The Surprising Truth about What Matters Most


Mike knew that reading instruction wasn’t his strongest area, given his background as a math and science teacher, so he knew it was crucial to build an administrative team with a literacy background.

He hired a new assistant principal, Carla, because of her literacy expertise, and she became a critical part of the school’s improvement efforts.

As a middle school principal, Mike stayed busy with ten thousand things, and found himself spending about as much time on literacy after hiring Carla as before.

But a funny thing happened: he became much more knowledgeable about literacy, and teachers became much more focused on literacy, and over time, test scores in literacy improved. Mike became a stronger instructional leader by emphasizing literacy with Carla’s help, even though he continued to spend only a small fraction of his day on literacy.

What should we make of Mike’s story? If literacy is so important, why didn’t Mike spend more time on it?

Impact is not proportional to time. Impact is proportional to leverage.

Beyond Time Allocation

Should we divide our time among our responsibilities in proportion to their importance?

In other words, should we spend the most time on the most important issues, a moderate amount of time on the moderately important issues, and no time at all on unimportant issues?

It sounds logical. In fact, it sounds like a no-brainer…isn’t that what “importance” means? Don’t we spend our time on things in proportion to their priority?


You’re a leader of a small, complicated organization, and that means you’re also a manager. And managing involves doing a lot of what we might call “low-priority” work, because, well, it just needs to get done, and we’re the ones to do it.

And that “ten thousand things” work is part of the work, not just a distraction from it.

How should we feel about this? Does this mean we can’t get to our big priorities?

Not at all.

First Things First

In fact, it means we have to be even more careful to “put the big rocks in first” as Steven Covey used to tell us. And it means we need to become absolute ninjas at dispatching the “stuff” that interferes with our most important work.

Paul Bambrick-Santoyo has a great book called Leverage Leadership, in which he argues that we can’t make the excuse that we don’t have time to lead our schools to improve:

This book argues that a school leader’s main role is in two places: instruction and culture. Every minute that a leader spends outside of these is a minute when the core levers of school success are not being advanced.

“operations” [issues] are vital components of the very foundation of any school. Nevertheless, they are not where school leaders will make their impact on student achievement, and thus they are not the areas where school leaders should be investing their time. (pp. 254-255)

I think Bambrick-Santoyo is on to something here, but I don’t think he’s completely right about the way leaders’ impact operates. We shouldn’t waste time on unimportant issues, and we should delegate smartly, but we also need to recognize that we aren’t billionaire CEOs.

We’re administrators, and we need to be both realistic and smart about what will take up our time, and what will allow us to have an impact.

So use your time wisely, but also recognize that sometimes, your impact comes more from the actions you take than the hours you spend.

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About the Author

Justin Baeder helps school administrators increase their productivity through the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network. Learn More »

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