It's tough being a leader

It’s a thrill being given a promotion. Besides the extra money in your bank account at the end of the month, there are little perks too.

You might have your own office or a lighter teaching load.
Once the congratulatory cards have been read and the speeches made, it’s time to get down to work. Learners, parents and staff start to assess your performance.

You get as much scrutiny as TV viewers watching a royal wedding at Westminster Abbey. You soon realise the truism that any leadership that is imbued with honesty and integrity isn’t always going to make you popular.

Three of the tougher aspects of leadership are a sense of loneliness, negative stress and a huge workload. Leaders who achieve learn certain survivor skills. Let’s look at those challenges.

First challenge: Sense of loneliness
A teacher in a non-promotion post usually has a number of colleagues on the same level. It’s a support system in difficult times. As you climb the promotion ladder, the number of such colleagues dwindles. You might have to initiate or support decisions that are not popular in the staff room. Changes could be met with hostility. You could find yourself isolated. Take heart. Every leader who makes worthwhile changes experiences—to a greater or lesser degree—moments of being marginalised from the group.

How do you deal with this sense of loneliness? Your senior management team should discuss issues and take collective, supportive action together. The senior team should view each member as “critical friends” guiding and mentoring one another. In addition, it’s crucial to have a friend or family member as a confidant and someone off whom you can bounce ideas. Leaders need formal and informal contact with fellow leaders. Teacher unions have annual leadership conferences. Attend them. Across South Africa there are hundreds of informal get-togethers of school principals. Over lunches, for example, they share their common concerns. Be part of a support network.

Second challenge: Negative stress
Teaching is a stressful profession. Do differentiate, though, between positive and negative stress. Positive stress is good. Imagine you are organising an event such as a sports day or prize-giving. Your stress levels might go up but also your levels of efficiency and time management. Yet, if you have too many functions with countless other duties, you risk impairing your mental and physical health. You could become prone to persistent colds and headaches; you snap and shout at people. These are signs of negative stress. You may also have to interact with negative people, who sometimes lack the ability to raise objections in courteous and reasonable ways. Complaints are expressed in brash and rude ways.

Napoleon Bonaparte said a leader is a dealer in hope. Leaders have to be positive. That doesn’t mean that they should always have an ever-positive, smiling Bugs Bunny view of life. Leaders should be reflective listeners. If the complainants’ views are valid, leaders adapt. Yet when they decide to go ahead, leaders focus on the positive. They rally their troops when they become disheartened. When you get criticised as a leader, be dispassionate. Highly emotional and passionate responses are out. Keep your cool. Welcome open, honest and straight talk. Have a sense of humility. Admit to mistakes and move on. Don’t take yourself too seriously. There’s much to laugh about in every classroom and staff room. Smile and have your own witty one-liners. Prove that you’re human. Most children, colleagues and staff usually think you’re doing a great job. Spend more time with positive folk. Their positive attitude will rub off on you.

Third challenge: huge workload
A leadership position entails extra responsibilities. You’ll attend more meetings and events. Your administrative workload increases. Then there are the conflict situations that you’ll mediate: teacher versus parent, staff member versus staff member and so on. Decide personally what a fair extra workload entails. There has to be a work-life balance. Give the school and the wider community what they deserve. Then learn to say “no” in the friendliest way to decline the requests of individuals and organisations that want even more of your valuable time.

Leaders are inclined to be perfectionists. They need to give themselves a bit of slack in our imperfect world. Give others leadership opportunities. Delegate. Avoid thinking that the only person who gets it done right is you and, therefore, you’d better do it yourself.
Have a weekly “switch-off” day. Switch off the computer. How about switching off the cellphone or at least put it on “silent”? Forget about school for 24 hours. Such a day will give you the chance to recharge your emotional, physical and spiritual batteries. Too much relentless hard work results in burnout. Manage your workload. Fiona Leney wisely advises: “You can be an effective leader only if your own level of wellbeing is high. Do not allow your needs to become the last priority to sort out other people’s problems.” Leaders ensure that there is quality in their own lives. They then create quality classrooms and schools.

Richard Hayward is a former principal of two public schools. He conducts quality education programmes with the South African Quality Institute.

For more information, including how poor schools can be sponsored, contact Vanessa du Toit (012 349 5006, [email protected]) or Richard Hayward (011 888 3262 <a href=“mailto:[email protected]”>[email protected])

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