Getting the Big Things Right: Priorities for School Leaders

Gary ArnoldThe CACE RoundtableLeave a Comment

Priorities for School Leaders

Axios founder Jim VandeHei built his nimble, voracious media channel on five words: get the big things right.

My mind immediately recalled VanderHei’s mantra when Drs. Smith and Lepine asked me to write a follow-up to their foundational blogpost, “Keeping a Kingdom Mindset.” How do transformational leaders get (and keep) the big things right?

Big Thing #1: Posture

In both large school and small schools, a common question surfaces: are you a “hands-on” or “hands-off” leader? The question has merit, but the analogy stops short of the bigger issue for keeping a Kingdom mindset.

The bigger and better question is this: “Am I a ‘heads-up’ leader?”

Don’t over-spiritualize this question too quickly. Yes, a lack of prayer eviscerates a Kingdom mindset, and not looking to Jesus is guaranteed to steer us off course. Yes, a “heads-up” leader prays with eyes on the prize.

But what I mean by “heads-up” is an alertness to all the dynamics of perpetual change within our range of responsibility. Heads-up leadership is a prerequisite to adaptability. More than ever, adaptability is an indispensable tool for leading through change, for generating wins. Eyes open, ears on, neurons firing, questions asked out loud. All the time. Our Lord, our colleagues, and our environment are more than willing to give us a heads-up to what we’re about to experience. We’ll be ready with timely wisdom from above. “To him who has an ear, let him hear.”

Big Thing #2: Zeal

A second handgrip for our climb to generating wins is concisely captured by Rabbi Paul of Tarsus: “Lead with zeal” (Rom 12:8). Newton’s second law of thermodynamics always prevails. Things break down. As the bumper sticker on the Roman chariot aptly notes, “Effluvia happens.”

How do we push back on that? How do we generate Kingdom wins as school leaders against the natural law of entropy? We lead with zeal. Every day. Zeal is defined as great energy or enthusiasm for a cause. If we do not possess and display great energy or enthusiasm for our daily vocation, there is zero hope for success or positive outcomes. Zeal is contagious. With zeal, the bumper sticker now reads, “Dreams happen.”

Big Thing #3: Patience

For most of my career, I would leave a school after seven years. “Seems biblical,” I would wryly convince myself. Truth be told, each move reflected impatience. A seasoned colleague once counseled me that effectual change in a positive direction takes at least ten years. Our speed-of-light mentality tempts us to discount that advice. We become the voice of Toad in Arnold Lobel’s “The Garden“Seeds, start growing!” We grow frustrated when the seeds do not quickly comply.

In my current appointment, I was given the precious opportunity to test the efficacy of time. I stayed in place for over ten years. Sure enough, a decade’s momentum caused an even larger flywheel to turn, and our school flourished in a whole new dimension. Think of Senge’s maxim: “Don’t push growth. Eliminate factors limiting growth.” Seasoned leaders know that progress takes more time than a novice can imagine. The Scriptures plead with us to wait upon the Lord. For those of us who learn the discipline of waiting, change comes as a tsunami in the Pacific—imperceptible until impact.

Big Thing #4: Shared, Selfless Power

I have an advantage on this point. I was raised in the Quaker tradition, and my mother’s life verse was, “Consider the interests of others as more important than your own” (Phil 2:4). A prevailing sense within the Quaker meetinghouse was shared, selfless power. The Holy Spirit owned the room. As children and heirs of God, our gifts were for sharing; our gifts were for others. In the reverberating ethic of Bonhoeffer, our life is a life for others. The immediate demand on us as transformative leaders is to practice shared leadership in our collectives—boards, stakeholders, faculty, leaders, students. As we let go of power, we maintain a Kingdom mindset and things change. Things get better.

Big Thing #5: Persistence

Persistence is the mystery ingredient that can sustain or recapture each key element of a Kingdom mindset. Persistence buys us the time we need and the fortitude our schools require to generate accomplishments and revel in the inevitable serendipity of our work. Capital campaigns, mentoring, learning, creating buy-in, overcoming obstacles, dealing with pushback and toxicity, partnering with parents, spiritual formation, self-management, time-management, championships, retention—all these things and more require an intentional, even supernatural, persistence.

One More Big Thing: The Good News

Lest we succumb to the temptation to “generate wins” as our legitimizer or our modus operandi, we must never forget the seminal basis for what we do—the pearl of great price, namely, the gospel. If we are not mindful about this, the lure of and almost justifiable ache for respectability can creep in like kudzu to overtake our real mission-driver. If the “good news of great joy” is not evident in us, if we do not exude a vitality for that mission, if we do not exude the shalom of the cross, our leadership cannot stand. Ultimately, we will disqualify ourselves. That’s how big the good news of God really is.

This is my struggle. Henri Nouwen’s temptations of Christ are all too real—the temptation to be “relevant, popular, powerful,” and the best.

I write this blog during Lent with its daily reminder that I am not my own. I have been bought with a price. I am a bond-servant of the One who loved me and gave Himself for me (Gal 2:20). That’s the gospel truth and the meme of eternity. It’s the kernel of a Kingdom mindset and the ultimate non-negotiable of our schools.

The pandemic has given us a season to recalibrate. Our schools are ripe for transformation. Before we print the blueprints, let’s ask ourselves “why?” five times. If Jesus is still in the picture and a real problem can be solved, make it happen!

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I’ll share a private snapshot. When we receive a transformative gift at our school, the envelope remains sealed. My CFO and I privately walk the check to the foot of a large bronze cross at the high end of campus. Discreetly, we lay the check at the base and pray, “Be magnified.” Bottom line: Like many of us, I love change, innovation, and wins. But I love the words, “Well done, faithful servant” even more.

Comer, J.M., The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry
Gerhardt, M., Lincoln’s Mentors
Goodwin, D. K., Team of Rivals
Gordon, J., Energy Bus
Roberts, A., Churchill
Sweet, L. Summoned to Lead


  • Gary Arnold

    Gary Arnold is a partner of NextEd, an educational services platform equipped to empower schools to achieve their “next.” From 2007 to 2023, Gary served as President of Little Rock Christian Academy, an accredited member of SAIS and a certified member of CESA. Prior to coming to Little Rock, Gary served as a school head in Illinois and Massachusetts and as a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent schools. Gary directs the head of school certification program for the Council for Educational Standards and Accountability. He also serves on the board of the Council for American Private Education.

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