On the heels of the pandemic and as a result of the ongoing polarization of education, I worry that principals and other school leaders often feel so overwhelmed by their growing responsibilities that they get caught up in what been called the “tyranny of the urgent” and forget that their job is to lead. And because schools and school leadership value proficiency, not vulnerability, principals who are struggling often feel like they can’t be vulnerable.
When I spoke on my Leader Chat podcast with John C. Maxwell, known as the number one leadership author in the world, I was struck as much by his empathy as I was by his wisdom and passion. Maxwell acknowledged that the role of an educator is a difficult one, but reminded us of something that brought many of us into the profession in the first place: “If you were going to lead, what better place to lead than in education… where you get to lead children, where you get to have the first shot at an impression upon a mind that has many years to live?”
If you were going to lead, what better place to lead than in education… where you get to lead children, where you get to have the first shot at an impression upon a mind that has many years to live?
If you are truly a “student of the game” when it comes to studying and developing your own leadership skills, you have likely read Maxwell’s work, but our short conversation yielded new insights. Drawing from Maxwell’s bestseller, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, and the more than 100 books he has published in his career, here are a few maxims that resonated with me as an education leader.
Remember your “why.” As Simon Sinek says in Start with Why, knowing and communicating what drives you as a leader is what inspires others to act, and Maxwell is no exception. “The reason I’m still in the game—I’m 76 now—is because I love adding value to people,” he told me. “My mantra is that I add value to leaders who multiply my value to others. Because once you influence a leader, you influence all the people that the leader influences. And so, what keeps me going is to see people get better.”
Despite education being “a difficult leadership occupation,” Maxwell reminded us to remain focused on our own “whys.” “If it’s going to be difficult, you might as well go somewhere where there is high potential, and I know of nothing that gives a higher potential than an education.”
All leadership is servant leadership. Maxwell worries a lot about “selfish leaders that are in it for themselves,” he told me, pointing to societal divides and the resulting need for what he calls “high-road leadership” that can bring people together. But even in fields like education where people enter the profession to help others, Maxwell said that it can be easy to “lose our way” without continual accountability and reflection.
“If I’m focused on me, I can’t be focused on you,” he said. “Step one is get over yourself. Leaders add value to people. There’s a difference between me as a leader or communicator wanting to add value to you and me as a leader or communicator wanting you to add value to me. It’s two different worlds, and you can’t have both.”
Remember the 3 Rs. All leaders are besieged by tasks, but it’s important to do more than simply prioritize them. Maxwell reminded me of a concept that should be very familiar to us in education—the 3 Rs: requirements, or what you have to do; return, or which of your gifts, abilities or strengths has the greatest impact; and reward, or what is most meaningful to you as a leader.
Maxwell suggested making lists for each of these three Rs—three to five items each—and then look for areas where the lists overlap. “This is your sweet spot,” he said, stressing the importance of realigning your work as a leader to bring your three Rs together. The more you can get the three lists similar, the more effective you’ll be, he explained. “That’s where you’ll really want to put your time and effort, because that’s going to give you the best return, and it’s also going to be rewarding to you.”
Leaders listen. “Great leaders are not leaders first, they’re listeners first,” Maxwell told me. “You can’t lead your people without listening to them first.”
Great leaders are not leaders first, they’re listeners first.
Remember that leadership is ever evolving. In our conversation, Maxwell reminded me that adaptive leadership is like baseball—the game always has the same rules, but no two games are the same. “Leadership is the same game, but how I led in 2019 and how I lead in 2023 are very different.
Maxwell points to the pandemic as a key example of how leadership has changed. “Before COVID, people were much more certain and not nearly as fearful, so you could lead out of vision,” he said. “That’s totally turned. People—and their fears—are setting the agenda, so what leaders must do now is not lead by vision, but by asking questions. That’s a whole different game, but it’s still leadership—I’m still responsible to take people further than they could go on their own.”
Maxwell’s prolific output as an author—and his continuous updating of his bestselling books—reflects his own commitment to learning and growing. “The reason I keep developing new lessons is because people keep having new issues and new things that I need to address and help them with. And what I want everybody to understand is when you’re growing, you’re always changing.”
Break the leadership lid. Maxwell reminded us of his “law of the lid,” which posits that your leadership ability determines your potential to be effective. A commitment to growth and personal improvement is the only way to improve as a leader. “Once a leader improves his or her life, then everybody within their sphere of influence, their lives improve,” he said, calling personal leadership growth “multiplying, compounding work, not just addition.”
Stay motivated. It’s difficult to commit to growth when feeling besieged, but Maxwell reminded us to focus on the big picture. “The big picture is very simple—you chose this profession because you have an opportunity to change lives in a very positive way,” he said. “So, every day you have to ask yourself two things: ‘Am I getting better?’ The only way you can get better is by growing. And then the second thing is, ‘Am I getting better for the kids?’ And if I can answer ‘yes’ to those two questions, I’m getting better, which means I can give the kids a new and better version of myself.”
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