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Good Leadership Utilizes Procrastination

It’s the first week of September. You’re standing in front of your classroom assigning students the “big project.” With a due date of April 30th, you’re giving them nearly the entire year to work on it. You have learned from years past to move the due date into April to give students a few extra weeks before school is out in case they need it.

Although you have checkpoints set up throughout the year, you know most of the work will be done in the weeks and days leading up to the April 30th deadline. That’s okay. You’re teaching the students how to plan for the long term.

However, you’re disappointed when Leo not only misses the April 30th deadline but doesn’t turn in a completed project before summer break. He’s one of the brightest students in your class, but he has trouble completing assignments.

Fast forward 15 years. It’s your final year of teaching before retirement. It’s the big day…April 30th. The final turn-in day for the last of your “big projects.” Leo walks in. He hands you the project he started 15 years earlier. He tells you how he continued to work on it from time to time and it’s finally done. He has a huge smile on his face.

The look on your face leans more toward bewilderment than excitement.

Later that evening, you sit down at your kitchen table to start grading the projects. Not only is Leo’s the best project you’ve ever seen, but you encourage him to publish his work because there are some amazing insights which you believe are revolutionary.

You always knew Leo was creative. He just wasn’t very productive.

This story couldn’t possibly be true…or could it?

Productivity vs. Creativity

In 1503, Leonardo da Vinci began working on the Mona Lisa. Over 15 years later, it was discovered in his studio upon his death. It is believed he painted it mainly over four years, but some scholars believe he worked on it intermittently over the 15 year period.

Most of us would consider da Vinci a procrastinator. His projects often remained unfinished until his patrons threatened to withdraw their financial support if he didn’t produce what he had been commissioned to create.

So what does this have to do with our efforts to be leaders in our classrooms?

Every day we feel the pull between productivity and creativity…between short-term results and long-term development. The pull can come from students, parents, or administrators to get the things done they want us to get done. They want us to make decisions and they are often not very patient to get those decisions.

In The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, Steven Sample declared people often want leaders to make quick decisions for two reasons. First, they simply want to be able to get on with their business as they hop from one task to another. And second, the quicker we make a decision the more likely we are to give them the answer they want. Making quick decisions doesn’t allow us to take the time to let the question marinate in our mind, search for information, or consult other people. Sample’s tool to combat this situation is to employ artful procrastination.

Artful Procrastination

Artful procrastination is about delaying decisions to give ourselves time so we don’t just make “a” decision, we make the “best” decision with all the information and resources available. In addition, it gives us time to make sure the decision aligns with the principles and values of our integrity. It is not a passive process where we just forget about what is asked of us hoping it will go away. It is an active process of searching for the best answer, the best time to make the decision, and the best way to implement it.

It is about doing less in the name of productivity so we can become better leaders. In turn, we will make more creative decisions that will help us make a difference in the lives of our students.

Does this mean we need to wait 15 years to make a decision in order to create a masterpiece like the Mona Lisa?

Steven Sample’s colleague, Bob Wagner often reminded him that in education, “Remember…process is our most important product.”

Leadership Requires Making Judgments

In part two of this series on leadership lessons from The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, we discussed the difference between effective leadership, which prizes productivity, and good leadership, which values creativity and doing what is morally right. Classroom management often pursues effective leadership by trying to make it easy to assign decisions based on student behaviors. If a student does A, then the teacher doles out consequence B. This takes much of the decision-making out of our hands. But this isn’t true leadership. The art of leadership requires a decision-making process that takes longer but is more robust.

We can use artful procrastination to help us be more creative by looking for the action behind the action from students, parents, and administrators. It is necessary to take the time to gather facts and analysis. Yet, Sample advised us that the information we gather may be shaky or completely false in some cases. In the end, it comes down to not only making a judgment using all the information available but also a judgment that aligns with our integrity and we believe is best for the students in their long-term development.

Our Most Important Product

While effective leadership wants a decision now, good leadership is concerned with making the right decision at the right time. We can use artful procrastination to help us develop what we believe in our hearts to be the right decisions for our students.

Could da Vinci have completed the Mona Lisa in a shorter amount of time? Sure…but would it have been a piece of art that reached its full potential? We can pursue effective leadership in our classrooms, but when we do, we very well could be selling out our own leadership creativity and the potential of our students for the sake of productivity.

I disagree with Bob Wagner. Process is not the most important product in education…our students are. But I agree that process is the most important strategy we can focus on to help our students reach the full limits of their human capabilities.

Leadership Lessons from The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership

Part One: 2 Tools for Better Leadership Thinking

Part Two: Know Which Hill We’re Willing to Die On

Part Three: Creating Culture One Student at a Time

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Jon Barth

Jon Barth

Teacher - Coach - Mentor

I love to share stories, tools, and resources to help students become leaders who make a difference in the world by giving away their gifts and abilities.

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