his attention, he would sort them into one of four categories.  He did not have hard and fast rules for how to classify tasks but decided each task on its own merits.  Then as soon as he sorted it, he knew how to deal with it.  

Urgent / Important was a “Do it Now” task.  The urgent / important task could change from day to day.  But these were the tasks that your subconscious was going to nag you about until you got them done.  So they were most likely to get the attention they needed.  

Important / Not Urgent could be a “Defer it” task.   Simply categorizing it as “Important” signals your brain that it should stay at the top of your mind.  The decision is when to do it.  Then put it on your calendar.  

Urgent / Not Important was often a “Delegate it” task.  You could hand it off to someone else who was equally capable of following known processes and procedures to resolve the issue.  

Not Urgent / Not Important might be a “Dump it” task.   It might be interesting to know, but it is not your issue to deal with.  

Eisenhower teaches us that sometimes the easiest way to become more productive is to simply learn to sort your tasks so that the most important always stays top of mind.    

Urgency_Importance chart

Give The Eisenhower Box a try, and I think you’ll find that you will soon be able to focus on the goals that you really want to achieve.


You’re invited!  We’re hosting a free Zoom call to discuss these, and many other topics, with leaders of breakthrough schools. They’ve been where you are now, and have some great ideas and tips to share. Seats are limited, so register now.