School leaders are expected to be visibly in charge, always on top of their game, doing the right things to advance the school, and exuding confidence and command. For these traits, leaders have extensive resources to draw on to foster their professional growth. The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), the regional and state independent schools associations, a plethora of consultants, a cohort of leadership coaches, and various professional organizations provide abundant avenues for aspiring and in-place leaders. Most school heads are exposed to an array of excellent professional resources, are socialized to the demands of school leadership, and learn how to deal with pressing issues confronting schools.
NAIS statistics show, however, that there is a high turnover rate among heads. Moreover, observations of accreditation teams and school consultants suggest that an abbreviated tenure (five or fewer years) is not optimum for a school. Continuity of leadership and staying the course are crucial factors for successful schools.
Why are there so many abbreviated tenures? Many factors, of course, affect leadership success and continuity, including the complexity of the challenges facing schools and school leaders, a search process that may not produce the right fit between school and head, leaders who are not ready for the breadth of responsibility that comes with school leadership, crises that overwhelm the school and leader, and overly intrusive boards.
There is, however, another crucial and mostly unacknowledged factor in leadership success and failure: the loneliness of leadership and the behaviors that flow from this condition.
In private moments, few school heads will deny the pressures and doubts that come with the job. Yet the inner life of heads is most often kept under wraps. Indeed, for many reasons, heads are reluctant to share their anxieties, insecurities, and fears. There are reasons for this reluctance, but, typically, it is because most heads lack trusted outlets for such self-revelation, or because they believe that others will perceive such an admission as weakness, or they think it is politically dangerous to admit to “chinks in the armor,” especially when there is an expectation of infallibility.
But for many heads, the reluctance to discuss their state of mind can also be chalked up to lacking competence in the social-emotional side of leadership.
Stress and Anxiety in School Leadership
Extensive research indicates that a healthy inner life — particularly self-awareness, self-reflection, and self-revelation — is important to functioning in the world. Unfortunately, this tacit dimension of leadership is often missing in leadership development. As a result, both heads and schools suffer. Countless conversations with school leaders and observations of schools suggest that unexamined stress, anxiety, or unhappiness can affect leadership behavior in various ways, including the following:
- The head may develop unhealthy habits: particularly poor sleep patterns, less exercise, and increased consumption of alcohol.
- The head may begin to act out in anger and frustration.
- The head may develop a pattern of avoidance behavior, especially pertaining to perceived sources of stress and anxiety.
- The head may avoid long-standing sources of emotional sustenance, especially friends, colleagues, spouse, or partner.
Any combination of these behaviors can put one’s headship tenure in jeopardy. The dynamics of a downward spiral in any given headship are unique, but the social-emotional dimension is frequently a factor in most, if not all, cases.
The first step in addressing the problem is to discern its origins. What situations and challenges do we assume when we take on a position of leadership in a school? Which ones test our ability to function happily and successfully?
The pervasive challenges for heads include the following.
Anxious, Demanding Parents
Parenting is subject to many new forces — especially the dangers of social media, the changing face of the job market for young people, the hyperintense competition for admission to selective colleges, and the high cost of private secondary education and college. In addition, parents see their children in a high-stakes competition for life success, and, thus, are driven to do everything they can to support their child.
The cumulative result has been a rising tide of anxious and demanding parents. Whether it is a school policy or the action of a teacher or the mental state of their child, all of these situations eventually end up at the desk of the school leader. Exacerbated by easy access to email and texting, the flow is persistent and often personalized. What are you going to do for my child? parents demand. It’s hard for heads not to carry this weight home at the end of the day.
Pressures on Family and Marriage
More and more heads report a gulf between their family life and school life. There are several factors that contribute to this situation.
- Contrary to the myth about schools being one large “family” in which the head, spouse, and children are immersed organically into the life of the school, family life has changed in fundamental ways. Spouses often have their own professions, and many do not necessarily feel the same all-in commitment to every aspect of school life. For their part, heads’ children do not always feel comfortable hanging around older kids — and they let their parents know.
- The work is harder, more expansive, and more time-consuming than in years past. There are experts to be called on, but the school head needs to be — and is expected to be — up to speed on everything.
- The school’s constituencies expect heads to be available at all times. Even though people acknowledge the need for boundaries, each constituency (parents, faculty, board, students) tends to view itself as “special” and presumes 24-hour access.
- There are also the inevitable crisis moments — a suicide, a tragic accident, a sexual assault accusation, a power blackout, a rampant virus through the community — that command the total attention of the leader for an extended period of time.
The hard-to-admit reality is that the job comes first. At the same time, however, heads want to — need to — do right by their families.
Conflicting Opinions, Fleeting Triumphs
We live in a society in which people constantly make judgments about others. Every member of the school community has an opinion about its leader, shaped by the impact of decisions that affect their personal circumstances. Yet many of the negative opinions are not only louder these days, they are also amplified by social media. In addition, problem solving is an encompassing part of the job description. No matter how effective you are in solving a given problem, the constant flow of problems today distracts from the long view and can even sap enthusiasm for the work.
Evolving, Imperfect Partnership with the Board
The relationship between head and board is conditioned by several factors: Most board members come from the business world, are leaders in their profession, have clear ideas about effective leadership, and are assertive, confident people. Also, many board members have limited experience in nonprofit organizations.
Typically, in the euphoria of hiring a new head, the relationship between the board and a new head starts optimally. But change soon arrives. Board members come and go. New board chairs are appointed. Some board member will undoubtedly cross the line, challenge the head’s decisions, push an agenda. Thus, board functioning and the chair–head relationship are ever-evolving factors in the head’s life.
A confounding factor is that, except for other heads of school, no one has walked in a head’s shoes. While a board chair and unusually perceptive members of the community may have insights into the challenges of the work and, when needed, extend understanding and empathy, they don’t truly understand the totality of the role. Thus, they can’t fully appreciate the inner-life stresses and anxieties a head carries. Inevitably, there are emotional ups and downs in the relationship to the board, which a head mostly carries alone.
Managing the Inner Life
The above factors are common among schools and leaders today. They are the main sources of stress and anxiety, and they are not really “curable.” They come with the territory. The important question, therefore, is how a school leader can cope with these sources of stress and continue to function with confidence, enthusiasm, and satisfaction.
Typically, individuals who have risen to positions of leadership have developed character strengths along the way, such as resilience, perseverance, grit, self-control, and optimism. University of Pennsylvania’s Angela Duckworth and others have written extensively about the importance of these attributes. In the face of continuing stress, however, even these “defenses” may fall by the wayside.
Fortunately, there are ways of thinking and practices that can help. Specifically, useful “inner rules of leadership” can help heads deal with the challenges of the job and the inevitable stresses and strains. The rules are derived from the professional literature, personal experience, and the insights and wisdom of colleagues. Here are the 10 rules applicable to managing the inner stresses and anxieties of leadership:
Despite all the things that can go wrong, a leader needs to adopt an attitude of fearlessness.
- Accept what you cannot change. This is not always easy, especially after a long, frustrating day. It is a matter of being philosophical about life and work. You need to do this in order to deter a pattern of complaining that is so easy to begin. The discipline of dealing with “what is,” not what you wish things to be, is an important principle.
- Notwithstanding the first rule, sometimes you need to vent. Vent safely with someone you can trust and who does not have a direct stake in your work. Except in unique situations, this provision excludes a spouse or partner. Because of a spouse’s deep emotional connection to you and protective instinct, he or she cannot easily separate the personal from the professional. Emotions run high in this circumstance, and off-loading your frustrations makes it harder for you (and your spouse) to keep an emotional distance from challenges at the office.
- Leaders work with people who feel no compunction about complaining, criticizing, and venting. In the face of such behavior, it is natural to internalize what comes at you, especially those in-your-face emotional outbursts. An essential discipline is to treat emotional outbursts as behavior that is about that person, not you. Don’t take it personally, even when it is meant personally.
- Although outside observers are likely to say that your life is imbalanced (work dominates, and you have little free time to yourself), there is no getting around this reality. You must understand the price and work to be as healthy as possible, both physically and psychologically. One strategy is to have a nonschool “subplot” in your life, something that takes your mind and body away from the work environment. This usually works best as a private and personal undertaking, such as writing or developing prowess in a sport. Another avenue is the burgeoning mindfulness movement, which offers concrete practices for managing stress and anxiety.
- There is an old management principle that says one should keep a sharp barrier between the professional and the personal. This is a phony distinction, particularly in an all-consuming school environment. While the chain of command always lurks, it is helpful and enjoyable to seek, not avoid, friendships with a few trusted colleagues. Friendships, heart-to-heart discussions, and humor can sideline day-to-day stresses and provide emotional sustenance and enjoyment. There is nothing like a good laugh.
- Engage your work on an intellectual level by reading and writing Days filled solely with administrative tasks and problem-solving will ultimately wear you down. The secret is to study what you do (read, reflect, write, speak) and do what you study (carry out your insights in your leadership role). This is an immensely satisfying process, and education is the ideal field to do it. It also puts the stresses and anxieties of work in a larger frame of reference.
- Americans, according to numerous studies, do not get enough sleep. This pattern applies big-time to school leaders. Our long-term emotional health and our capacity to deal with stresses that touch our inner life require adequate sleep. Advil PM is not the answer, except on rare occasions. Whether it is makeup sleep on Sunday morning or a regular schedule of seven hours, leaders must play the “long game,” and sleep is fundamental to longevity.
- As absorbed as you are by the pressures and stresses of work, there is great benefit in paying attention to the morale and comfort level of your spouse and children. If family life is tension-filled or fused with resentment, you carry this with you every day — and it will affect both your family life and your ability to lead the school.
- Because anticipating the future is an essential cognitive tool, leaders inevitably think about what can go wrong. This is a prudent line of thinking. Unfortunately, anticipating worst-case scenarios can become paralyzing, especially when one is immersed in stress. So, despite all the things that can go wrong, a leader needs to adopt an attitude of fearlessness. A fearless leader thinks the following: I am on the right course; there are inherent risks, but the odds are with me; wise people around me agree with what we are doing; and no matter what happens, I can live with the consequences. Leadership is an act of faith… in what you believe and in your ability to make good things happen.
- Finally, although leadership requires inner strength and independence, not all problems are solved alone. There are occasions when getting help from a professional is a necessary and reassuring step. Whether one takes such a step in consultation with the board chair or on one’s own, connecting with a psychologist or cardiologist or addiction counselor can be a tremendous asset in dealing with life and work.
Unveiling the Emotional Dimension
The world in general and the school environment in particular present challenges to effective functioning as a leader. School leaders carry a high degree of stress and anxiety that comes with the territory. All too often, leaders keep this stress bottled up and, in time, this inner turmoil may be debilitating and constitute a threat to continued functioning as an effective leader. Recognizing and surfacing the specific sources of stress and having coping strategies are crucial to successful, sustained leadership. Moreover, when school leaders gather in settings for professional development, such as NAIS or regional workshops, these are topics that should be open for discussion.
The bottom line is simply this: What is healthy for the head of school is healthy for the school. Let’s stop overlooking the social-emotional dimensions of school leadership.
David Holmes is the executive director of strategic initiatives at Community School (Idaho).
Laura Colkes, “Breaking the Single Story: Narratives of Educational Leaders in Post-Earthquake Haiti,” Doctoral dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 2012 (available from ProQuest, Paper AAI3583485).
Angela L. Duckworth, David Weir, Eli Tsukayama, and David Kwok, “Who Does Well in Life? Conscientious Adults Excel in Both Objective and Subjective Success,” Frontiers in Personality Science and Individual Differences, 2012.
Lauren Eskreis-Winkler, Angela L Duckworth, Elizabeth P. Shulman, and Scott A. Beale, “The Grit Effect: Predicting Retention in the Military, the Workplace, School, and Marriage,” Frontiers in Personality Science and Individual Differences, 2014.
Madeline Levine, The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids, New York: HarperCollins, 2006.
Sam Shapiro, “Mindfulness in a Hyperconnected Culture,” Independent School, Summer 2015.
Robert M. Sopolsky, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.