What distinguishes the best principals among us? Each year, as I meet with the state principals, I consider this question. After all, we all work hard, we face many of the same challenges, and we have many of the same goals. But some individuals exhibit greater progress toward our goals than others. Having read Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less this year, I observed the state principals of the year through a new lens. In McKeown’s own words:

“The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage. In other words, Essentialism is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.”

I can hear you scoffing as you read this. Principals endure a constant stream of urgent demands beginning the moment they enter the building (if not before). Yet the most successful principals find a way to navigate the urgent to get to the important. They ask themselves essential questions about their tasks such as, “Will this improve learning for any of my kids?” If the answer is no, they decline or delegate the activity.

Research from The Wallace Foundation has made essentialist behavior a bit easier by identifying areas for the principal’s “highest point of contribution.” Grab your to-do list, and filter it through these questions:

  1. Does this task promote my vision of academic success for all students?
  2. Does it help me create a positive climate in the school?
  3. Does it help me identify and develop other leaders in my school?
  4. Will it improve teaching and learning?
  5. Will it streamline a process or provide insight to foster school improvement?

These questions are the essence of principals’ work. If properly considered, they force us to slow down, to reflect on our priorities, and to change our behavior. While this may be extra challenging during the hyperdrive of the holiday season, I encourage you to slow down and take time to reflect. 

Please know that I extend my ongoing, sincere gratitude for all you do for our nation’s students. Best wishes for a peaceful holiday! 

JoAnn Bartoletti
Executive Director, NASSP