While, hopefully, it is not likely that a school leader would have a similar short attention span, many of us can get very enthusiastic about starting things, but lose momentum when it comes to actually finishing them off. As the initial excitement begins to wane, and the hard work begins, Heads can sometimes take their eye off of the ball and assume that everything is proceeding as planned, even if it isn't. This lesson isn't lost on the rest of the Senior Leadership Team who know that as the Head's attention fades, so does the sense of urgency for completing the task. So instead, team members get ready for the next exciting initiative rather than slugging away to finish off yesterday's "news".
Heads who jump from initiative to initiative also tend to live from crisis to crisis. If there is no strategic vision of where they are going, problems tend to be addressed in isolation in order to be "solved" rather than approached in a systematic and systemic way as part of a larger cultural or organizational issue to be tackled. Bombing a Syrian airfield gets you a weekend of positive press, but doesn't even begin to tackle the roots causes of the brutal civil war which is ripping that country apart. Without a vision, a leader tends to devolve into a micro-manager who keeps him or herself busy by meddling in areas of other people's responsibility. They fiddle while Rome burns.
The alternative to Distraction (which only works short-term) for struggling leaders is instead to resort to Deflection. Donald Trump is a master of deflection. He is the poster boy for the old story of the three envelopes. You know how it goes.
A new CEO, Head of School, or President of the United States arrives at his office and finds three sealed letters, numbered and sitting on his desk. On top of the letters is a short note from his predecessor. It simply states: "Open each of these letters in turn whenever you face a crisis." Not long after assuming command, he faces his first crisis - could be anything: Russiagate; Obamacare; North Korea - and he opens the first envelope. It says: "Blame me". Well, Trump is a master at this!
"It's not Russia that's the issue, it's the fact that Obama tapped my phones!"
"No wonder I couldn't repeal and replace Obamacare - it was such a mess that nobody could fix it!"
"North Korea! Obama should have nuked them years ago!"
Having thrown his predecessor under the bus, he is no longer responsible for the situation, just stuck with it.
This week, having finally realized that maybe his ideas about Syria weren't particularly well-thought out, he first bombed them, and then opened the second envelope. It read: "Call for collective action. Give the problem over to NATO or the UN or the G7 or Congress." So America First is out the window, and the responsibility for solving the second crisis is pushed off to someone else. Deflection at its finest!
It's anyone's guess what the next crisis is going to be, but regardless of when it comes, he will go running for that third envelope. Its advice: "Prepare three envelopes."
There is a sobering message for school leaders in this Trumpian parable. Distraction (churning out a series of short-lived initiatives), or Deflection (blaming or passing on responsibility to someone else in the face of a crisis) have only one ultimate solution. Sooner, rather than later, you'll be preparing three envelopes!
Next post we will look at how a Leader can regain control of the train before it jumps the track!