Balancing Leadership Demands

How do you balance all the challenges, opportunities, and crises that come your way—and still find time for family, health, and retaining a positive outlook?

I haven’t always balanced priorities as well as I should have, but here are a few strategies that have worked for me:

  1. Put High Priority Work First
    Leadership experts tell you to keep an ABC list current and in front of you. Do the A priorities first. In Peter Drucker’s book, The Effective Executive (a short book well worth reading), he essentially says: know your priorities, schedule your priorities, work your priorities, and evaluate your priorities.
  2. Schedule Personal Time
    Early on, I was frustrated that there was never enough time to go for a run. There was a track near my office and I told myself daily, I’ll go for a run after work today. Then there would be drop-ins at 4:00, 5:00, maybe even 6:00 pm. While I accepted the meeting requests, each time I would grumble inwardly about forfeiting, yet again, the run I had promised. Finally, I decided it was okay to schedule the run; tell others vying for the same time slot, I’m sorry I have another commitment on my schedule.  And keep my personal commitment to go for a run.
  3. Keep Learning
    Be intentional about learning the essentials. What is it most important? What do you want to be known for? Make time to keep learning in those areas. Put it on the schedule. Guard that time no matter what. For educators, student learning matters most. Twenty years ago, I didn’t know much about instruction. I would follow our instructional coaches around and marvel at their ability to assess after only a brief observation, They are only doing third grade work in that fourth grade classroom. Now, after years of intentional classroom visits, I can make those same observations. It takes 10,000 hours to build expertise. Start now.
  4. Touch Base
    Plan intentionally to reach out to your most important constituent groups. I call this the “wagon wheel” concept. If I ignore one group too much, that spoke gets shorter and the ride gets bumpy. I am not the most intuitive (right brain), but I can make a list and check it twice (left brain). I intentionally attend principal meetings, visit schools and classrooms, have coffee with board members quarterly, meet with labor leaders and PTSA leaders regularly. If I have missed a specific group one or more times, my executive assistant knows to move it up on the priority list so I am sure to attend the next time.
  5. Goals
    Ideally, What one of us knows, all of us know. We want innovation and best practices to become the norm. I tend to think of goals in waves: first, second, and third.
    • First wave – Exploration
      In any new innovation, there are early adopters and those sitting on the sidelines. I encourage the lead adopters, check-in, and cheerlead.
    • Second wave  – Pilots
      We start to see evidence of positive gains from positive outliers. We learn from their experience and adaptation. I advertise those gains to the entire team to let them know about our new learning.
    • Third wave – Standardized Work Processes
      We have identified what works and provided for intentional support. I explain WHY this process is important and listen for adjustments that are needed to reach 100 percent implementation. I support coaching so that all can do what only a few could do before.
  6. Daily Five
    John Maxwell, a prolific writer on leadership, talks often about his Daily Five. He sets aside time daily for: reading, reflection, writing, filing, and prayer. For some time now, my Daily Five have included: goals, reading, cheerleading, time with God, and exercise. What are your Daily Five?
  7. Family
    I neglected my family during my early career and my kids’ growing-up years. I paid a price for that and spent years intentionally rebuilding those relationships. During the empty nest phase, I was able to give more to the job thanks to an understanding spouse. Keep family close. Jobs come and go; they will never love you back. We all need family, both now and in the years come. Several years ago I began sending my granddaughter post cards at least once a week (she now has literally thousands), letting her know I am thinking about her and often including a small tidbit of family history that is part of her heritage.
  8. Down Time
    Even God rested on the seventh day! I set aside one day a week, usually Sunday, as a no-work day. I intentionally tune out emails and to-do lists. Instead, I do other things: worship, read, walk, rest, spend time with family to give my brain and body time for needed rest and recharging.
  9. Refill the Tank
    Find and make time for what energizes you. For me, this includes regular exercise, reading, and a support group. I read for learning, read for pleasure, and always have one good positive uplifting book (think “Chicken Soup for the Soul”) that keeps me looking up.  And I have been blessed with a group of close friends who trust, support, and lift each other up.
  10. Habits
    Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Each of the above is the result of a lesson I learned the hard way: by making mistakes. Making mistakes is part of life. The key is to recognize them when they happen and pause to learn from them. Think about what happened and why. Keep adjusting priorities to focus on what matters most. Be patient with yourself. Grow the habits you need for the long haul.




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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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