What's falling of the back of your truck?

“I’ve come to realize that I’m not the only one that wishes
I had more capacity to do the things I really want to do as a leader.”

I said that on a post about Leadership and Management back in October. Two weeks ago, as my school year for the Inquiry Hub was coming to a close, report cards for Coquitlam Open Learning were going out, students were scrambling to get last minute marks to universities for their online courses, and summer school prep was under way, not to mention an onslaught of emails… I’d have to say that I had one of the busiest weeks of my life. There simply wasn’t enough time in the day!

This reminded me of a conversation that I had a while back with a friend and mentor, where he spoke about, “Stuff, not people.”

What's falling of the back of your truck?

“Stuff, not people.”


“Stuff, not people. When things get really busy, and you can’t do everything, things will ‘fall off the back of your truck’. When that happens, make sure that it’s stuff, and not people.”

After a meeting a couple weeks later, I shared this thought with another friend. Her response was, “The problem is, all I’ve got left on the back of my truck is people.”

I totally understood where she was coming from, but I do think that it is actually the ‘stuff’ that makes us feel like we can’t get to ‘people’… if organizational demands were not so high, maybe our ‘wish list of priorities’ could actually feel like and be priorities.

I’m not sure if it is just my personal capacity, or if it is the role of an administrator in this day and age, but I’m really struggling with how much of my job is not about educational leadership, and how much of it is more managerial and even secretarial in nature. It is interesting to me that although I love my job, and there is nowhere I’d rather be an administrator right now, (I’ve actually requested not to be moved for at least 3 more years), I’ve still had a few times this year where I’ve seriously considered going back to be a teacher.

One of the things that has fallen off the back of my truck is my social media presence. I have read, tweeted, blogged and shared less in the last year and a half than I have since I started blogging. Part of me thinks this is ok, after all, this is ‘stuff and not people’, but another part of me recognizes that this actually makes me less of an educational leader. When I’m engaging in meaningful conversations online; when I’m reading and then synthesizing ideas on my blog; these are the times that I’m excited about being an educational leader. These are the times when I’m asking compelling questions, engaging in learning conversations, challenging myself into action, and loving my role as an educator and as a leader.

So how do I fit it all in? The reality is that I don’t want anything falling off the back of my truck. I want to have the capacity to effectively meet the managerial aspects of my leadership position AND also provide effective educational leadership. So how do I build capacity here? What are people doing to help them make their role as a leader more about what they want it to be? What strategies work? And how do people ‘find the time’ to do the things they really want to do?

[Cross-posted on the Connected Principals blog]

23 comments on “Leadership and Capacity

  1. Hey David, this post resonated with me and helped move my perspective. I was working on a post about making mistakes and how in the end of the year blur I had made some mistakes that I regret. They were not really mistakes as in wrong, but rather circumstantial events that did not allow me to give the level of attention to certain events. For example, due to time constraints, I did not give the time I usually do to marking of final exams. I was feeling a lot of guilt and disappointment in myself for not being able to live up to standards I had set for myself. But I also felt conflicted as I wanted to take on new projects and challenges and realized that in doing so I would have to cut corners somewhere else. In this process of reflection I realized I would have to let some things fly of the back of my truck, although I found this hard. I like the stuff not people focus and will keep that as reminder to myself in the future.

  2. David,

    Your questions are ones that I have struggled with for the past 5 years – which have driven me to finally resign as an administrator and reevaluate where it is I wish to put my energies. It seems some have been able to make that shift to do both – George comes to mind – but I see many administrators who are struggling with much of what you describe. These are not new administrators or people who don’t have experience but who struggle with the expectations and the amount of “stuff”. I commend you the work you are doing and the successes you have had with Inquiry Hub. I wish you all the best as you seek to find “that” balance.

  3. 1. Get a bigger truck?
    2. Hand over some of what you do and buildi capacity in others to lead.
    3. Accept that you are only one person, do what you have to do and what you love doing, at a pace you can manage and stop judging yourself.
    4. List the things you have achieved, rather than the ones you haven’t….

  4. Hi David,

    This post really resonated with me. This year, in particular, has been a tough one for me because I have felt so unconnected. It was so incredibly busy. I didn’t get a whole lot of blogging time in, or time reading and commenting on other people’s blogs. I didn’t even get to read too much on Twitter (or my Feedly or Zite, for that matter). Some people may think, “yah, who cares.”, but for me, those are some of the things that really inspire me, energize me, and make me challenge myself in ways I thought not possible.

    Unfortunately, I do not have any answers. I am also searching for suggestions and ways to continue my online presence. if you find any solutions, please let me know.


  5. I find as a VP I struggle with similar issues. What I’ve learned the hard way is that I can’t do it all. I’ve learned to delegate or I’m learnig to delegate more. Having said this, things got out of hand in June and I ended up dealing more with stuff than people and when I had to deal with people I didn’t do so well. I acknowledged this in the open to my staff afterwards and promised myself to do better next time around. That’s all we can do and we should give ourselves a break once in a while. Have a restful summer.

  6. Hi David,
    I love the “stuff not people” pair-a-dime 🙂 – great way to keep things in perspective.

    Very glad to see you blogging again, though I certainly sympathize with the pressures of competing obligations – and blogging is definitely “stuff” that can wait (though selfishly I hope you do continue blogging when you have time!)

    If you are interested in my upcoming workshop High-Performance Workflow, let me know and it’s on me: http://www.principalcenter.com/workflow

    Hope you are getting some R&R!

  7. My next post is probably going to be one about being in perpetual beta (inspired by Darren Kuropatwa). I think that is one of the issues that leads us to feeling that we can’t do everything… We aren’t ever saying, ‘that’s good enough’ but instead thinking, ‘how can we do this better?’.
    I had a great chat at the end of the year with a teacher from the Inquiry Hub, where we both agreed upon reflection that two dichotomous statements summarized our year:
    1. What an amazing year! Just look at all we achieved in our inaugural year!
    2. This year could have been so much more, we have barely touched on our potential and have such a long way to go!

    I think Edna’s comment, and especially her fourth point: “List the things you have achieved, rather than the ones you haven’t….” lends itself to my first point above, while Carolyn, Kelly, Tia and Ramin all resonate with the 2nd part of the dichotomy.

    I guess what I’m looking for, and judging from comments here and on Twitter, what many other people with educational leadership positions are also looking for, is efficiency in getting the ‘must do’ things done, so that we have more time for the ‘want to do’s’. More time to iterate and test our beta projects. More time to spend with other educators having rich, practice-changing conversations. More time leading and less time managing.

    Justin, I’ll happily take you up on your offer. This looks like something I could truly benefit from!



  8. Hi Dave – long time no chat. I can sure relate to your situation although my role is different – not being a building principal. My blog reading has dropped off considerably – I generally stumble across posts from time to time, like this on which happened to be seen through a tweet at the top of the stream.

    Essentially, we have “stuff” we have to do and have no control over (ie, can’t decide not to do it) – this we must become ultra efficient with. But, the people piece must be the priority – ie, if there are problems or developmental needs in your team, if you don’t address them in a timely fashion, they will create more stuff that you have to do.

    I’m learning to get crystal clear about my vision and the essential steps to achieve it and trying to hang my priorities and work on those. I am also trying to develop more capacity in my team members – this is challenging as not all of them necessarily want to grow. But, ultimately through others we leaders accomplish our dreams so developing others is essential.

    Stay true to your dreams, keep on learning, develop others, and things will work themselves out.

    Have a great summer buddy!

  9. As an admin time is precious. I agree that we should worry more about the people and less about the stuff. Unfortunately, an admin is more often judged by the stuff. The people will understand that you are “busy” or “unavailable” due to reports. I do also agree that lead learners need to be visibly modeling learning. The Ts and Ss need to see that our top educator is truly interested in learning and in what the Ss are learning. Often that part gets delegated to someone else which can lead to plausible deniability. I hope you can find the balance. Three more years might provide some valuable insights.

  10. Hi David. Just a quick note to say that I love the expression of people not stuff. For me, “people are the product” so this really resonates with me. I also wanted to say thank-you. You are definitely someone I have learned a great deal from this year. From our short face to face meeting in Vancouver, to reading your past blogs, following your students as they grew (literally a garden) and your willingness to give up precious time to engage in a learning conversation via Skype (with the wonderful Michelle Baldwin), I have learned a great deal. You most certainly are an educational leader. I hope you have a wonderful summer and a well deserved rest!

  11. Dave, like others in this thread this post really resonated with me as well. I feel the same way you do. I too have backed off on my social media presence and my blogging has slowed down. I am of two minds. I agree wholeheartedly that spending time connecting with the people is important and necessary. I also feel that over the last 4 years I have learned so much by being connected that I can step away and implement some of what I have learned. I look at what you have accomplished with Inquiry Hub and wonder if that is not true in your context as well.

  12. Hi Dave,

    I enjoyed reading this article, on a number of levels. For me, being connected to dedicated educators like you who are willing to share their vast knowledge is the best possible professional development. Your post gives cause for me to reflect on why and when it might be better to let someone else do something, rather than me, even though it (the task) might get done slower than I would like, or maybe qualitatively not as well as I would have done the task.

    The reflection for me is to be judicious about when something absolutely requires me (alone) to do it. In other cases, I can probably best invest my time and attention elsewhere. Unlike you, I’m only a Department Coordinator (Head), so I can imagine what I experience in terms of time management is most likely a tenth of what you have to deal with Dave. Again, I enjoyed reading this, as it was instructive for me.


  13. Hi Dave, I was having a very similar conversation with a fellow Principal this morning about feeling overwhelmed by admin demands and feeling like there is no time for learning conversations with our colleagues and staff members. I really like that idea of a truck filled with stuff and people. I think this half of the year I lost a couple of people off the back of my truck, I’m going to work hard to make sure I pick them up this term and not lose anyone else. It can be really hard to prioritise your day when you work in admin as you never quite know what will come up. I can have in my mind that I want to achieve certain tasks and have a parent call wanting a meeting asap, a student come in to say the toilet is blocked (I’m in a small school, I get to do all sorts of ‘delightful’ tasks here!) and a newsletter that is waiting to be typed. I guess we need to be aware that we are not always putting out fires- being reactive- but making sure we have time to reflect on how our school is going and having conversations with our staff, students and parents and working together so we don’t feel it is all up to us. There have been times when I have blocked in a meeting with myself to reduce interruptions- I need to get better at doing that. I’ve also come to realise that if there is an admin requirement that is really important and the education department thinks it is really important, they will ring me to give me a reminder to get it done. That helps because it turns out there are lots of admin tasks that aren’t as important as I thought they were!

  14. Hi Dave,
    It seems like many of us are in the same boat, albeit for different reasons. I think that Edna’s fourth point sheds a lot of light on what has happened though. As we learn from our connections, blogging, PLNs, etc, we become better educators, leaders, and coordinators. But being better also means doing more and doing more meaningful things. Therefore: number three.

  15. Brian,
    A year ago, your blog was a staple read for me. This year, and like you, it seem I get to posts at the top of my twitter list or at the top of my reader… and for me that only happens when I sit to eat breakfast, or for other 15 minute intervals. In my quest to find some balance, your statement, “Stay true to your dreams, keep on learning, develop others, and things will work themselves out”, really resonates with me!

    You bring up a really good point about often being evaluated by ‘the stuff’. Sometimes there is a real delicate balance between ‘people’ and ‘stuff’. I know one teacher that I work with (but not in the same building) for whom I’m judged on my ability to do stuff. To this person, I’m pretty sure the measure of my ability as a leader is based mostly on prioritizing and dealing with all the stuff this person values. It’s not like the two things are cleanly separated into two nice categories all the time.

    I’m not sure if you have noticed, but our conversations have almost exclusively happened outside of school time. I have really valued our ‘learning conversations’ and I make time for them because they are important to me… but I spend almost all of my school day disconnected from my social media connections. It kind of needs to be that way for me. One time management strategy for me is that I don’t really engage in social media during my work day, unless I’m pushing something out to share what’s happening at the Inquiry Hub… It’s worth doing this, and I often have parents ‘liking’ things I’ve shared on Facebook (which auto publishes on Twitter) within minutes of me sharing. Other than that online presence, I might respond to @replies on twitter, in the same way that I would reply to emails at different parts of the day. So, when we connect after school, I’m not ‘giving up precious time to engage with you’, I’m making time, for an important connection and a learning conversation that I benefit from too! 🙂

    For me, one of the challenges at the Inquiry Hub has been knowing the potential and not getting there (yet). ‘Step away and implement some of what I have learned’ ~ That’s a great point, but no matter what I do, it doesn’t seem to be enough. I’m constantly surrounded in my PLN with people doing amazing things… One area we have not done a good job with at the Inquiry Hub is online presence and students sharing their work through blogging, and engaging meaningfully with others around the world. It will come, but for me and my strengths, I don’t think fast enough. For my amazing teachers, this isn’t a strength and not a focus for them. I’ve fostered getting the Green Inquiry team going with their online presence: http://green.inquiryhub.org and I know we can do more. That’s the challenge!

    I’m going to focus on one small part of your comment: Specifically when you say that you are “only a Department Coordinator (Head)”… Or when I hear, “I’m just a teacher”. I think educators often downplay the value of what they do. I’ve said this before: If you are an educator, then by default you are a leader! My department head is as hard or a harder worker than I am. She is an educational leader that I look up to. Our conversations about education and a vision for our schools (Coquitlam Open Learning and the Inquiry Hub) fuel and inspire me. A school leader, in my eyes, isn’t a leader without fostering leaders in the school, be they formally recognized such as a department head or team leader, or if they are informal leaders who just get things done in the school without a title.
    You also bring up an excellent point about the challenges of delegation of some of the work, especially when that might end up happening slower or qualitatively different than doing it yourself. That said, I’m amazed at the competency of the people surrounding me, so for me at this time, that isn’t an issue, but it really is one that is hard to deal with when those situations arise.

    I had a principal friend of mine get his photo in the local paper with his framed degree in one hand and a mop in the other. He caught a lot of heat for that, but the next school year some of our smaller schools ended up getting more custodial time. He put himself way out on a limb to make a point, but it paid off. There are some tasks that we are asked to do that I think could be rebalanced in order to take greater advantage of the skills and expertise we are paid the ‘big bucks’ to do;)

    Thanks for taking me back to ‘What Ed Said’ (I couldn’t help myself Edna @whatedsaid:)
    3. Accept that you are only one person, do what you have to do and what you love doing, at a pace you can manage and stop judging yourself.
    My struggle, and why I wrote this post, is that I want to spend more time doing what I love doing, and I’m looking for ways to manage the ‘other stuff’ so that I can make more time for what I love.

    Thanks for the comments everyone, they are greatly appreciated!

  16. I made the mistake of letting people fall by the wayside this first semester – especially the specialists. A tearful teacher confided that she didn’t feel supported – I visited and checked in with everyone else but not her.

    She was right. i check in on homeroom teachers and forget to check in with those who are not at school every day of the week.

    This semester I’m putting names on chopsticks – both homeroom teachers and specialists. Every day I will draw two chopsticks and will check in with those people that day. Hopefully that will help me do better.

    1. Janet,
      Hidden in your comment are a number of compliments… That the teacher felt comfortable enough to confide in you what she felt, that she expected more from you, both of these things speak to the culture and the support that you must offer on a regular bases. That you could see her point without getting defensive, and use that feedback to do better, that’s another quality of a great leader. And finally, that you actually developed a strategy to intentionally change your practice… I’d want to be on your team any day! 🙂

  17. Good post, sometimes people who leads others forgets how it really should looks like, the rules are no longer observed and each element simply doesn’t fit to others.

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