At the top of the stairs on my second-floor landing sits a fragile wooden chair, whimsically hand-painted, covered with images of colorful cats on surfboards and random expressions like “Eschew obfuscation.” Several friends gave it to me years ago for my 30th birthday. For me, it’s a symbol of how funny and thoughtful my friends are. For my two cats, who take turns crouching under it, it’s like a little cage. They use it as a safe spot—home base in their games of tag—to take breaks from chasing each other. The funny thing is, it’s not really safe. I can easily pick one of them up when they’re “hiding” under there. But they view this cage-like chair as a form of protection.
I was thinking about this chair while reading Rick Hess’s new book, CAGE-BUSTING LEADERSHIP, which sheds light on the problem of school leaders who act as though they are caged and need to learn how to bust out. After quickly identifying some of the key causes for this caged mindset and noting the odd fact that many people seem not to even realize that they suffer from it, Hess beams most of his attention on why this perspective is problematic and how school leaders can actually accomplish more than they might believe. He offers an array of strategies supported by anecdotes that demonstrate how they have worked. His suggestions are both wise and practical: for example, we should use resources more effectively; we should be intimately familiar with the terms of contracts and be sure we’re not assuming we can’t do certain things just because they’ve never been done that way before, and so on. His ideas and the examples of how they’ve been implemented are dynamic and inspiring; in fact, at various points I found myself reconsidering my decision not to become a principal.
Hess’s message, exhorting school leaders to be bolder, should ring through the halls of every education graduate school in the land. But I wonder if it will. And that problem, I think, will require another book—or ten. Because the truth is, some people aren’t merely in denial about the notion of the cage. Instead, like my two cats, they welcome the cage, that’s why they don’t see themselves as “suffering from” the caged mindset. The cage protects them. If you can convince others that you’re caged, you don’t have to take so many risks, and you can blame it on the cage. See, the cage is a convenient excuse. And this may explain why so many people make their living building cages.