Photo by Nadine Shaabana
(For those who would rather listen to this post, the 4 minute podcast is below.)
It’s been a hell of a week for troubling news. Floods, war, pestilence – it seems everyone on the planet is experiencing some sort of disaster. At least that’s what you’d think if you skimmed the headlines. The rhetoric is harsh and some of the reality is pretty damn harsh too . . .
So how do we keep our heads up and eyes open to the goodness and positivity that is also all around us?
. . .
A couple of years ago I was at a Kahui PLD day and the presenter was working with us as leaders in our schools. We were discussing how the constant demands of a school leader’s role often meant that strategic thinking was lost because we were simply too busy with the day to day details.
They used an analogy that really stuck in my head – “you need to get off the dance floor to really appreciate the dance”. I took this to mean that when you’re head down in the mahi, reacting to things as they occur, and trying to meet all needs, that you simply can’t see the bigger picture.
And the bigger picture matters, because the bigger picture creates the possibility of that very subjective, but very real thing called “perspective”.
Perspective – “a thought; a particular way of thinking about something”,
Which means we all have our own perspective, regardless of what is actually happening – which also implies it is very possible to change.
So, the current overload of negative headlines that surround us, influence our own perspective if we don’t make the figurative journey off our dance floor, up the steps, and onto the balcony where we can get a wider view – a better view.
We in New Zealand are moving into the same Covid based scenario that many others have already endured across the world, and as a school leader it can seem all encompassing, and frankly, overwhelming at times. Not being able to control the variables is a stressful situation for many principals who are responsible for, and accountable too, such a wide range of people. It’s tough.
I’d like to suggest that a way forward is to change the way you think about managing this stage of the pandemic – to change your perspective.
And one of the easiest ways to do that is to listen to your Grandma’s advice – “there’re people a lot worse off than you” (which when I was younger, was usually followed by something like, “so eat those peas and be grateful”).
Worrying about who sat by who, and were they infectious, and will the parents ‘kick-off’ if you don’t tell them, or maybe if you do tell them . . . can seem huge problems, but you only have to glance at any media source to find situations that are epically harder than ours.
If you pause to compare what we are facing with what many others are, the comparison allows perspective. It certainly has for me anyway.
One of my ‘worse case’ scenarios at the moment is that someone in my family gets sick, gets nearly through their isolation period and then I get sick – I could have nearly 20 days at home! My youngest son has an epic camp due to roll out next week and he is really worried that it won’t happen. I have friends about to go on a cycle tour and their conversation is all around the possibility that it can’t go ahead, or that they’ll get two days in and someone will get ill and have to come home.
But if I step back and pay attention to some of the other current world challenges, even for a moment, it doesn’t take much to realise that my problems are not that big.
It’s called perspective.
. . .
I’ve given myself two challenges for next week – 1) don’t watch or listen to headline news – I need a break and have already decided that others are well worse off, and 2) re-read Danny’s excellent post from last week (about getting ‘unstuck’). Actionable things that are objectively good for me and will help me keep my perspective positive.
Imagine if there was no “I” at your school.
That would also mean, no me, no mine, and no my – not even a you, or a your, or theirs.
Only a WE.
What would your school look like?
What would it look like from your perspective as principal?
For a start you wouldn’t say that this was “your’ school”, or “my school” …. Instead it would always be our school. That’s not a hard place to start.
There would never be problems over ownership – they couldn’t be yours, or mine, but only ours. I wonder if this would make things easier? Would this lead to the problem being judged and not the person? Or would this lead to problems never going away in a mountain of unaccountability?
Stay with me a little longer.
School resources wouldn’t or couldn’t be selfishly hoarded because there would never be a, “Hey! That’s mine!”, or a “I bought that out of my budget”.
Would this lead to people looking after things haphazardly, or would they care more?
On the face of it this seems like just a simple change in language. But how could this simple change define your school?
Time would be ours and no one would mind if they took up your time or if you took up theirs. Our time would always be ours. Would this lead to more time wastage? Or would it lead to things taking the time that they always needed and warranted?
And what about that little kid, sitting over there? The one who can’t read and who gets so frustrated that she kicks, bites and spits. She would rightly be our problem. Would she even be a problem at all? Should she ever have been seen as a problem in the first place? Would the Ministry of Education see her as your problem, or would they see her as a human who rightly needs to be supported?
I wonder what trust would look like? If there was just a we, and there was always just a we, then what trust could ever be broken?
Much of trust is you and me orientated. I trust you not to put me in the shit, and you trust me not to do the same. If you break that trust, or maybe it’s me, then where does that put us? If there’s no you and me, just a we, then where does that put us?
And what about well being?
We collectively look after each other without judgement. There’s no “he’s not coping” sort of comments. There’s just a we are in this together.
And learning? Recently I found myself sitting in my Te Ahu te Reo course, and I wondered, what if I looked at my me learning, as I sat there responding very much as an individual, as a we learning experience instead? And I imagined what it would be like if everyone else in the class also looked at it as a solely we learning experience. How would that feel as a learner?
Of course having just a system where everything is a we could be akin to an ant colony. We shouldn’t be leading schools where everyone and everything is done at the beck and call of one being, or one overarching reason.
The goal I guess, as principals and leaders in our schools, is to build our cultures where both we and me/I can flourish side by side. Our role is to get this mix just right, the Goldilocks mix as I like to call it, so that the beauty of humanity can shine. Our humanity.
Too much we, and our schools can be stifling; too much I and our schools become isolated egos all fighting for attention.
In our schools we deal with multiple approaches and multiple personalities. Somehow we are able to magically sprinkle fairy dust through our classrooms, playing fields and staffrooms, and we are able to take this seething horde of humanity and make it all work together and collaborate – like a WE. Wow, think about that for a minute – that’s quite an achievement.
As an individual you get to bring your own flair, creativity and identity to the kura and this should never be underestimated.
But the best place to start, is to begin with the we/our…. as in “this is our school”.
Growing up, my Dad had lots of great advice for me. Two pieces have stuck with me through thick and thin. One he pulled out for the first time during our very first time playing golf together (and last as well now that I think of it). As he swung backwards and forwards wildly missing the little dot of a ball at every sweep, he yelled out mysteriously, “There’s method in my madness!”.
At the time I was about 18 and I’d never heard that saying before. I really thought he was as crazy as his swing.
Over time I’ve learnt to recognise my own method in my madness, in particular in things that I do in my professional life. Case in point when it comes to taking a look at things that get me down as a principal and I find myself taking a close look at my character.
Which leads me nicely to the second thing he used to say. Invariably whenever I had stumbled, which was often, he would say; “Don’t worry Steve, it’s character building”.
Again, because he was my Dad, and I was just young, I had no idea what he meant.
Again as I’ve stumbled my way through principalship, his words have taken on a new meaning.
Even more so, recently, when I heard an addition to my Dad’s saying:
“Personality is what we see when times are good, character is what we see when times aren’t so perfect”
In recent times this has resonated with me. I’ve seen fellow principals and leaders find themselves in times of trouble and mistakes have been made. I’m not immune to this. Every time I make a mistake, put a foot wrong, or find myself in trouble it’s not my personality that will get me through. It’s my character.
Your character is often you at your rawest. Interpreting what that means to you can be confronting! Especially at 3:00am.
Knowing your character is one thing, but understanding it is another thing altogether.
Epictetus, a first century philosopher, once said, “people feel disturbed not by things, but by the views they take of them”. Put simply, thoughts cause feelings and behaviours. Case in point with your character.
Your character is your bedrock. It’s both what makes you strong as metal and as flaky as the dust in the wind. You’re likely to feel great about your own character when you “dig deep”, “hold strong”, “lean into the wind “ but feel like a loser when you “cave in”, “break down” or “ lose the plot“.
Truth is though, it’s not your character that is actually at fault, but the feeling that you assign to it that makes you feel at fault. Put it another way – unless you’re thinking about it and you’ve assigned a feeling to it then really it means nothing at all.
So when you get into a situation that involves you taking a closer look at your character, be careful not to assign too many ill feelings to what you see.
This is the crux of the matter when it comes to character building. Train yourself to know your strengths and flaws, because they are what make you human. No one is perfect. But also find a way to train yourself not to assign a feeling or emotion to all of them.
Think of your mind a little like a Facebook or YouTube algorithm. It keeps on showing you similar stuff to that which you’ve been looking at – or in this case with your mind, what you think about. Think of each thought as being a bit like the LIKE button. This tells your algorithm to give you more of the same. That’s a useful way of explaining why you tend to replay and remuniate over events again and again.
This takes some superhuman-like abilities though to avoid. As I’ve written often, I’m not always great at nailing this.
Anthony Metivier in his rather dry TED video entitled, “Two Easily Remembered Questions That Silence Negative Thoughts”, (watch from about 7 minutes in!) comes up with a bit of a solution. He suggests that as your thoughts come in that might question your character, ask two simple questions.
Is that thought useful?
How does that thought behave?
Next time you’ve had a particularly crappy day at school, and everything has turned to custard and you find yourself starting to question what your character is really about, ask yourself those two questions about the thoughts that you are having:
Are these thoughts useful?
And how do they behave?
Bear with me as I explain this next bit, there is a little method in my madness here, as my Dad would’ve said!
So the other night as I lay in bed, questioning my character after a series of failings, and the thoughts began to flow in waves like they do, crashing against the rocks, I decided to run an experiment.
Not that I have any experience in Tinder like dating apps, I decided to view my thoughts as though I did. As my thoughts flew in I purposely looked at them from a slightly removed perspective. I swiped them left or right as I asked the questions, is this thought useful, and how does it behave? If I caught myself in the negative I swiped them away, instead dwelling in the positive and useful thoughts
This little exercise might help you strengthen your character, and might well help you get a better night’s sleep at the same time.
Your character, and your understanding of it, is pretty vital. It’s unique to you, and it’s what makes you special. Worry about your character, not your reputation. Your character is who you are. Your reputation is who people think you are.
And if you can get your head around that, then that’s definitely character building.
See, I always thought there was method in my madness.
To be honest I wondered if my topic for this week’s article, reflection, was still appropriate now that New Zealand is being re-visited by the COVID-19 virus and parts of our country are in lockdown.
I was going to start off by painting a beautiful picture. You see in South Westland, just near the township of Fox Glacier, is the beautiful Lake Matheson. It’s renowned worldwide for its stunning reflections. On any given day, when the conditions are just right the reflections are so perfect that it’s near on impossible to know what’s up and what’s down. Aoraki Mt Cook soars above you, and also at your feet.
I felt that this was the perfect metaphor for reflecting on our professional roles. When the conditions are near on perfect, then so is the reflection. It’s finding those perfect conditions that is the key to getting the thought processes moving.
A friend of mine, Richard Spackman, has recently stepped away from his hectic life running a thriving photocopy and print business, to travel the world with his family. COVID-19 has put paid to this and his tour of the world has become a world tour of New Zealand. During this time he has found time to self-reflect. He’s even written about it. The advantage that Richard has is that the conditions for his reflection are perfect. There is no noise or angst, no pressing timelines, no insidious conflicts or unrelenting perceptions or expectations. He has time. He has time to think.
And that reminded me again about how important it is to find the right conditions to get the most out of your reflections. Then the latest round of COVID-19 hit and I began to wonder whether this actually was the best time to talk about finding the optimal time in your professional lives to go away and think.
I mean, as we all head back into various forms of lockdown and restriction, with it’s angst and uncertainty, the whole world seems to change once more, and the need isn’t to slow down and reflect, but instead it is to speed up and be ultra visible. As leaders in times like this we are expected to marshal the troops, know the answers to those questions that haven’t even been asked yet, and to always, always be one step ahead of the mob … or the virus … or that parent who thinks this is some sort of crazy conspiracy.
This isn’t time to slip away and find time for reflection. Or is it?
When I first thought about writing this piece I imagined that I’d be encouraging leaders to actively make time, and large chunks of it, to get away and do some solid reflection.
However there is still a need for reflection in these busy COVID times. We just aren’t in a time rich environment.
Is this therefore the time for micro reflections? Instead of a half day here, or a whole day there, I’m thinking ten minutes here, or fifteen minutes over there.
And during these times your reflections aren’t going to be long flowing inquiry based examinations of your reason for being. Instead they’ll be succinct, targeted, and to the point.
How do these steps sound for a micro reflection during these crazy times?
- Reconnect with your purpose and what you’re trying to achieve
- Reflect on how you’ve got to this point and how you’ll know when you’ve got to your destination
- Refract on how this might look with another lens, and a consider if there is another way/s
- Commit to the thoughts that you have – if you’re making a change, commit to it. If you’re not, commit to that. But give yourself some flexibility. When new information arises be flexible enough to know that your commitment may change.
- Take time to breathe and let yourself know that you’ve got this
- And finally; read this quote by Maya Angelou.
“Do the best you can until you know better.
Then, when you know better, DO better.”
Now go back to your busy role knowing you’ve got this.
So where can you do this? Schools are notoriously busy.
A ten minute walk around the grounds of the school straight after interval when the grounds are empty …
A fifteen minute “alternate” route on your way to school in the car ….
A twelve minute escape to a room in the school that is seldom used….
You’ll know the places to look. Your office isn’t always the best place for this.The ideal is to find a place that is quiet. You just need some peace to get your micro reflection going.
Even Lake Matheson has days when the reflection is ruined by the weather. So don’t be hard on yourself if your own micro reflection gets messed up by the “constant noise” of school life around you. There’s always tomorrow. But see if you can make it a habit, and see if it makes a difference.
Photo by Selin Şahin
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 good principal 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 have to 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 effective and sustainable.
Today we are sharing an idea that will be familiar to those of you who have read “The Forty Hour Principal”. It’s about positive thought patterns.
Photo by NeONBRAND
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.
A pioneer in this field is positive psychology professor Martin Seligman. He has written a number of best-selling books on this topic with the most well-known being “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life” ³. Three key techniques he promotes are:
- Separating fact from fiction
- Identifying a positive
- Cultivating an attitude of gratitude
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 fact is 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.
It’s that time of year again. Maybe you’re like me and in the distance you see a light. Possibly it’s the light at the end of the tunnel, and equally possible it’s the light of an on-coming freight train. Either way it’ll be here before you know it, and even if it is a freight train, you’ll be able to get up afterwards, dust yourself down and head towards the real light at the end of the tunnel in the knowledge that the last Term of the year has less than a week left in it.
Time then to share a little perspective with you, before you head off into the summer break.
A couple of days ago I was feeling particularly swamped (nothing unusual about that), slightly isolated, and naggingly negative about the year that will just about be over.
But then a friend shared with me a simple idea after I’d spent an hour or so unloading my current issues that were taking up far too much of my time. I bemoaned to my friend that this was what my principalship had come to – a seemingly endless list of issues to work through, packed one on top of each other.
My friend pulled out a pencil. On a spare piece of paper he drew two circles side by side.
In one circle he asked me to write a number. That number was the number of people that I worked with in my school; pupils, parents, staff. My school has 400 students, throw in 40 staff, and nearly 300 families, and you get a number that is pretty big. If you estimate that most families have 2 parents who care, then my number of people hits the 1000 mark. Wow! That’s a lot of people to have some sort of relationship with!
Then my friend told me to count up the number of people who I had had negative relationship issues throughout the year. Obviously some of these people I had multiple issues rising again and again, but the number of people was small.
And there it was, in beautiful simplicity – a thing called PERSPECTIVE!
Yes, 2019 has had its fair share of trouble. But if I was to only look at the troubling times then I might as well not come back for 2020. The reality of a clear perspective is that the troubling times were well and truly outrun and outgunned by great relationships, great times and great fun.
So my simple challenge to you, as you pick yourself up and dust yourself down in a week’s time is to do the two circle challenge and give yourself some much needed perspective.
You can use the two circle technique on all sorts of issues. Yes, it’s probably overly simplistic. And yes, it’s not particularly scientific, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s a tool for you and only you, and it’s designed to give you a positive perspective jolt without needing to think about it too much. It’ll show you graphically that when you consider the big picture, you’ve done a bloody good job all year.
So take time to pat yourself on the back. You’ve done well! Have a fabulous break everyone.