There are lists aplenty when it comes to what makes a great leader. They need to be courageous, creative, ethical, compassionate, strong, connected and have the ability to make strategic decisions in the best interests of the communities they serve. However when stress takes hold, when the workload builds up and that overwhelming feeling rushes over us like an insurmountable wave our focus can be impacted and we run the risk of losing sight of what is really important. I read an article recently that stated that two thirds of leaders surveyed in the study believed that their stress level is higher today than it was 5 years ago. Why is that? In some ways I guess it’s a rhetorical question. We know the demands of the job are increasing, we know the skill set is expanding; we know too well the hours are extending. I know at times the day to day demands can be intense. I hear about leaders who are feeling the pressure to keep up with the evolving nature of the educational landscape. We are certainly under the microscope of producing results, having impact from an intense educational reform platform. So, what impact is this having on our leaders and what can we do to right the ship?
In my conversations with colleagues there seems to be a culture of soldiering on. We are leaders, we can deal with pressure, we don’t have time to slow down, the work needs to be done. It could be perceived as a sign of weakness if we we’re not coping. I also hear of some colleagues who feel they need to appear to be stressed as if there is some unwritten expectation of leadership that you need to be over worked, overloaded and turning out eighteen hour days. Whilst I agree as leaders we need to work hard, we should work hard, we are tasked with a great deal of responsibility. I also believe that we need to strike the right work life balance. We need to be able to identify our own signals of stress and ensure we are able to put things in place to manage our wellbeing and the wellbeing of our staff……..outlets away from work for every leader are vitally important.
So what are the things that seem to cause us stress? During this period of significant educational reform the ever increasing workload plays a major role. We seem to almost get a handle on one concept and another is handed to us, with two more waiting in the wings and then the required compliance matters which never escape us. As leaders we need to be very focussed on what is important. What is it that will have impact? If it has no impact, if it does not relate to what will make a difference for students then eliminate it. It’s been said thousands of times before, but doing a few things well is far better than doing a number of things poorly. Assess what is achievable and work towards it, when we overload our schedules we set ourselves and others up for failure. Much of our stress comes from circumstances beyond our control. Whilst I recognise that we can never eliminate all of the low impact initiatives, we must certainly do everything in our power to make sure the main thing, is the main thing. Focus on what you can take carriage of and make a difference in that area. The external pressure will always be there, by acknowledging this and accepting that it is beyond your control allows you to move on and get on with the job. I believe this is a positive and proactive approach. Showing leadership in this area will not only reduce your stress but will go a long way to eliminating the stress of your staff.
It can be highly stressful dealing with conflict and difficult personalities. I know of many leaders who lose sleep thinking about how they are going have a difficult conversation. The ability to mediate and lead negotiations between personalities to find successful outcomes can be a very difficult and taxing process. It can be challenging to find common ground and at times decisions need to be made that may not please opposing sides. This can weigh heavily on us as leaders. It is common that one side will have a very limited view and cannot see the wider implications of their actions. This tests our skill when trying to navigate these discussions making sure that we listen attentively whilst trying to guide both parties to a successful resolution. Understanding the difference between personal and professional opinion and being able to distinctly separate them so that your judgement is not clouded can be a difficult task. I’ve found that having a plan, thinking through the conversations and trying to anticipate alternatives is helpful and assists greatly in preparation for potentially difficult conversations. Identifying your personal and professional opinion on the subject and trying to view it from the first floor rather than ground level gives some perspective. In difficult conversations perception can become reality for some, so trying to consider how your responses may be perceived is also a useful preparation tool. If you are temporarily able to see your responses through the eyes of others and utilise a degree of emotional intelligence you can be more strategic in your management which maximises the opportunity for a successful resolution.
Another area of frustration I hear from leaders is the roller coaster ride that is maintaining momentum in the implementation of initiatives. We see it regularly. The high quality professional learning has been delivered, the fire in the belly has been ignited, and there is a definitive way forward. The staff are on board, you can almost smell the enthusiasm and passion in the air and then 24 hours later, it’s died down and the flaws in the plan have been highlighted. The reasons why it can’t be achieved have taken you on the one step forward, two steps back dance. I know that feeling I hear you say, it happens here, I leave work in the afternoon feeling great and then by the next morning the weight is firmly back on my shoulders. I believe that we need to focus on progress not perfection. We need to look for and celebrate the small steps forward. Setting long term goals with small increments built in develops the idea that drops in a bucket add up. I’ve found this approach alleviates the frustration. It allows you to anticipate the road blocks and set appropriate detours along the way. Take time out to celebrate the progress and reflect on the incremental achievements. But most importantly don’t ride yourself too hard, there are many working parts to a well-oiled machine and sometimes they just need a little extra oil.
We know that stress can hinder us, but it can also be a force that fortifies our efforts. To use it as a motivator we need to be able to recognise it coming on and monitor our own stress responses. I know when I’m getting stressed. I lose focus, I can feel it in the pit of my stomach, I feel like I will never get the work done. I look at the list, the pile of papers, the full calendar and try to navigate safe passage. I don’t listen as well at this time, I know I’m preoccupied thinking about what needs to be done. It’s at this time that I have to stop and go for a walk, visit a class, take a time out. This short period away allows me to develop some perspective. The work will get done, it always does. In times of high stress I believe we have a tendency to over think the work, to make things more complicated than they need to be. I find making a list of what needs to be done today and what can wait helps to put things in perspective. Thinking about each task and asking, will it really matter if it does not get done today? Defining the task and clarifying what the expectation is assists in bringing it to its simplest form making it more manageable. Using this method I can make an immediate to do list allowing me to focus on the most important tasks in an organised manner. I then set very clear timeframes, you will not be doing your best work during an all-nighter. Be realistic about what you can achieve, depriving yourself of sleep and some down time will not help alleviate your stress. Remember balance is key. Making time to unwind, prioritize what is important. Sometimes the task immediately in front of us gets all the attention when it could possibly be the task that can wait. It’s important to think the tasks through and evaluate what has to be done today and by whom. I believe this is critically important as leaders. If we can use this method when running our eye over the whole school we can help alleviate the pressure our staff feel as well. Let them know they have time, ensure they are able to identify what is important and allow them the ebb and flow of a balanced work environment.
As the leader of your workplace the culture you create in ensuring that there is the right balance rests solely on your shoulders. Listen carefully, observe closely and lead by example in maintaining a healthy balance. Getting the work life balance can be difficult thing, but it’s vitally important. Your wellbeing goes a long way to ensuring the wellbeing of your staff. The right balance starts at the top. People will look to you to see what the expectation is. I’ve often listened to world class athletes who whilst working at the top of their personal performance on a daily basis also talk about the importance of recovery. They spend almost as much time preparing and performing as they do systematically recovering in preparation to do it all again. They also take time to discuss their performance and schedules with someone. Reaching out and talking to a colleague can help put things in perspective. Stress is part of leadership, you can let it rule you or you can take charge. After reading this blog why not try to answer the following questions. What are you doing to recover? How do you manage your stress? Do you recognise the signs? What strategies have you got in place to alleviate it? Develop a plan, because we need you to be at the top of your game every day. Our students are too important for you not to be. At the end of the day you are charged with making a positive impact on the students you serve, I’m sure you’ll agree that thought alone has a positive impact on your wellbeing.