The Forty Hour team are officially declaring 2020 over.
We won’t waste your time reflecting on what has happened since this time in 2019 – suffice to say it was unexpected, unique and life changing.
As you go to perhaps the most well-earned Christmas break ever, make sure you give yourself some credit for the Olympian effort that leading a school in a pandemic is.
Those of us in New Zealand are further down the track towards a predictable world than some of you are. For what it’s worth, if you are still working inside of an uncontrolled virus district, you are in our thoughts – hang in there, but also put yourself first at least for the Christmas season. Your school needs you, and you need to be well – take a real break no matter what.
Steve and I will be back next year to keep pushing the project. There are some encouraging signs in corners of our game – PLD providers are offering ever more wellness based courses, the Ministry of Education is making the right sounds at times, and an increasing number of leaders are reporting taking deliberate steps towards leading sustainably. The Christmas break is a perfect time to progress your own plans in this area.
This blog has become pretty big now and we know that we need to start organising the content so that people can find the information they want. In the meantime, below are the top 10 posts from 2020, in order based on the total number of views – just in case you need some interesting holiday reading.
I like Post-it notes. I like the way they let me capture a task then park it until I’m ready to take action.
Way back at the beginning, I had a principal who carried a small notebook in their top jacket pocket. Anytime you started talking to them they took it out, ready to make a note if needed.
This principal prided themselves on following up, not forgetting, doing what they promised, and in their pocket was a system to make all these things happen.
Post-it notes are my version.
Sadly, while they are an awesome fluro coloured tool, the reason they are in my thinking right now is that they’re multiplying – very quickly! And lots of notes means lots of things to remember and do.
Welcome to the end of Term 4!
This is the time each year where a myriad of tasks and looming deadlines make it very possible that your waking hours are consumed entirely by knocking off task after task. Those of you who have followed the 40 Hour Project for a while, know that this is the time when the ‘busy’ can obscure the ‘important’.
Even the students seem to unwittingly contribute. There are more plasters given out and more social interactions to manage than at any other time through the year – people are getting a bit frazzed.
I spent precious time this morning helping 3 great young boys resolve an issue that started with someone holding a door handle and ended in tears. None of them planned the debacle, and all regretted it, but it does sum up the vibe of late Term 4 – stuff happens.
In amongst this end of year race is your opportunity to be a leader. To focus on people first, spread the calm, and to deliberately aim to finish the year with energy left over and feeling well. We have talked about this before – Madvember Doesn’t Have To Be – but this time I want to focus on the power of calm.
To impact your team positively a key is to manage perception. I like the duck analogy where they are paddling like hell under the water but up on top all looks serene. It’s the bit on top that your people will notice.
A personal strategy I use to try and spread a sense of calm, is to deliberately move slower the busier I feel. This may sound simplistic but it absolutely helps – body language is the language that people notice most and if you are moving around your site in a rush, it sends a message. So slow down and breathe. Stop to talk with kids and adults, volunteer to cover someone’s duty, and at all times move slowly. And it’s not all acting – research shows slowing down and breathing properly changes your mental state. A win/win for you and your school.
. . .
Which brings me to where I started with the Post-it notes.
I realized that when they’re plastered all over my desk/laptop/office, they tell a story to all who see them. They visually create a similar effect to walking quickly everywhere with no time to pause. They create the impression that I am busy.
So here is my cunning plan – I’m not going to stop using them, I’m going to hide them.
At the very least I get great pleasure from screwing them up and chucking them in the bin when actioned. I’m not willing to forgo that goodness. All I am going to do is stick them inside a plain manila folder. The folder will sit on my desk closed. The notes live on but the story my desk tells will be different. A small, but deliberate action in the face of the run to the finish. Dare you to try it.
I was driving out the gate on my way to work last Friday and a part of my brain slowly registered something was wrong – my mailbox was gone! It’s the weirdest feeling to suddenly realise a familiar feature of your world has inexplicitly changed. And right behind that confusion came a rush of anger – how dare someone do this! I was smoking hot angry. I sat in my car and said short inappropriate words – loudly.
At this point I need to explain that the mailbox in question was a bit special. I’d shifted house a couple of years earlier and the existing mailbox was a sad and rusty version of what it must have been 30 years earlier. It was junk.
In a moment of new house enthusiasm, I told the kids that we were going to do better, that we could build something fun and creative. (A rookie mistake that casual promise.)
The ideas team let their imaginations run wild unsullied by any concern for practical realities, and after plenty of discussion, settled on making a Star Wars star – R2D2 to be exact. My weak suggestions that a minion or a cat might be better, were brushed aside, and without a plan, the project started.
If you follow the Star Wars films you will know that an R2 is a lovable but complicated little robot/droid thing and that making it ready for the local postie to stuff mail into it, took some work.
To cut a long story short, the droid was created. This was a team effort by the family and a lot of fun. He was duly installed at the end of our driveway to carry out his mission which he did faithfully for over two years. The neighbourhood walkers all knew him and hundreds of little fingers pressed the various buttons to see what would happen.
But this morning, he was gone and the evidence was that he had been brutally abducted. We’d considered the possibility that someone might think it funny to move him and had gone medieval on his attachments. He was anchor bolted into the concrete path and the bolts had been welded on. Bulletproof. Unless someone brings power tools in the middle of the night and hacks his feet off.
. . .
As leaders, we all have situations like this – life intruding into the plan for the day – sometimes a little better, sometimes a lot worse, and they take our thinking away from school. This is OK – it’s what makes us human and this particular Friday morning I was not focused on school!
After I’d made the police report I spent the next two hours pushing out an SOS on social and local media. And it went viral. It got shared so widely that people I’ve never met in countries far away, contacted me to express their sympathy and to offer suggestions for retrieval. There was a collective feeling of outrage that someone had thought it OK to take him and when the local paper did a short article showing the kids looking sadly at the empty space, it just ramped up.
Eventually, a few cryptic messages started floating in. People connected to the thieves wanted to help, but they also deeply didn’t want to be directly involved. No one wanted to be seen as a “nark”.
Over a couple of days the pieces of the puzzle starting fitting together and when it was clear who had been involved, we got our R2 back.
He’s currently waiting for me to fire up the welder and get some paint to repair him, and when finished (probably in the holidays now), he’s going back to the end of the drive. Which brings me to the point of this post – why did the four young guys who took him do it? How could they think it was OK to vandalise and steal someone else’s property?
I’ll probably never know the real answers to those questions. These 19 year olds are all either in jobs or training courses (yes, I know where they live!). They come from middle class families and as best I can determine went through both primary and secondary schools in reasonable shape. But they’re missing some things. And their missing bits are really important.
As things calmed down, I began to wonder if there was something to think about or learn from a school perspective. In the many school reports that these young men shared with their parents over the years, did any of them mention a lack of conscience? A sense of entitlement or arrogance? A willingness to ignore others’ rights? They would definitely have talked about maths and reading, about taking part in sports or cultural events, what their next steps in writing were . . .
I can’t help thinking that it is very easy for major flaws to slip through our schools unchallenged. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming a school or a teacher for what these people chose to do, rather their actions highlight huge personal gaps in the key competency of being a decent human.
Our system demands that we focus on academic progress, that we teach, measure, and report on a fairly narrow range of skills. Considering what these young men are doing in their day jobs now, after their 13 years of schooling, it’s reasonable to imagine that they are competent at the things that schools traditionally focus on.
But the things that mattered greatly to my family and neighbours last Friday night were sadly absent.
With a whiff of change in the New Zealand education system, in our unsure new pandemic world, now is the perfect time to refocus on what matters most in our schools, and that, in my view, is all about people.
PS1 An unexpected upside of this week’s drama has been that I now know more Star Wars jokes and wise saying than I had any idea existed.
PS2 There are a lot of comedians in the world of social media, but after the 10th person messaged their version of, “I know who took your droid and I’ve mailed you their description”, I started to get a little bit jaded.
PS3 I usually knock social media for being a force for bad, but in this case it was brilliant. Power to the people!
“Fulfilment is a feeling of satisfaction that you get from doing or achieving something, especially something useful.” – Collins Dictionary
This week Steve and I are talking with a group of school leaders in Rolleston (just south of Christchurch). The theme for the discussion is “leading with fulfilment” and I have been floating the topic around in my head in preparation.
What does it mean to lead with fulfilment?
Fulfilment can be a pretty broad term when applied to a group of people. Each of us have things that we value more or less and these things often change as life changes around us. A beginning leader might gain fulfilment from arriving at the end of their first Term in a role without major drama. Someone with a few years under their belt might feel this when a 3-4 year plan comes to fruition. Someone else may feel fulfilment from an excellent external review– there is variation!
As what constitutes fulfilment is so individual, perhaps one way to progress the conversation is to focus on a key message of the Forty Hour Project – balance.
You are a leader and a person. Neither fact is mutually exclusive and if done deliberately, both sides can complement and strengthen each other. A leader who puts all their finite time and energy into their work will, sooner or later, be impacted negatively by this imbalance. Your body doesn’t care that you’ve decided exercise and sleep aren’t a priority, it will simply stop working properly over time. If you are lucky it will take a few years, but not everyone is lucky.
Likewise, a person who neglects important parts of their role will cease to be effective. In a perfect world you could spend as much time as you like ensuring your human needs are met, but we don’t live in a perfect world. As leaders, we are responsible to and for others, have important work to progress, and sometimes that has to take priority.
If you can find a healthy balance between these competing needs, you have a much better chance of feeling fulfilment in your role. The opposite, to operate with imbalance, opens the door to resentment and frustration.
So, balance is key. It’s about acknowledging and respecting a healthy mix of the need to fulfil your leader’s role and your needs as a human.
. . .
Of course, good intentions without a little deliberate strategy will likely stay just that.
One way to start rearranging your reality is to make a couple of lists. I’ve added examples that people have shared over time, but you are the one who knows yourself best and your lists may be quite different.
If you look at any of the items in the lists above and feel yourself mentally saying, “I can’t do that”, my response would be “why not?” Your mode of operating as a leader right now was not mandated by anyone. The Ministry of Education hasn’t told you how to do your job – you made (and make) those decisions yourself. Which means you can choose better.
If you lead in a balanced and hence sustainable way, you give yourself so much more chance of feeling the deep satisfaction – fulfilment – that comes from making an impact as a leader. With the traditional school “Madvember” about to start, now is a perfect time to make change.
Here in New Zealand we have just launched into Term 4 – traditionally a time of high intensity and looming deadlines. A time when things can get a little bit crazy more often than we would like. So right now is a time when you need to manage your energy.
We’ve all probably heard the story of famous comedians who, once the stage lights are off, are “flat“, even depressed. They light up for the performance then crash afterwards.
How many of us do the same?
This scenario raises an interesting question about energy – where does yours come from?
. . .
There are plenty of things that feed into whether you are feeling ready for the push towards Christmas. Sleep, food, exercise, workflow management . . . they all play a part, but today I want to consider this question through the lens of personality – specifically, are you an “introvert” or an “extrovert”?
There are whole psychological theories dedicated to explaining these two terms, and anyone wanting to take a deep dive in the subject will have plenty of reading to do for many years to come.
Happily, in this short post there’s only one simple part that I am dwelling on – the different ways introverts and extroverts maintain energy. Of course, no healthy person is completely one or the other. It’s not a binary condition, rather each of us have portions of both.
But we’re also very likely to tend more towards one end of the spectrum than the other and that’s useful to acknowledge, (or work out), because the research shows that each personality type recovers differently. In our energy hungry profession, knowing this could both help us recover when we have been stretched a little too far for a little too long, and then help us stayenergised for longer periods of time.
“Fun fact: approximately 52 – 60% of people are considered introverted.”
So slightly more of us will be on the introverted side of the continuum. The reason why knowing where you sit is important is that each type needs different energy building strategies. In simple terms:
Extroverts gain energy from being around and interacting with other people.
Introverts are the opposite, they recover by spending time alone or quietly with well-known familiar people.
So, which are you?
Quiz – If you are serious about this question, you are going to have to invest in something like the Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator assessment oryou could take a fairly lightweight short quiz like this one here just for fun .
Given that we are all somewhere on the continuum between the two extremes, it’s likely that most of us need some peace and quiet and some social recharge to find our balance, but when you’ve had a tough week, are you more likely to crave an evening in with a good book or a catch up with friends?
As the run towards the end of the year picks up pace, it will pay to deliberately schedule opportunities that you know are effective energisers for you.
Being a sustainable leader requires smart energy management and knowing yourself can definitely help with this.
PS: If you are mainly an introvert, but you need to (or believeyou need to) regularly act in an extroverted way, could this be a reason why you are often tired?
It’s great that we are in a Term break at last (at least for those of us in NZ). This year is proving to be anything but business as usual and the challenges just keep coming. We’re been operating in a “hoping for the best, but ready for anything” type mode. This is a tough way to live long term!
Something that has helped me stay energised and well through the ongoing adventure of 2020, has been to get very clear about what matters most. I’m coming from the perspective of a statement we often use in the 40 Hour Project –
“being a school leader is part of who we are, not allof who we are”.
From a work perspective, there will always be things that are more or less important. There will be periods when more time and energy need to be committed to particular tasks. Bearing in mind the statement above though, alongside the work requirements will be other things. A misalignment between these two competing needs is a common problem. And misalignment happens easily unless you have clarity.
A statement to describe this idea could be:
“People are more resilient when they are clear about what matters most.”
One of the gifts of having space to think clearly (time for a sabbatical!), is that you can really consider what matters most to you. The absolutely fundamental items will almost certainly be personal – things to do with family, health, relationships, finances . . .
As school leaders, it’s very easy to let the urgent parts of each day take priority, and maybe that’s OK short term – but if you apply a longer term lenses to what it means to work/live as you are, priorities will change.
I’d like to suggest that until you do this exercise, you will often feel tension between what you need personally and what your work requires.
For example, if you haven’t done any exercise in a month, yet you woke up this morning worrying about school data targets, you are probably confused (about what matters most) and need to create space to get things straight.
. . .
And it’s not rocket science! Here is what I strongly recommend you do:
Find some uninterrupted space. Ideally this will be somewhere you don’t usually go and will be away from the people who you usually interact with. In duration it needs to be long enough to allow you to sense the approach of boredom. No devices at all. Zero. Zip. Nada. Somewhere naturally beautiful is ideal but a quiet corner in the back of a Library you don’t visit often will work too. Find your space.
A blank piece of paper and a pen (I actually use a notebook, but start on a blank page).
Now just make a list. A list of the things that really, really matter. Don’t be shy or driven at all by what others might think – this list is for you and you alone.
This is the perfect time to use some “fear setting” so that you build your list past the immediate.
Sort the list so that the very most important thing is at the top.
Job nearly done.
The final, crucial remaining step, is to accept that you haveto work in a way that allows you to address the items at the top of your list. If you can do this consistently, you will be aligning your needs with your work and when the pressure comes on, you are now positioned to make choices that are sustainable and energising. Just do it.
You probably know the metaphor of “the carrot and the stick” where a stubborn donkey needs to be encouraged to move. There are two basic options (as donkeys are hard to push around). You can dangle a carrot just in front of its nose and, if hungry, the donkey will move forward. The other option is to whack it on its hind quarters with a stick (no donkeys were harmed in the creation of this metaphor). If the “stick” hurts enough, the donkey again moves forward.
However, the ultimate donkey moving tactic involves both the threat of the stick and the promise of the carrot used at the same time. It’s more likely to work than either option individually.
In the 40 Hour Project we usually focus on the good things that you can expect by making healthy leadership/lifestyle choices – the carrots.
The problem is that human nature seems to predispose us to take a short term view of any possible rewards. If the reward is immediate, we are more likely to buy in than if the reward is several months or years away.
For example, if we buy a lottery ticket each week we get the immediate thrill of possibility, but we could save the $20 and at years end have a guaranteed $1040. Not many people take option two (even though it is almost certain to be a better reward).
It’s the timeframe that stops us being smarter.
So today, I want to mention a motivation technique that’s all about the stick rather than the carrot.
This tactic is one that Tim Ferriss uses regularly to help make uncomfortable changes (he calls it fear setting). Tim argues that if a change needs to be made, staying with the status quo is not a neutral position – it comes with a cost.
He starts by asking the tough question, “if I don’t make a change, what will it cost myself, those I’m responsible for (e.g. my school) and those who care about me?”
Some examples are health costs, financial costs, family costs, and happiness costs.
To expose the costs more, you put a timeframe on them. What will the status quo cost me in 6 months, 12 months, 3 years, 10 years?
Here’s a simple example using a health cost:
Let’s pretend you love donuts and you regularly buy them from the awesome bakery conveniently located just down the road from your school. When you’re feeling generous (or guilty!), you buy them for your team as well. This is fun, until you visit your doctor and she points out (annoyingly) that you’ve gained 3 kilos since she saw you last year.
We can plot the future pain using Tim’s method:
Weight change in:
You can see that the timeframe magnifies the reality of notmaking a change. 1.5kgs worth of “stick” might not be enough to move you at all, but somewhere between that and 30kgs it becomes a lot more compelling!
You can apply this method to a whole range of other areas. The only initial self-discipline needed is to ask the uncomfortable question of yourself and to plot out the “costs” so you can clearly see the situation evolving in your future.
A work example that I have used is around time spent sitting. It seems the longer I’m a school leader, the more time I spend on my butt. I’ve seen the media reports about what this means to the future me and I don’t like it!
I used this “fear” idea and worked out that I was sitting approximately 30 minutes longer each day than I did a couple of years ago. This was of course just a guess, but I then plotted it on a timeframe. You can do the maths but it looked bad to me!
The bit of this process that stirs some worry (the stick) is the way a negative thing amplifies over time. This little exercise has meant I’m way more conscious of how much sitting I do – I now try to stand up if someone comes in when I’m sitting down, I have an easy to use standing option on my desk, and I make sure I go for regular walks around our site ‘just because’ (which is easy to do in a school!)
Have a go, pick something that in your gut, you know is holding you back as a person (and of course as a school leader) and ask yourself that uncomfortable question – “what will it cost me/my family/my school if I don’t make a change?”
I’ve found it even more compelling when I write it down.
When people are giving their all, when the pressure’s on and they are stretched too thinly, that is when it is very easy to be hurt by others.
And there seems to be a lot of educational leaders feeling that hurt at the moment.
These are good people doing their very best to lead in difficult circumstances – maybe because of COVID, maybe because they are new to a role or new to a school, maybe they’re not getting the support they need from those with the purse strings . . . What they have in common is a deep feeling of hurt – betrayal almost by the very people they are trying to serve.
Why is that?
My gut feeling is that it is to do with being human, or more accurately, not being seenas human.
. . .
Steve and I often write about the leader’s role not defining us. It is part of who we are but not all of who we are, but does your team believe that too?
It can be very easy to unwittingly contribute to this misconception (that you are one dimensional). It’s a tough gig at the top and one way to mitigate risk is to metaphorically pull on your armour and present a “professional” face to your school.
There are many ways to do this – you can separate yourself by the way you dress, you can create a culture where you are always in charge, you can subtly discourage disagreement, you can pretend you know what to do in all situations . . . the list is long.
Meanwhile, your team are facing their own challenges. They too are struggling inside a pandemic, they too may also feel overwhelmed by workload or difficult situations. Their challenges are real too.
Then one day you hold a staff meeting and seemingly from out of left field, despite the huge effort you have clearly put into the situation, there is a total lack of kindness or understanding towards you. Churlish questions are asked, people’s faces show disapproval, you can almost taste the disdain in some corners of the room . . .
What!? Don’t they see how much of yourself you’ve put into this? How can they seemingly completely “forget” all the slack you have cut them – the leave granted, the thoughtful messages about achievements, the support of their initiatives . . .
. . .
Maybe, just maybe, it’s because they have stopped seeing you as a person and now see you as “The principal” or “The Assistant Principal”. And when you are reduced to merely your official role, your feelings and emotions are easily discounted.
As a person, you are invisible.
. . .
I believe at least part of the answer is to lead from a position of humanity. You need to let your team see you as a person who happens to be their leader, rather than just a leader, fullstop.
And the way to do this is to be brave enough to be vulnerable.
“Vulnerable” – “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded.” The critical word here is capable – it’s the possibility that shows you as being human.
Brene Brown describes this beautifully.
There are simple actions that you can start (or do more often) tomorrow –
Admit when you don’t know
Ask for help
Talk about your life outside work
Share your aspirations
These things can help others see you as a person and when the going gets tough, that is a very good thing.
Those of you back in the land of Level 3 lockdown (NZ context) have my utmost sympathy. There’s no easy way to run a school under these conditions and you have a massive task on your hands. Kia kaha – you are in my Level 2 thoughts!
This week I’m “piggy backing” off Steve’s suggestion that right now, amongst the uncertainty, is when we need to take half a step back from the action and reflect.
For those of you in Level 3 the status quo of school is gone. For those of us (a little nervously) sitting in Level 2, we know we might join you at any time.
Now is the time to seriously consider change.
A while ago we discussed the idea of making small, incremental changes to arrive at a new “normal” – 1% better as James Clear would say.
But I believe right now is the perfect time to by-pass that timeline and jump to a new position. To metaphorically advance around the Monopoly board and choose where you land.
Now equals opportunity.
. . .
So here’s my challenge –
Find oneaspect of the usual way of working at your school that through the lens of this pandemic, is no longer fit for purpose.
I’m talking about things like:
the number of physical meetings each week.
aspects of your school’s reporting
expectations around teachers being onsite
the shape of your lunch rosters
the amount of extra-curricular activities
the values you say are most important
This list is as long as your imagination!
A fundamental test you can apply is to ask people “why” something is done. If the answer comes back with some variation of, “because that’s how we’ve always done it”, you know you have a likely candidate.
I’m not suggesting that you go nuts and change lots of things, or even much at all – just one.
One thing that is now redundant because the world is shifting, and to be relevant, your school needs to shift too. One thing that might just start the change process that our students need.
When you pause for a moment, with the pandemic shining a light over your shoulder, what do you see?
You probably know the classic “conscience” model of decision making where you have a small Angel on one shoulder and a small Devil on the other. A decision needs to be made and they compete with each other to convince you which path to take. Each takes turns to whisper in your ear either promising or threatening depending on the choice.
In this post I’m going to ask you to imagine a similar pair of “advisers “positioned ready for action, but in this case, one is a small (but alert and tough looking) lizard, and the other is a mini version of yourself 10 years in the future.
Both are exactly what they seem.
. . .
Let’s pretend it’s a typical week at school. Over the weekend you were at a community fundraiser – both days. On Monday at a PLD course. On Tuesday you went with your senior students to a leadership development day. That evening, you worked your way through the email pile left after two days out of the office. You were still well behind (and tired) by 10:30pm that night when you finally stopped.
Now let’s fast forward to Wednesday. It’s 11:00am – a break time at your school and a teacher pops into your office (where you’d just done your best to resolve an ongoing issue with the PTA fundraising committee). Looking a bit pale they volunteer, “I know this is late notice, but I can feel a migraine coming on and I can’t go to the maths quiz tonight. We need someone with the team . . .”
Boom. You now have a choice to make.
Your lizard starts talking first. She was wide awake and ready for this very moment.
“Say you’ll go. Say it quickly. If you hesitate they’ll think you’re annoyed with them. You’re the principal, everyone knows you’ll fix this . . . unless you don’t! Then they’ll think you’re lazy!”
Over on the other shoulder a less confident, quieter voice, hesitantly says, “you shouldn’t offer to help this time. You know you need to rest. You could ask someone else – maybe one of the parents . . .”
The lizard interrupts, “that’s a terrible thought. Don’t you care? The parents will know you couldn’t be bothered!”
And back and forward go the opposing thoughts.
In this tiny vignette of school leadership, the lizard represents your ancient brain. The bit hardwired to see danger and threats everywhere. The bit that used to keep your ancestors alive in a past world with saber-tooth tigers and no “best before” labels. It did a great job for millennia as proven by your existence today.
But it’s not helping you this Wednesday.
On your other shoulder is the thoughtful, rational you. The bit that intellectually knows that you’re overworked already and that you can choose not to go to the quiz (with all the attached upside of that decision).
This interplay of your reactive, threat seeking brain, with your rational mind, is rerun hundreds of times over a week – in fact every time you make a conscious choice!
Let’s look at some more choices versus voices.
You need to prepare a board report by tomorrow.
Rational voice: “Shut your office door, turn off your phone and email. Get the job done.”
Lizard voice: “A goodprincipal is accessible. Shutting the door ruins this. Leave the door open and do the report tonight.”
You feel unwell but there is a staff meeting scheduled after school.
Rational voice: “Tell your Leadership Team. Ask them to run the meeting. If they can’t, cancel it. Go home either way.”
Lizard voice: “You have to be at the meeting. You’re the leader, you can’t ask others to go if you won’t yourself. What say they make bad decisions? You haveto stay.”
A teacher calls in sick at 8:00 AM and you can’t get a reliever.
Rational voice: “You’ve got important work planned. Split the class across the school.”
Lizard voice: “Take the class. The other teachers don’t want extra kids. If they know you’re in the Office they’ll judge you. Better to do your other work in the weekend.”
You had 2 evening meetings in a row.
Rational voice: “Tell your team you are coming in late . Use the extra hour to go for the walk you missed due to the meetings.”
Lizard voice: “Turn up at 7:00 AM as usual. It’s just part of your job to be short of time. What will people think if they see you exercising in school time!”
This interplay of rational choices being sabotaged by your lizard brain is exactly what often stops smart people making better long-term choices.
. . .
The lizard brain is a physical lump near your brain stem. It’s actually a metaphor for a part of your amygdala and it reacts to threats, real or imagined, instantly and automatically.
Steven Pressfield calls this “The Resistance” in his book, “Do The Work” (which I highly recommend you read sometime).
. . .
It seems that the world (and our leader’s roles) have changed more quickly than our ancient survival systems .
If nature had kept up with reality, your lizard would be whispering things like:
“You have to exercise regularly or you’ll get sick. Go for a walk now.”
“Go home. It’s your daughter’s birthday. She’s more important than completing that plan right now.”
“Ask someone to cover your lunch duty – that unexpected meeting earlier shouldn’t mean you don’t eat.”
Sadly, our lizard will probably say exactly the opposite because our ancient brain is not forward thinking. It’s impulsive, reactive and looking for immediate threats. If if can’t find a real one, it’ll invent something – just to keep you cautious.
I’m as vulnerable to these insidious voices as most people, but am trying a plan to lessen their power.
My strategy is to deliberately build different habits. I want to quieten the negative voices by taking them out of the decision making. A habit can do this because a habit is a largely unconscious behaviour. It’s a default position. Critically, a habit (once formed) doesn’t take conscious thought so removes the opportunity for internal debate.
One that I am currently working on, is not saying “yes” to extra work when I am already too busy. This goes against my natural urge to help people, so is often not easy. I’d give myself a success rating of 7/10 at this stage. I suspect I’ve spent far too many years listening to the “voices” so it’s going to take time to quieten them.
. . .
How’s your lizard treating you? Is it whispering nonsense when you rationally know better? If so, it’s time to stop listening and time to be more professional, for you, the people who care about you, and the school that you serve.
Note 1: Thanks to Michael Fletcher, a fellow New Zealand principal, for the title of this post. Michael puts up really sensible short YouTube videos for us all from time to time (like this one).
Note 2: “Professional” = working in a way that is both effectiveandsustainable.
“If you agree that some of your important leadership workis done outside of 9:00AM to 3:00PM, Monday to Friday, why can’t some of your important non-work activities happen inside of those times?”
That’s what I added to the bottom of a post a few weeks ago – it caused some comment.
. . .
As school leaders, common sense suggests a lot of our work time will occur when the students are on site. I agree.
But a lot of it also occurs when they are not, so how then do you make the distinction?
In a salaried job without fixed hours, how do you decide when it is “work time” and when it is “your time”?
I would like to suggest that you shouldn’t have to.
. . .
Given that we all have a set 24 hours in a day, and given that we all have a mixture of both work and personal needs to meet in that time, why would we decide to compartmentalise chunks of the day arbitrarily to one or the other? I’ll give an example to illustrate what I mean:
I was talking with a colleague recently and they commented how great it had been to be able to run each day during lockdown, how when they felt their focus slipping or needed to think clearly, they pulled on their shoes and went for a run, returning refreshed and ready to work again. They sighed and said, “I miss this.”
I sympathised but added, “why does this have to stop? Why don’t you go for a short run at lunchtime at least a couple of times each week?”
There was a long silence, but eventually they said, “perhaps I will.”
Now, I don’t know whether they have made that choice, but the interesting thing for me was that their first reaction was almost … shock – I was clearly suggesting they used “work” time for a “personal” time activity!
My point is that every day/week/Term is all just time. By arbitrarily assigning set blocks to one or the other, we remove choice, flexibility, and possibility.
How about a little reorganisation?
Rather than going to the gym or forcing yourself out for a walk at 5:30 AM on a bitter winter morning, you could still get up early (in your warm home), and complete an important work task before 7:00 AM, then head to school as usual. Later, at around 10:00AM when your energy levels need a boost, you could go to the gym or head out for a walk.
“You don’t need more time … you just need to decide.”
Postscript – if you make a change to the status quo, you are going to upset a few people. Don’t be scared of this, if nobody cared, you probably haven’t changed much!
A colleague shared a recent experience which illustrates this nicely –
“We were locked down in Level 3 (in NZ) and I was obviously working from home. Around 10am on this particular day I headed out for a run. It was good … until I got a message from my Board Chairperson saying he thought it would be a good look if I was seen at school! I’d been working on school stuff since 7am … was a bit fried, and so went for a run. Turned out his wife saw me.”
Clearly, neither the Board Chair nor his wife understood what they were seeing. They had a picture of what they thought a school leader should be doing. They were wrong.
This principal was making a smart, rational – professional– choice. I really hope they keep doing this – their school needs them to be effective and sustainable. They need to be well.
In the end, whether you personally will make a change like this probably comes down to a mixture of courage and trust, but that’s a topic for another post.
Archery is a funny sort of sport. You make an immense physical effort but must keep completely steady and minutely controlled throughout. The margins between perfection and missing are very, very small, and with that comes the need for intense mental discipline.
A few years ago I was privileged to hear a top coach talking about this mental effort and one thing that he said has always stuck in my mind –
“It’s human nature to dwell on the mistakes. When you shoot 6 arrows and 5 are in the gold and one is not, most people walk up to the target looking at and regretting the one that missed. This is not helpful. You should be thinking about the 5 that succeeded and focusing on what you did to make that happen. You need to train yourself to focus on the successes.”
I have no doubt that the coach was correct in archery terms, but the reason I wrote it down at the time was that it is such a great metaphor for life in general. Why do we often default to the negative, even when surrounded by successes?
“Why do we relive the ‘stuff ups’?”
Most of us will have experienced that sick feeling that comes from thinking about mistakes we’ve made – sometimes days or weeks after the actual event. Rationally, even during the toughest days we will have experienced positives and negatives, wins and losses in the game of school leadership, but the things that have gone wrong are the things that spring straight to mind.
Assuming you are (at least) competent at your job, you will have exponentially more successes than failures in any given day. It would certainly make more sense to relive these (successes) because the emotions associated with succeeding are more positive than those aligned with failing. They’re more fun to dwell on and are better for your long term health.
So how? How do we keep our attention on the positives?
The answer seems to be simple yet will take deliberate effort– we need to retrain our thoughts.
There is a huge amount of research that explains the human tendency to focus on both actual and possible mistakes. For our ancestors, it made sense to be hyper aware of mistakes at a basic survival level. If they forgot where the sabretooth tiger lived, they died.
The theory is that this part of our evolutionary brain is incredibly deep seated and operates at a sub-conscious level. It’s the piece of your brain that instantly kicks into gear when a teacher tells you that they can’t find a student, or your Board Chairperson messages you saying they need to talk to you today – urgently.
The good news is that most of the threats we now face are either very small (I haven’t submitted our Charter by the due date) or entirely fictional (it’ll be a disaster if I have a sick day). The even better news is that it has been proven that we can retrain our thinking patterns to operate in more positive ways.
Separating fact from fiction – this is a vital first step in retraining your default reaction to events. When you find yourself focused on something that went wrong, ask yourself the question, “on a scale of 1 – 10, how bad was that?” 10 being nuclear war has started, 1 being no consequence at all. The factis that most of what we experience is far closer to a 1 than a 10.
Identifying a positive – is that glass half full or half empty? It’s a mental habit to look for positives and habits can be learnt. We all know people who “naturally” default to either viewpoint, but the truth is that people can change their default with deliberate practice.
Cultivating an attitude of gratitude – there is no disputing the science that feeling grateful is very strongly associated with a huge range of positive outcomes. Happiness, strong relationships, job satisfaction, and even health are closely linked to a sense of gratitude.
While there is nothing particularly new in these techniques, they are simple in concept and (with deliberate effort) achievable. The challenge is that you may need to do things differently; i.e. shift your habitual thinking patterns.
This may not be easy, but if you find yourself constantly looking at the ‘arrows that missed’, it’s time to take action. Your happiness and wellness are at stake.
³ Martin Seligman, “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life”, 2006, Vintage Books, New York.
Have you ever been at your desk, in your car, or in the shower and thought something like;
“How did I get to be the principal? This is crazy!”
“I hope nobody finds out – I don’t know what to do.”
“I can’t believe they appointed me.”
If you answer “yes”, it’s a high chance that this random thought was followed by a sense of anxiety, maybe even a sick feeling in your stomach. It’s something that increases your heart rate and introduces a solid helping of self-doubt.
Well, you’re not alone. It turns out that the world of school leadership is blighted by these types of feelings. Most principals that we have talked to have experienced them at some point, but the tragedy is that far too many of us battle with this thinking regularly. It can be debilitating.
“I had just won my first principalship and was sitting outside the school in my car and I suddenly felt sick – literally sick. What have I done? I don’t know how to do this (be a principal). I just sat there like an idiot with these panicky thoughts rolling around me. Eventually, I got out and walked inside.”
For many, this feeling fades as they gain experience, but for a worrying number it stays, popping up in quiet moments or when big decisions must be made. It’s hard to be a decisive leader when a little voice is whispering that maybe, just maybe, you’re not up to this whole leadership lark . . .
Welcome to the world of the “impostor phenomenon” (syndrome). It’s real, difficult, and far more common in our profession than you might imagine (because one of its common markers is that it’s carefully hidden).
The label was coined in 1978 by two researchers, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes.¹ Their initial research was centred on high achieving women who appeared to suffer from the syndrome most often, but more recent research has shown it affects many men as well.
The medical professionals say that it is a cycle of thinking (not a mental illness) and follows a set of predictable steps. In fact, it’s so well studied that there is a scale² that psychologists use to measure how severe the condition is. (You can test yourself here.)
. . .
So what’s going on in your head?:
Firstly, there is an achievement related task to do (for example, leading a strategic planning meeting). Once the task has been identified, one of two likely actions happen, either you over prepare for the task, or you procrastinate and avoid it for as long as possible.
When the task is completed, if you receive positive feedback, you discount this and attribute the success to either extreme hard work (if you are an over preparer) or luck (if you are an avoider). Regardless of which tactic you used, you don’t believe that you deserve any personal credit.
This cycle of attributing successes purely to luck or hard work, and not being something to be personally satisfied with or proud of, feeds feelings of being a fraud, self-doubt, and anxiety. An impostor is born.
. . .
Given that this thinking is widespread in our profession, a key question is – why?
My guess is that it’s due to howpeople become school leaders and whatthey are expected to do once appointed.
Firstly, consider the pathway to principalship (or any other senior school leader position). In New Zealand, as long as you are a qualified teacher, you can apply for management positions. Some people coming to the leader’s role will have worked in middle leadership positions and others will be straight from a classroom. In either case, the amount of specific training for the role will be limited and the support provided afterwards unpredictable.
Once the job is won, some other factors kick into play:
An extremely complex role, so mistakes are likely
An extremely public role, so mistakes are highly visible
Almost no induction period – the rubber hits the road 100% on day one
An expectation that you make the right decision every time (and there will be a lot of opinions on what qualifies as “right”)
To compound things, there’s no rule book on how to run a school – particularly for the important work.³ (Briefly, the important work is always to do with people, it’s the wrongly labelled “soft skills” that leaders need to be effective.)
“I’d been a Team Leader for a couple of years and then the principal job at Next Step School came up. A good friend of mine said I should apply. I said, “no way” at the start, but after a few days, decided to get an application pack – “just to have a look”. It was exciting to think about a new job and after talking it over with my partner I decided to apply. To my surprise, I got an interview, so I rushed around for the next 2 weeks preparing. The interview went really well and an hour after it finished, I got a phone call offering me the job. I couldn’t believe it. I thought there’d be heaps of people better than me. I remember saying yes and then just standing there in the kitchen thinking “what have I done . . .”
Another reality is that we often pretend. We pretend we know how to run the meeting; we pretend we are OK after an intense ‘conversation’ with a parent, we pretend we understand the school finances like an accountant does . . .
And so much of what we do is agonisingly public.
This is a hard place to operate in, and even very experienced and outwardly “on top of things” leaders admit to having the impostor feelings – the cycle of thinking can be insidious.
How is your self-confidence right now? With the craziness of the pandemic still strong in our minds, it is very possible many of us initially experienced at least some “impostor” type thoughts – it’s hard to be confident when you don’t really know what you’re doing!
The model Steve shared last week predicts that at some point, you started to realise you could handle the situation, but it also predicts that some time soon, the old feelings of doubt might return. Forewarned is forearmed!
So, what can be done?
Luckily quite a bit! If you are reading this and it resonates with you, you have already taken the first step – acknowledgement. The cycle of thinking associated with impostor syndrome is well studied and clearly outlined. If you can recognise it, you can start re-framing your thinking.
There are a lot of well qualified experts who you can access online for specific advice. One place that provides detailed, but clear advice, is Psychology Compass ⁴. The three basic steps they promote are:
Share the Experience
A big part of the problem is thinking you are the only one feeling like this – which is simply not true!
Relax when you identify the thinking happening
Our minds and bodies are completely linked. Mental tension flows from physical tension and vice versa. We can manipulate this link.
Identify the false thinking and re-frame it
This is basically an awareness exercise where you label the feelings/thinking as they occur and discount the nonsense.
There are a lot of other avenues beyond self-help research too – for example, your GP can connect you with trained counselors or other relevant therapists.
And in the end, whether or not you are plagued by this type of thinking, manyof your colleagues are, and this conversation needs to be had. If you are feeling brave, please share your experience – it helps everyone.
A couple of weeks ago I suggested that unless something was on your calendar it wasn’t very important, and crucially, probably wouldn’t happen.
So . . . what is on your calendar? I know you have your next Board meeting, the Monday catch-up with your office team, staff meetings, assemblies, teaching commitments . . . is there anything else?
I will start by confessing that mine used to be all work (with maybe the occasional birthday reminder tagged on). When I needed to check, to see whether I was available, I was essentially checking whether the new thing clashed with work already scheduled.
A gap was an opportunity to say “yes” and add more work. The problem was that way of thinking left days, weeks, terms, full of . . . work.
Yet work is only one part of life. Sure, it is important. Work provides income, contributes to the lives of others and gives purpose. It is super important. But there’s a lot more to being human than that. There’s family, health, hobbies, pets, homes, friends . . . a whole plethora of stuff that matters at least as much as work.
So what to do?
I suggest you can start by having another look at your calendar (or diary).
Just for a moment, let’s pretend it’s completely blank. No meetings, appointments, webinars, class visits – just blank. It’s pretty obvious looking at that blankness that you can fill it up, what might not be so obvious is that you can choose with what.
This is where many of us stumble. We arbitrarily pick a “start” time each day then fill the space from that point forward with work. Periodically, someone else suggests another meeting or appointment and we juggle things around to fit it in. Most school leaders are good at this – we prioritise pieces of our work and fit the slightly less important work streams around them. The problem is, that very quickly, all the time is used up.
I believe there is an alternative.
. . .
There’s a well know analogy involving a bucket, some rocks, some smaller stones and some sand. The rocks represent important things, the smaller stones less important stuff, and the grains of sand a huge number of not very important things. The bucket represents your life.
If you fill the bucket with sand, none of the stones or rocks will fit. You’ve used up your finite time with a whole heap of not very important things.
But what say you reversed the order and put the rocks in first? This ensures the most important things are fitted in. Only after they are in do you add the smaller, less important stuff, and finally, you can fill up the remaining gaps with the smallest things because they can filter into little spaces and if they don’t fit, who cares.
Now lets apply this analogy to your calendar – it’s time to make choices.
Because you are a person first and a school leader second, some of the big rocks will have nothing to do with school.
I’m neither a doctor nor a psychologist but I’m pretty sure we should all have “rocks” for exercise, family, friends, passion hobbies, etc. These are at least as important as team meetings, teaching, strategic plans and review team visits! If they’re not on your calendar, why not?
. . .
Let’s go back to your newly blank calendar and place your personal rocks on it (this includes both work and non-work things). Because they go on first, they will all fit. (Read the postscript below for a suggestion how.) Once they are placed, and only then, you can put in the second tier stuff. Most of that will fit too. Finally, you could trickle a few of the small “sand” things in, but I’m guessing you won’t bother because they are often not even important enough to warrant a mark on your calendar. If you forget them, it doesn’t matter.
But here is the tough reality – most of us are used to ignoring some (many?) of the big, non-work rocks. Sadly, it often takes a crisis for people to realise this.
I’ll end this post with a thought that I’ve used before – if you are capable of organising scheduled meetings that are not interrupted by other people or competing work, you already have the skills needed to fit in your important “rocks”.
So get them on your calendar, because then they’re real and are going to happen.
And as a postscript in the spirit of new thinking; if you agree that some of your important leadership workis done outside of 9am to 3pm, Monday to Friday, why can’t some of your important non-work activities happen inside of those times?
When your team’s winning you don’t change the captain – even if they are an arse. When your school maths results are going up you don’t bring in a new system – even though some individuals are failing. When it’s Mothers’ Day you don’t suggest that chocolates are unhealthy – even though Mum . . .
If change is needed, success or failure often relies on timing. Particularly changes to things that have been around for a long time, because then you are dealing with the status quo.
However, a global pandemic is a game changer, it’s a crisis. And for those interested in change, it is huge opportunity.
. . .
A couple of weeks ago, Steve wrote about time and pace in the (then) locked down world and it really struck a chord with people both inside, and outside of, our game. (Check it out here if you missed it.) There was agreement that the conditions he described were real and good. He had put his finger on something that many others were thinking and feeling too.
It seems many of us recognised positive side effects of being in lockdown. Somewhat counter intuitively, there is an almost “wistful” recognition that what we’re experiencing is about to disappear.
Of course, there’s a scale of stress versus happiness that obviously drives our own viewpoint. We all had different experiences: kids or not, work requirements, what the local school expected, whether another person was with you, money security . . . there were as many variations as there were bubbles.
But despite these things, the “good bits” still managed to show through.
Amongst the stress and mess people noticed, and as we move closer to a lifting of restrictions, we can see aspects of life that are better than we had before.
And we want to keep them!
Lots of people agree – I asked our school community what they valued about the lockdown period and received this response. It neatly encapsulates the other replies I got and is written with honesty and a real sense of possibility –
“Time to be bored! A very unfamiliar feeling for a lot of our family as life has just become so routine, busy and we find ourselves in automatic pilot. We ‘get through’ the week, so we can enjoy the weekends… a huge imbalance!
We have been reflecting on what we can do to slow life down a little bit during the week so that this isn’t the case. Do we need to work so much? We did not realise how much money we spend on unnecessary items and how this money would be better spent working less and spending it on time! Time is the most precious thing that we will value from this experience. It gave us the opportunity to get back to some old fashioned fun- creating new and creative ways to spend time together! Previously the thought was “where should we go?” – this has now changed.
When I hear my child say “I’m bored” I’m so grateful that he has the opportunity to be bored. So, so many valuable things learnt. My children valued the first time they got into the car because for once they didn’t have to bike or walk- this is a luxury! They were excited to receive mail, to see their teachers online, to do art, to play music- to play board games- those are all things I hope we will continue to enjoy as a family!”
So, for many of us, a question has started floating around in our heads; “how do I deal with my real-life obligations and retain the good bits of working/living from home?”
And the good bits seem, person to person, surprisingly consistent:
Time – to cook, to pause, to read, to get stuff done . . .
Connection with family
Connection with passion hobbies (your identity)
Exercise (maybe that’s about time as well?)
They all add up to a slower pace of life, – a sort of “hello the sixties, I wish I’d known you” type wistfulness.
It seems that working from home, or at least being at home more, gives us things that were so often absent in “the old normal”. And they are things that we will miss.
Unless . . .
Unless we choose to keep some of them.
. . .
I recently stumbled across a quote from Noah Kagan, a well-known entrepreneur, where he says, “ . . . for anything important, you don’t find time. It’s only real if it’s on the calendar.”
That’s truth right there. When you have a meeting with your leadership team, it’s on the calendar. When you want to see what is happening next week, you check the calendar. Meeting your appraiser? Yes, it’s on the calendar.
Have you considered putting some of the good bits of “working from home” on your calendar?