Saturday, September 13, 2014

Why School Leadership is Like Mountain Biking: Climbing Hills

I love being a high school principal. I also love mountain biking. Both challenge me and push me to my limit with surprising regularity. I've been involved in school leadership a few years longer than I've been mountain biking, but I've discovered a number of parallels that I believe shed light on how to handle the challenges of educational leadership. Navigating trails on my bike, especially trails I've never ridden, challenges me physically and mentally every time I go out. Keeping my bike on the narrow paths I ride also pushes me to my limits each and every time I ride. The biggest challenge for me right now, however, lies neither with twists and turns nor narrow paths. The biggest challenge for me lies with big, steep, and often-intimidating hills.

As a relative newcomer to the world of mountain biking, I initially attacked hills in entirely the wrong way. Actually, attacked isn't quite right. Let me paint the scene for you. I would ride to the base of the hill, slow to a virtual stop, pick my line or path up the incline, and then pedal upward. After a few feet, I'd realize I was ascending in the wrong gear, so I'd try to shift gears mid-climb. Eventually, I would stall, the bike would draw to a standstill (which, on a hill, is a bad thing), and I would be forced to leap off my bike to avoid tumbling backward. Not a pretty scene.

After stubbornly trying various iterations of the same approach, I realized I had no idea how to climb hills. I needed a plan. I needed help from people who had been there before and who successfully climb hills all the time. I scoured the Internet for videos and articles about climbing hills on a mountain bike. I went to a local bike shop and asked for advice. I watched (in awe, I might add) other cyclists climb hills that had made me look like the rookie that I was.

After plenty of research, I realized the error of my ways. First, I needed to build speed and momentum as I approached a hill. Slowing down to ponder couldn't have been more wrong. I needed the speed and momentum to launch me upward and aid in my ascent. Second, I needed pick my line before I reached the base of the hill. Choosing my path as I started my ascent proved just as disastrous as climbing from a standstill. Third, I needed to select a gear suited for the hill ahead of time. Shifting gears mid-climb led only to bent sprockets and bailouts. Fourth, I needed to power up the hill using a completely different posture. I had been distributing my weight in the worst possible way. Finally, I needed more time and practice on hills. The only way I would get better was by trying to climb more hills.

Armed with my new-found knowledge, I headed back to the hills to try again. Imagine my euphoria when I climbed a hill that had bested me on each and every previous attempt. I tried a different hill with my new approach and I made it! I wasn't always graceful, but I made it to the top more and more frequently.

As a school leader, I climb school-related hills frequently. These hills range from interactions with upset parents to handling losses or disappointments to PR issues to dealing with deaths in the school community. Interestingly, climbing hills as a school leader mirrors climbing dirt hills on a mountain pretty well. One of the first things I realize as a school leader is that I should seek out wiser and more experienced leaders who have experience from which I can glean wisdom and knowledge. As a school leader, I have to find momentum and ride that momentum as much as possible. Riding the momentum of great test scores, a great Open House or Convocation, a state championship or some other great moment helps when tough times arise. As a school leader, I have to choose a path and commit. Mid-climb is neither the time nor place to start thinking about how to navigate a challenge or to shift gears. As a school leader, posture carries great significance. A confident, strong posture can mean the difference between success and failure when climbing hills as a school leader. A weak or defensive posture can spell disaster. Finally, the more hills I climb, the more savvy and able I become.

To be fair, I can't climb every hill I encounter on my bike. Just last week, I cautiously stopped at the bottom of a rather large and scary hill to watch and learn from the riders coming along behind me (who, by the way, climbed the hill like mountain goats!). I'm reasonably sure that one day, with more strength and experience, I will climb that very hill. Likewise, there may be a school-related hill that will prove too high or steep for me right now. In both cases, I'm going to keep working hard to put myself in a better position to be successful in my ascent.


Unknown said...

As a fellow mountain biker, and school leader, I can relate to your vivid analogy! But I'd add that what goes up must come down. I have more problems on the way down - allowing an issue to take me out of control and crashing. Too much brake can be deadly too. What I've found is flow and momentum is crucial - rolling over obstacles at a consistent speed makes the ride safer and ultimately more successful. Enjoy the ride!

Nathan Barber said...

Great advice. I think you are spot on with regard to consistent speeds. Also, too much brake is a great analogy, too. Thanks for sharing!