“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.
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.
I’m not really known for my short blog pieces. The last one I wrote ended up as a world record for me in word count! Recently I’ve been enjoying some Seth Godin blogs. He is the total opposite of me. He says the bare minimum, and then leaves. His words linger in the air, uncluttered by superfluous language. He never gives the answers, but instead provokes you to look for them yourself. And I’d pick that those little journeys that he sends you on are more than just the content of the words in his blog.
For example, this is his blog post from the 17th July 2020.
So that’s what I’m going to try and achieve here. I don’t have the answer, and I want you to go on a journey to find yours.
Four ‘P’s of Principalship
Purpose …. This is the rudder that helps you move your school in a certain direction. Without purpose you are an inflatable lifeboat without oars in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. You move with the currents and the prevailing winds. What, therefore is your purpose?
Passion …. This is the energy source that fires your direction. It is your engine. It keeps you going. It’s what gets you up each day. It gives you satisfaction of a job well done, and nourishment to keep going. What, therefore is your passion?
Poison … This is everything that gets in the way of your Purpose and Passion. It’s the waves and potholes that get in the way. Not only is it the viciousness of gossip, the bullying of colleagues, but also the battle within your head, the doubts that have been sown, and the situation that you are in. It is physical and mental. It is real and it is imagined. It is both in your face and subtly in the background. It is quiet and it is loud. Another word for this obviously is conflict, but conflict doesn’t begin with a P! How you deal with this either adds to the poison, or it diminishes it. But it never really goes away, and there is always something that will replace it. There are those who have the super power of resiliency that seem to rise above this, never letting the waves entirely swamp the boat. What a superpower to have!
What do you do to mitigate poison? Is it effective? Does it constantly get in the way of your Purpose and Passion? If it does, why?
Poise … poise is about balance and equilibrium and self control. Poise is how you walk around the school with your head in the air not only knowing that you’re doing a great job, but also knowing that everyone else knows you’re doing a great job too.
I’m arguing here that your poise in your role is dependent on this equation:
Purpose + Passion/Poison = POISE
Too much purpose and you run the risk of over managing or micro managing others.
Not enough purpose and you will be a leader like a chicken who has just had it’s head cut off. And of course where is the poise in any of this?
Too much passion and you run the risk of burning your team out around you. Too little and they will simply think you don’t care.
Poison plays an important role however. Without it you just have Purpose and Passion, and although this does sound nice, the reality is that it is the poison that keeps you grounded and accountable, approachable and human. The narcissist is typically all purpose and passion inflamed by their ego – as long as it’s all about them. The poison they don’t see. The poison keeps things real, but if we manage it badly then the purpose and passion of our lives means nothing.
The key to optimum POISE then is the continual balancing act of ensuring that Purpose, Passion and Poison play off against each other in a well balanced like way.
So, if you find there’s too much poison in your world, then maybe you need to make your purpose more visible, or your passion. And if you’re being accused of being a narcissistic, whip wielding, tyrannical leader, then maybe, just maybe it’s about time you take a look at how you’re dealing with your poison component.
When everything is in sync, you have maximum POISE.
So how do youmaintain your ‘P’s to ensure maximum Poise?
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.
“Do not judge me by my success, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again”
So the good-ship “home learning” has launched, and you and your team have done your level best to make it as smooth as possible.
Once you get some momentum up things will smooth out, but right now there will be some choppy water – people will try whole class Zoom meetings, parents will realise their old computer is just that, someone else’s school will be perfect, . . . stuff will pop up for awhile.
But among all that, what is bubbling to the top, or at least percolating around the edges of your thinking?
Which parts of this remote learning adventure are throwing up possibilities? Sure, there are plenty of challenges, problems even – we weren’t ready for this. We didn’t get to practice and none of us have experienced it before. (To be fair, neither has anyone else in history! )
For me, it poses the fundamental question of which skills and dispositions we need to grow in our children?
The lens of crisis is revealing and what it shows is that the so called, “soft skills” are more critical than ever. Things like the ability to communicate, to build relationships, to show empathy, and to be resilient.
I’m sure most (or at least many) of you will agree. But to play the proverbial naughty advocate, do you think they will remain at the top of our priority lists after we all get back to our classrooms?
. . .
I believe there is both huge opportunity and huge risk right in front of us worldwide. The opportunity involves people identifying what really matters and carrying that clarity with them into the world when we have tamed this spiteful virus.
The risk is that we don’t.
Right now the spotlight of necessity is lighting up the type of attributes children, adults, – peopleneed to develop to be ready for a future where the whole world can stop and the only way out is to work together for a common solution. This uninvited virus is a game changer.
What are the fundamental attributes that are making some individuals successful and communities strong? I want a short list of things that our school can embed into what we do. Some are already there, but some have just gotten promoted to the front of the line.
And one that is making a bid to be at the very front is resilience.
“Resilience – the ability to be happy , successful , etc. again after something difficult or bad has happened.”
We can see it in our leaders and we can see it in some of our kids and their parents. But where it is missing, it takes a terrible toll and the ripple effects touch many others negatively. Now is the time to start changing this.
A key step in a leader’s role is modeling, so what are you doing to ensure you are the Ashley Bloomfield of your team? He seems to be showing amazing resilience in very difficult conditions, but how can we mere mortals build more of our own? A solid place to start are the Mental Health Foundation’s Five ways to Wellbeing which Steve has previously shared.
Once we are intentionally doing some of these resilience building activities, I believe we have a responsibility to model this. Do we let others see us deliberately doing things that keep us well and effective as leaders? Things such as prioritizing space to think, and exercise? Things such as saying “no” when excess demands are being made?
We all know that people see more truth in what we do, than in what we say. In this regard, is your messaging to your team consistent? How deliberately resilient would your team see you trying to be?
This crisis is a huge opportunity to reset the fundamentals in how our schools might best serve our students moving forward, and also an opportunity for us to walk the talk to empower others.
Soft skills have just proven to be anything but.
What are you seeing emerging? What would you put at the top of your “new world” list?