Last week Steve gave you a nice positive To Do List.

A week after considering this excellent advice I’m going to give you another way to stay healthy, happy, and hopefully sane. I’m going to call out some things that you shouldn’t do – my plan could well be titled The Don’t Do List.

If you’d rather hear this post, scroll down the page and you’ll find a podcast version.

1. Over Planning

There’s a famous quote attributed to Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, – “no plan survives first contact with the enemy”. Back in history, the Field Marshal wrote an essay showing that the unpredictability of how the enemy might respond meant the key aspect of any plan is flexibility – not detail. You don’t control all the variables in a battle (pandemic) so simply can’t write a plan that accounts for everything.

On that note, how is your “Business Continuity Plan” going?

My head started to hurt when I first sat down and tried to cover every possible scenario . . . (it still hurts when I look at the plan we created!). Yet despite the colourful layout, neat headings and well-balanced font choices, it will no doubt change very soon, so it is time to stop adding detail and to prepare to be flexible.

2. Pretending you have all the answers

One of the hardest things to admit for many of us ‘on it’ leaders, is that we simply don’t know the answer to everything. And to compound the pressure to pretend, some of our teams positively expect Solomon like wisdom from their leader.

The antidote is to swallow hard and say, “I don’t know”. If the question actually seems important, offer to find out or better, suggest how the person wanting to know can do this for themselves.

3. Assuming feelings of personal responsibility for literally everything

Your school is really just a community of people who all have parts to play in how it operates. Parents, children, caretaker, teachers, bus driver, lunch providers – each has a role to play, and whether or not they do them to the satisfaction of all the other community members is not, rationally, your responsibility.

4. Fearing the worst

When faced with uncertainty, your limbic system (lizard brain) kicks into gear and starts predicting a whole range of bad outcomes. Most of which never happen (as you already know based on the stuff you’ve worried about in your life up to this point). As Mark Twain famously said, “I am an old man now and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” Believe that.

5. Thinking other principals have everything sorted

This is one that a great many new leaders (and many who should know better) believe. I think it’s because we’re often careful not to publicly share our doubts and questions. It’s human to want others to see us in a good light and besides, everyone knows a school leader is a decisive and ‘on to it’ person.

At the risk of creating disillusionment, the breaking news is that pretty much every school leader I’ve had the privilege to get to know well, has fears, doubts, and stuff they don’t know. They are in fact, remarkedly like you!

6. Walk faster

This one used to be a bad personal fault of mine. The busier I felt, the faster I moved around the school site. I’m embarrassed to admit that sometimes I actually ran (well at least jogged). This nuts behaviour created a feeling of ‘busy’ in all the people who saw it.

Now days, the busier I feel, the slower I walk. On a bad day I’m barely moving and I stop often to talk to people. Try it, because it forces you to slow down mentally as well, to lower that annoying cortisol, and makes those who rely on you feel safer.

7. Neglect your basic human needs – exercise, food, water, sleep, connection, fun

Now, I’ll admit that there are times when you have to push yourself. Stuff can happen that needs your attention, energy, and presence and that’s fine – if – it’s only for a short period of time.

However, being in a pandemic is not a short-term situation. It’s been real life for over two years now so your default behaviours really matter. I’m not going to try and give you a science lesson, but if you neglect any of the things listed above, you will not remain the leader you, your school community, or your family wants. Just saying.

8. Be a martyr

The martyr syndrome . . . this is worthy of its own post but the bottom line is don’t do it. Don’t think that the harder you work, the more you show you care about your school or community. This is a thinking pattern that is prevalent in schools and usually leads to unpleasant outcomes such as burnout, unhappiness and as a leader, ineffectiveness.

A martyr will die for the cause, and in the case of your job, is neither needed nor desirable.

9. Tell your friends you’re too busy for a game of tennis

You can substitute other things for tennis if you like, but this is my metaphor for stopping doing the things that bring you joy.

The bigger and more demanding your job is, the more you need to maintain the things in life that energise you.

10. Turn down offers of help

Earlier in the pandemic, our school was moving into lockdown and we needed to get a whole heap of computers to families who needed them. There ended up being quite a few not collected and various people offered to help getting them packaged up and delivered. I’m not 100% sure why (perhaps a bit of martyr syndrome?) but I said, “I’ve got this” and let the others go home. In hindsight this was a dumb move as the job took ages and it needn’t have.

When people genuinely offer to share the load, the only smart answer is “thanks”.

.   .   .

The things on this list can be really hard to action as some of them are reactive habits.

Those of you who have read Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” (and if you haven’t, you should) know that the first habit he promotes is to be proactive.

So, I’m suggesting that you proactively skim the list above and if you see anything that makes you go, “yip, that’s me”, intentionally make some change.

The next while in our role as educational leaders in New Zealand is likely to be challenging, and at times, even chaotic. This is an environment where default behaviours rear their heads and where even experienced leaders can come a bit unstuck.




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