These words are often quoted after a particularly drawn out or stressful event. They are a figurative shrug of the shoulders that signals an end point.
But the truth is that for many of us there is a lot of angst that comes before this point. And a lot of it comes because we don’t want to upset people, in fact we don’t want to upset anyone.
Early on in my educational adventure, I often found myself in that camp.
By trying to please everyone, or at least to avoid upsetting anyone, we unwittingly make ourselves ineffective because the only way to attempt this impossibility is to consign ourselves to maintaining the status quo.
And maintaining the status quo is simply not OK in a world where we need change.
So, what are some signs that you are operating in this trap? Here are some common ones.
You pretend to agree with everyone
When people are discussing a topic, it is not your job to agree with everything they are saying. That’s a low trust position. Professionals can (and should) disagree at times.
You apologise often
This is sometimes a default habit. If your opinion, or leadership call, is made thoughtfully, you have zero to be sorry for. This doesn’t mean it’s OK not to care, but your best decision is your best and that’s nothing to apologise for.
You often feel burdened by the things you have to do
Despite the reality that you are in charge of your own schedule, it’s possible that you are doing some things merely to please others. As an example, if you ever stay onsite later than you need to, because of what people might think if you left earlier, then that’s a red flag.
You struggle to say “no”
This is a common one – your calendar is already full of things but when that keen sounding person asks if you will do something, you feel bad saying “no” – regardless of whether the new thing meets the definition of important work.
You feel uncomfortable if someone is angry at you
Anger is a complex emotion and often has very little to do with the person it’s projected onto (you are probably innocent!). It’s also true that many leaders find it very uncomfortable if others are annoyed at them – fairly or unfairly.
You frequently need praise to feel good
Praise makes everyone feel good. However, some of us like that external affirmation so much that we change our behaviours to get it. Not necessarily a good thing.
You avoid conflict at all costs
Conflict at some level is a part of making change and if you aren’t willing to offend anyone, you may easily become ineffective in pursuing the important work.
Can you see aspects of yourself in this list? I certainly could, and at some level still can!
For myself, I have made significant change in how much (or not) energy that I put into trying to please people. It’s taken time, and at certain points in my career some deliberate effort to get a better balance. The key for me has been around being clear about what’s important because once I did that, many of the negative emotions or feelings I would once have tried to avoid became so much easier to manage. Clarity gives purpose.
And of course, none of this is meant to say you should aim to be “tough” or unkind. The complete opposite really – a school leader’s important work is always to do with people, and seeking better outcomes for them comes with the strong possibility of disapproval from others.
The real question isn’t, “how can I keep everyone happy?” but, “who am I willing to offend?”
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!
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.
“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.
English is a notoriously tricky language to navigate. Take a look at this classic sentence describing a panda to see that simple nuances and grammar can dramatically alter the meaning of what you’re trying to say.
A Panda eats, shoots, and leaves
A Panda eats shoots, and leaves. (It’s also available in joke form.¹)
It’s a bit the same with our Forty Hour Project catch phrase –
“Be Slacker Better”.
We mean one thing with Be Slacker Better, but it’s a totally different take on “Be a Better Slacker”.
When I wear my Be Slacker Better tee shirt, most people I know laugh and say something like; “Yup, I’m with you! I’d love to spend my time lying around on the couch watching Netflix and drinking beer.” I daren’t wear my tee at school in case I’m accused of being the biggest slacker around and an affront to the whole educational community. A principal can’t be a slack arse, let alone go around promoting it!
Of course, lying on the couch watching Netflix and drinking beer (being a better slacker) is something I often aspire to, sometimes even in my professional life (!) but it’s not something that I am actively encouraging.
I’ll use a small example to help show the difference. No doubt you’ve all had similar experiences in your roles. Our principal and leadership roles are full of such events, so this experience won’t be new to you I’m sure.
. . .
Recently I found myself attempting to manage a series of unfortunate events during the end of a lunchtime, all bang, one after the other. I was out in the playground watching some 8 year olds tear around the field playing football. Suddenly I heard a commotion and I had a swarm of kids around me yelling, “Mr Zee, Mr Zee, you’ve got to come quick, it’s real bad, there’s lots of blood”.
Over on the adventure playground I found a five year old who had simply forgotten to duck as he ran around and had split his forehead open in a collision with a playground bar. The kids were right – there was blood everywhere. The boy lay on the ground with a nasty gash open for all to see. I made the decision to move him and so picked him up and made for the sick bay.
Around about the same time, a fight was beginning between some of our 13 year olds and 10 year olds. They’d been sharing a game of soccer and a purposeful foot-trip by one of the younger boys was now being dealt with in an over the top sort of way. A teacher was trying to sort the problem out, but the bell to return to class was about to go and she needed to get to class.
At the same time, our current class runner/skipper had decided he wasn’t going to go back to class and he was more interested in playing “catch me if you can” with any adult who was trying to get him back into class.
In my arms lay a five year old boy bleeding all over my coat and leaving a nice trail on the concrete. I took him into the sickbay and chose to stay with him because he was really upset.
“Steve, I’ve got four boys out here needing to see you – they’ve just been in a fight.”
“Mr Zee, Brian has headed off out into the field and he won’t come back – can you get him back into class.”
Sure I said. I’ll console the bleeding and upset boy, he needs me right now!
Sure I said, I’ll sort out those four boys from the fight!
Sure I said, I’ll chase after Brian and get him back to the classroom, he’ll be back before you know it!
Sure, I’ll do it!
This really wasn’t going to end that well.
. . .
Mark Mason in his book, “Everything is F*#ked – a book of hope”, argues that our brains are wired by two parts; an emotional feeling side, and a thinking/self-control side.
Ultimately it’s our emotional side that stokes the fire for us to do anything. Without emotions driving us there’s simply nothing for the self-control side to, well to put it simply, control. There are plenty of documented stories of people who have brain injuries or surgeries and who have lost their ability to have feelings and as a direct result have also lost their purpose in life.
So it’s not surprising that when I was confronted first with a lot of blood and then another couple of behavioural issues to decipher, that it was my feeling side that began making the decisions first.
Mark Manson likens this to a Clown driving a Consciousness Car. He argues that our feeling brain drives our consciousness, and in the seat beside it sits our Thinking and Self-control. However, the feeling side has control of the driving wheel, the accelerator and the brakes. And, just like a teenager, the feeling side doesn’t like being told what to do, and so the thinking side of your consciousness is always trying to play catch up.
Not surprisingly my feeling side led from the front. Self-control only kicks in when there’s something to provoke it, so it was my feeling side that said, “Sure, I’ll do that, and sure, I’ll sort that, and sure I’ll chase after Brian.”
And because my feeling side doesn’t like to be told what to do, my self-control side tried to reason to start with. It said; “The other adults around are all busy people taking their classes and you don’t want to pull them from their core job”, and “You’re the principal and your core role is to look after people”, and “Your job is to sort out the behaviors (and don’t forget to sort them out good and proper!), and “If you aren’t being seen to do this then maybe you’ll be considered an imposter”, and “Maybe you’re cutting out the middleman by just doing it all, cos it’ll end up on your plate in the long term anyway” and … well, you get the picture. The easiest thing was to just do it … do it all. Which, simply put, wasn’t the best thing to do.
So after a while of consoling the bleeding child and making sure that he was in good hands with the school first aider (which of course he was from the moment I stepped into the sick bay), I headed out to sort out the fight with the four boys. “Don’t forget Brian” my thinking side reasoned, “he’s out there somewhere and needs to be back in class”.
Next day I got a phone call from a very disgruntled parent. She was very upset about how I had dealt with the fight. Her young boy had been punched in the eye by an older boy and it appeared that there were no consequences, and if there were then they were all weak ones. And…… what the hell was I going to do about it! No doubt you’ve had similar types of phone calls. It always astounds me how someone else’s bad behaviour gets turned into your bad behaviour.
It made for an uncomfortable realisation that Being Slacker Better would have been thefar better option.
Sure, at the end of the day, I did cope, and all three events were “sorted”. Some were sorted better than others. However all could’ve been sorted much better if I’d simply been slacker with myself and directed people around me to step up. The fact that someone said “Steve’s got it sorted” added to the tension that I couldn’t be slack.
But in whose’ mind was I really being slack in? Somewhere in my subconscious is an incredibly unfair feeling that if I hadn’t done what I did, then I would’ve been slack.
Just because I thought it doesn’t mean it was so though. Not all of our thoughts are correct.
. . .
As principals, we do this frequently. We rely on our emotions to drive the choices that we make. That’s what humans do. It’s not in our job descriptions, or performance management reports, or policies and procedures that really drive what we do. When was the last time you even read your Job Description? No, it’s our emotions. It’s our feelings. They start the ball rolling, and they provide motivation for us to actually do something. So if you also have a feeling that because you’re The Principal, that you need to do everything, or else you’re slack, then you have a problem. I imagine we all have this from time to time.
The difficulty is that our emotions/feelings don’t have a rudder when determining the best way to go. And essentially, they love to undermine self-confidence if they consider you’re being slack or if they think that someone else will think you’re being slack.
This is counter productive to your own well-being which somewhat ironically, puts you in an even more vulnerable position.
Being Slacker Better means looking for better options, even though your immediate gut feelings might be to do it all yourself. It would’ve been way better for me to delegate responsibility to another adult for any one of the three things that I was trying to do all at once.
I would’ve been better to triage the situations a bit like they do in the Emergency Department of a hospital. Are the doctors and nurses of those departments slack because they make decisions about what, and who they’re going to see first? I don’t think so.
So what are the key takeaways when Being Slacker Better?
Understand that it’s your emotions and feelings that get you moving. They are your drivers and what ultimately motivates you. This is key to understanding that your motivations might not always be the best thing to do even though you feel they are.
Give yourself some time before embarking on a big challenge.
Go easy on yourself. You are your biggest critic. Have high standards, sure, but keep them in check with what is actually required.
Don’t be overly proud in an arrogant way. I always wondered if this was a great example of the old adage “Pride comes before a fall”. You are not the only one who can “get this sorted”.
Understand that your role as a Principal/Leader is better suited as not being responsible for the job, but being responsible for the people who are responsible for the job. This is very important.
Give yourself some time after embarking on a big challenge.
Indian Educationalist, Saif Sarwari, has a great saying; “Sincere principals don’t count the number of hours they put in … they count how much they put into those hours … and that makes all the difference – give yourself some slack, your performance should be measured in the difference you make, not the number of hours you work.
Celebrate a job well done – irrespective of who has done the job.
Feel comfortable to delegate. Believe in the people around you and show trust in their ability to get the mahi done. This builds leadership capability and ultimately means you can Be Slacker Better even more often!
Don’t dwell and don’t beat yourself up if things don’t quite go as planned. Yes I had an angry parent, but this time next week, or next month, or next year it won’t really matter.
Consider formulating an alternative plan that could be used in challenging situations when you are inundated – write it up, record the key people that you want to delegate to. Talk to them about how you’ll communicate with them and how they’ll know they need to step up. Part of this plan is knowing what your priorities are as a leader .
. . .
My little situation turned out just fine. It was ok. Everyone was ok. Everything was ok. It could’ve been better – but I got the key elements right. The point is, if I’d been a little bit slacker things would’ve been better.
The following day the little boy who split his forehead open on the metal pole came in with his three stitches and this card. And it was then that I knew I got the most important part just right!
Mr Zee and the lady, Thank you
¹ A panda walks into a bar and orders a sandwich. The waiter brings him the sandwich. The panda eats it, pulls out a pistol, kills the waiter, and gets up and starts to walk out.
The bartender yells for him to stop and says, “You come in here, order food, kill my waiter, then try to go without paying for your food. Who do you think you are?”
The panda turns around and says, “Hey! I’m a Panda. Look it up!” The bartender grabs his phone and googles “panda” which reads:
“Panda: a bear-like marsupial originating in Asian regions. Known largely for it’s stark black and white coloring. Eats shoots and leaves.”
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?