Guest Column

When Busy People Are Inconvenienced

by JAMES H. VANSCIVER

Last June 10 began as a normal day for me. In my position as a director of secondary education in a comprehensive school district, I was assisting school-level staff with closing out a school year, preparing for summer school and completing a plethora of other duties.

Along with two colleagues, I was putting the finishing touches on the school district’s three-day summer administrative retreat.

I also was two weeks away from completing instruction for three master’s degree courses and a doctoral class I was teaching in the evenings. The following week, I was to accompany my youngest son to an orientation program at the University of Southern California, where he would complete his senior year of high school and start his freshman year of college some 3,000 miles away from his mother and me. I was making regular visits to my mother, whose failing health was an ominous sign of what was to come.

Finally, I was in the middle of interviewing for a position in a school district in another state.

My busy schedule had become a way of life, not unlike most who are or those who aspire to be leaders in the educational institution.

Out of Operation
Just before 10 p.m., I noticed an annoying discomfort in my abdomen. Figuring it was just a 24-hour flu, I shrugged it off. But the pain grew more pronounced, and it persisted the next day, resulting in my visit to a walk-in medical clinic late in the afternoon. The staff there recommended I proceed directly to the emergency room at the nearby hospital, where I remained until after midnight.

After a number of tests, including a CAT scan, a doctor revealed I had a growth on my intestine near my appendix.

What followed was a dizzying series of events, during which it was discovered I had a cancerous tumor between the size of a golf ball and a tennis ball. The tumor — along with 13 inches of my intestine, my appendix and 29 lymph nodes — was extracted from my abdomen during surgery. Unfortunately, I developed a blood clot in my left leg, a portion of which broke off and headed for my lung.

After nearly a two-week hospital stay, I limped home, needing constant care from my wife. On the day of my release from the hospital, my mother passed. I would be out of the office for more than five weeks.

But what about all of those responsibilities? Up until this time, I had been the master of my schedule, commanding the dates, times and locations of meetings, classes and so forth. Now my life was in someone else’s hands.

A Personal Blueprint
Often I’ve heard busy people say they don’t have time to get sick, that their schedules do not provide for time that is unscheduled. This experience has taught me that the most involved must have a sense of how to respond when they lose that ability to dictate what happens in their lives.

I suggest developing a personal blueprint of priorities that can be applied to any situation likely to arise, even in the lives of the seemingly most healthy individuals in leadership positions.

First on my list: values. It is important to understand what is important to you and to your loved ones. Is it your health? Is it sealing the deal for that college tuition? Or is it some other priority that is important to you and your family? Identify what that is and communicate it to all around you.

No. 2 is communication. Opening lines of communication in our professional and personal lives is critical if we are to survive through a complex situation such as this. Of this I became acutely aware as I was dealing with some five different physicians and a constantly changing nursing staff who all needed to know what was happening to me physically. I also had a strong need to keep things going back at the office. I was dealing with professional matters from my hospital room, all the while responding to my colleagues’ ongoing questions about my health.

Organized Plans
I had only a short notice of my incapacitated condition, which allowed me to deal with my situation. That’s where good organization, the third priority on my blueprint, comes in. The capacity to deal effectively with my professional responsibilities, the approaching summer school, the administrative retreat and the graduate classes was possible only as a result of organized lines of communication, the setting of milestones and delegating.

The ability to delegate should not be a lost art of leadership. In fact, a strong argument could be made that leadership can succeed only through delegation. In my situation, I was able to immediately identify individuals who could handle specific tasks during my absence.

I’ve regularly asserted that we have only two choices in life — to be the master of our environment or the victim of it. Through this trying personal experience, I’ve learned that our control over every aspect of our lives is not guaranteed. How we plan for the times when life takes us for a ride defines who we are as leaders.
The busiest of people are sure to be inconvenienced … unless they plan.

Jim VanSciver is interim principal at Mace’s Lane Middle School in Dorchester County, Md. E-mail: vansciverj@dcpsmd.org