Monday, December 22, 2014

Why School Leadership is Like Mountain Biking: Handlebars Follow Eyes

Being a high school principal challenges me more often and more intensely than I ever anticipated. I love a good challenge, though, even in my recreational activities. Perhaps that’s why I love to ride my mountain bike as often as possible when I’m not walking the halls and visiting classrooms at school. I mention these two seemingly-unrelated activities in the same paragraph because I continue to discover parallels between the two (besides the fact that they both push me to my limit with surprising regularity).

Riding trails can be physically taxing, especially when I really push myself to ride harder or faster than the last time. I love the intensity of that kind of workout. Trail riding can be mentally taxing, too. Navigating trails on my bike, especially trails I've never ridden, challenges me mentally every time I head out for a ride. Specifically, keeping my bike on the often narrow paths really pushes me to stay focused on only the path ahead. Herein lies one of the greatest parallels I’ve discovered between leading a school and riding my mountain bike: handlebars follow eyes.

The trails I ride are not designated as beginner, advanced, or anything else. They just are. Therefore, I have to be pretty careful on the trails because I never know what’s up ahead, how slick the soil is, how many roots threaten to slow me down, or how treacherous the climbs and descents will be. What I have learned – partly through near misses, partly through clipping tree trunks and roots, and partly through being launched a few times – is that handlebars follow eyes. As much as I’d love to watch some of the beautiful things around me as I ride, I absolutely must stay focused on the trail ahead. If I shift my eyes away from the trail, my handlebars follow. Where my handlebars go, the rest of my bike goes, too. When that happens, well… I speak from experience when I say that it isn't pleasant. Believe me, staying on the trail, treacherous though it may be, beats the heck out of riding off the trail.

When I ride, my one and only task is keeping the bike moving forward on the trail. I can do that only when I strategically and intentionally focus on the path ahead and resist losing focus because of distractions around me. The same is true when leading a school or any other organization. In leadership, my sole responsibility is keeping the school moving forward along a particular path. If I allow myself to become distracted, if my eyes stray from the path, the results will not be good. This is especially true because as a school leader I never what surprises the days and weeks ahead hold for my school, my  stakeholders and me. On the trail, distractions can be beautiful things like flowing water or colorful flowers, and distractions can be unpleasant things like low-hanging branches or deep ravines. Likewise, distractions for a school leader can be great things like championships and test scores, and distractions can be not-so-great things like disgruntled stakeholders or organizational instability. Either way, because handlebars follow eyes, my school can get off track if I allow myself to become distracted.

As a school leader, an extra level of difficulty lies with the challenge of keeping everyone else in the building similarly focused only on the path ahead. If things get off track when I lose focus, imagine the consequences of a building full of teachers and/or students also losing focus.

With a mountain bike on the trails or with a leadership position in a school or other organization, handlebars follow eyes. We must stay focused on the path ahead and not allow ourselves to become distracted by things that might divert our attention and cause us – and perhaps the entire organization – to wander off the path. No matter how treacherous or daunting the path may seem, staying on the path beats the heck out of wandering off the path, colliding with an immovable object or careening into a ravine.

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