When you hear the name “Jim Collins”, you probably think of the book From Good to Great. It’s the most famous of his many works on leadership and excellence. But tucked away in another fine book, Great by Choice, is a compelling story of a set of schools that “beat the odds” in a study of schools that were working with underprivileged students. Even though they were facing enormous difficulties, one set of schools consistently outperformed other schools that were facing similar adversities.
The study found that many factors were outside of the principals’ control, such as class size, length of the school day, underfunding, and low parental involvement. However, those things didn’t seem to impact whether a school was ranked as a high-performing school or a low-performing school.
What made the difference? The principals in the “beat the odds” schools put their energies into what they could do. These principals focused upon a set of disciplines that they could execute even in the midst of adverse circumstances. They had three critical principles:
- Don’t play the blame game. Have the strength to look at the problem and take responsibility.
- Don’t think the solution is “out there”. If things aren’t going well, leadership is responsible to make changes to improve the situation.
- Everyone matters. If every student in every classroom isn’t learning, the school isn’t doing its job.
They saw that “grasping for the next ‘silver bullet’ reform—lurching from one program to the next, this year’s fad to next year’s fad—destroys motivation and erodes confidence.” (p. 57) There isn’t an easy three-step solution out there to find!
The late great Stephen Covey taught that we all have a circle of concern and a circle of influence. The circle of influence is contained within the circle of concern. That’s because we all have things about which we are concerned, but over which we have no influence. On the other hand, there are some things that are both within our circle of concern AND our circle of influence. We have control over those things.
Great leaders focus their energy, not on their circle of concern, but on their circle of influence. They concentrate on things over which they have some control. Covey taught that when we focus our energy on our circle of influence, it tends to expand; but when we focus our attention on our circle of concern, not only are we unable to really make a difference, at the same time, our circle of influence shrinks because of lost time, resources, and opportunities.
Turns out these principals aren’t just teaching kids! They are setting the example for all of us.