Leadership Lessons from a Hospital Room

Erik EllefsenThe CACE Roundtable1 Comment

Learn & LeadI have been having many fun conversations about education recently, and have other blogs that I am working on entitled “NCLB Reauthorization and Private Schools”, “I Hate Homework”, and a follow-up to “Innovation and Digical Schools”. However, March 2015 is Multiple Myeloma Awareness month, and I thought I would share some leadership lessons from my journey through the early days of diagnosis and treatment.

My Story:

In 2008, I was 33 years old and beginning my second year as a high school principal. We were in the midst of significant change as student achievement and engagement were significantly lower than demographically comparable schools. We were also planning our way forward into the ‘admissions crunch’ brought on by the recession and demographic changes. Lastly, we had a true and bold desire to reenergize a school that had an amazing legacy within its community.

However, in October I began having trouble with my sight. The prior summer I had severe headaches and fatigue, but the doctor chalked it up to exhaustion that is unfortunately normal for the job of principal. This time was different and after two weeks of tests, appointments, and consultations I was told by my ophthalmologist that my wife should drive us toward home and someone would call with instructions.

The instructions were simple: go to the hospital; don’t check-in; go to the 3rd floor; they’ll be waiting for you. I soon learned that I had stage-3 multiple myeloma and would need to immediately start a wide array of treatments just to keep me alive. My health story goes on, gets more complicated, and continues today (see the 2nd video); however, what I didn’t realize at the time was how much this experience would teach me about leadership and school transformations.

Leadership Lessons:

At the point of diagnosis there was too much at stake to put a hold on what was started, so we boldly went forward without much of a plan other than to continue the change process amidst my situation and the limitations it created. I know others within the school could write numerous blogs about what they experienced over the next 3 years, but these lessons are what I was learning that now after four years out of leadership I believe can help every school leader maximize their time, health, and abilities to build quality schools.

Preach the Vision, It Will Outlast You

I knew before I got sick that the compelling vision of the school would last longer than me, so during my treatment it became of the utmost importance to preach the vision every chance I could. This placed the appropriate focus on clarifying action that was not part of my agenda, but rather part of fulfilling the ideal of what the school is and what it could become. My encouragement to leaders who are on their campus each and every day is to allow the vision of the school to be at the forefront of every conversation, strategy, and decision, and for you as the leader to become the preacher who gets to explicate and clarify this vision for others to see, feel, and experience more each day.

Know Thyself, Maximize Your Leadership

I was blessed before I took the principal’s job that I had candidated with New Leaders for New Schools where I had done significant leadership and personality testing to get a better understanding of how to maximize my strengths. In a strange way my personality and leadership strengths were suited for the challenges to come while I was in the hospital. Likewise, over the next three years I became less apologetic for my shortcomings as a leader.

In schools there is an expectation that a principal be all things to all people, and I had always known that was not possible nor was I interested in being that type of heroic leader. My hospital stays taught me how to maximize my strengths, what leadership shortfalls I could ignore, and most importantly how to communicate better who I was and how I would lead. For the first time, this ability to focus on my own leadership strengths allowed for a much more vibrant leadership dynamic within the school.

Empower Leadership Teams, Don’t Manage Them

At the end of my first year of leadership I was able to hire three new members and add two others with the two remaining leaders to create a dynamic and ambitious leadership team. In normal circumstance this is unusual, but in the context of school change it is unheard of that a leader gets to rebuild so quickly. I didn’t fully realize the significance of these hires until I got sick, but this team quickly became the greatest asset to school change I could ever imagine.

I had hired each leader because of their values, skills, talents, and ambitions, and in our first summer together we began to grow as a team, learn about our strengths, and developed immediate action plans for the school year as we looked to dramatically impact the short-term health of the school. While in the hospital I learned to coordinate efforts from afar and often out of the limelight that would allow these talented and ambitious leaders to implement the change we had planned.

As I visit schools I’m often surprised by how many leaders don’t have a dynamic leadership team, how often leaders mismanage their teams by micromanaging daily routines, or by being inattentive to the coordination of team energy and efforts. I was blessed to have been able to hire a dynamic team and I am not known as a micromanager, but I did learn that my most important job from the hospital was to coordinate the actions of my team and to keep them energized for the daily grind.

Keep Communicating, Create Feedback Loops

Most leaders I’ve met fear not being in control. Personally, I had a greater fear; that of not being in the know about what was happening. Therefore, I went about creating official and unofficial feedback loops that would keep me in the know and would allow me to coordinate and direct the change strategy. I tried as much as possible to meet with my leaders on a regular basis whether it was in the hospital, at my home, or when I was in the office. Technology was hugely important for me personally as I had regular phone meetings and email allowed me to receive official weekly reports. I am aware that I was cut out of the process and protected from the stress and busyness of daily school business, but I wanted to be aware of what was being decided and implemented.

I am surprised by how few official feedback loops school leaders implement with their team. Very few use effective meeting protocol to actually strategize and work on initiatives while even fewer ask for regular reports from their leadership team to stay apprised of progress. Lastly, I’m amazed at how busy leaders make themselves doing stuff that has little impact when they could be communicating with their leadership team to increase organizational effectiveness.

It’s About the People, Enjoy!

While in the hospital I met brilliant doctors, compassionate nurses, and fellow myeloma warriors. Each day I was served and encouraged, so that I could not only stay alive but to live well; however, as I met these people I realized that they also had a need to be served and encouraged. Once it was known that I was a principal I had daily inquiries for advice on how to navigate the difficulties of life; in particular I remember a nurse’s son struggling with school bullies, a doctor struggled to balance the demands for her talented daughter, and a fellow patient who feared for her grandchildren as she was their primary caregiver.

This reminded me that I wasn’t trying to build a school, but rather that I was in the human business of creating a learning community of adults and students who learned with, celebrated with, cared for, journeyed with, and enjoyed each other in the daily grind of school life. As you go about your daily grind, I encourage you to tell your story, listen to other’s story, and enjoy the opportunity to do the hard work of being a school leader.


  • Erik Ellefsen

    Erik Ellefsen is a CACE Senior Fellow and the Director of Networks and Improvement at the Baylor University’s Center for School Leadership. He also serves as Senior Fellow for Cardus, hosts Digital Education (a podcast providing engaging conversations with some of the most innovative education leaders), and is a leading collaborator and author of the Mindshift and Future Ready projects.

One Comment on “Leadership Lessons from a Hospital Room”

  1. Erik
    You are a beautiful witness of a servant of the Lord, using your gifts and education to build your field of interest, and to minister to others.
    Although we have not been together more than a few times, as family, we send our respect and love to you. May God richly bless you.
    Jan (Your mom’s cousin)

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