Overthrowing the stress of the tyranny of the urgent

Whether one works in a national school or an international school, it is very easy to find oneself in a vortex of being busy all the time. Meetings after meetings, issues after issues, crisis after crisis – all demanding one’s attention and all demanding that they be treated as “Priority 1”. One of my colleagues refers to this as “the tyranny of the urgent”. In leadership, it is even more likely to succumb to the tyranny of the urgent but it is very important (a) not to and (b) be aware when it is emerging in one’s work environment because this sort of tyranny is one whose arrival can be insidious.

So, how does one counter the emergence of the tyranny of the urgent? This might well appear to be an impossible act, particularly where schools are involved. The expectations placed on school leaders by staff, students and parents makes for fertile ground for such tyrannies. The rise of information communication technologies has also added a super-fertilizer to the soil. I would hazard that one of the chief culprits of upping stress levels in a school leader’s life is the increased level of accessibility that schooling today now demands.

Increased levels of expectation framed by an increase in accessibility (or perhaps expected accessibility) make for an interesting work environment but one where it is unrealistic to go “cold turkey” and completely disconnect from the world. That leaves school leaders in, potentially, a less-than-satisfactory situation as far as their work-life balance is concerned. If a school leader’s health and well-being is suffering, what might the impact on the school as a whole be? How can balance be addressed?

To combat the stress that the tyranny of the urgent can create, in this day and age, a frontal assault is probably not the best strategy. One might have to adopt more of a “fifth column” approach and attack the situation from within. In other words, rather than doing what is neither feasible or realistic in today’s world, being situational in dealing with the stresses and strains that ‘regular urgencies’ might be a better solution.

In reading around this subject, I came across the following list of suggested, yet practical, stress management strategies:

  1. Vary your route to and from work. It can help control anxiety and reduce the sense of getting back on the same rollercoaster. Small changes in routine can be enough to break the negative patterns of thinking that we can get ourselves into.

  2. To-do lists: Try dividing the page each day into “must”, “should” and “could”. You will never get it all done but you usually leave work with the satisfaction of knowing that everything in the “must” list has been completed.

  3. Keep a list of all the unplanned things that take up working time each day, e.g. meeting with parents, phone calls and answering emails. It is re-assuring to see at the end of the day what you have achieved, even if some of it was unscheduled.

  4. Be realistic about what you expect to achieve each day. There will always be unplanned interruptions. Try to factor this in.

  5. To help with focusing on the positive, keep a diary and write down three positive things, however small, that have happened each day. You go home thinking about the positives.

  6. In those difficult meetings with complaints from parents, try to de-personalise the issue. It is very rarely about you personally. Try to unpick what feelings and emotions might be underpinning a complaint before the meeting starts.

  7. Try to find a professional outlet for your expertise outside of your own school, e.g. volunteer to co-ordinate your cluster heads meetings. You see the wider educational landscape which helps to keep things in perspective.

  8. Find a trusted friend outside of your immediate professional circle and talk to them, honestly. We all need someone outside of a situation to challenge our perceptions.

  9. Try to maintain an outside interest or hobby. We need mental distraction from thinking about work in order to relax.

  10. Sleep is key. There are many free apps for phones and tablets with ocean wave sounds. They trick your breathing pattern into a relaxed rhythm allowing you to sleep.

From my own context, working in a cross-cultural context, in an international school adds a little twist to the nature of stress as a school leader and the need to take care of oneself. There are always multiple cultural layers to what one observes, which in turn complicates both interpretation and subsequent action. Each of these strategies is just as important and applicable.

This post has been about the need to be aware of how stress can creep up on school leaders and what might be an approach to deal with that problem. By way of a coda to this post, it is important to address the impact that the tyranny of the urgent can have on a school’s staff and students. This could be the subject of a post all its own but as this is a coda on the topic, let us accept the main point here to be this: school leaders are role-models.

As role-models, a school leader’s and experience with the tyranny of the urgent is something that is a shared experience with other members of the school community (whether the school leader wants it to be or not). To that end, it is even more important that an awareness of the stress and strains that come with being in education, and that they must be kept under control, is not just held by a school leader but demonstrated at all times. After all, what sort of message is sent to the broader school community if the school’s leader does not exhibit wisdom in this matter?

Hastening slowly. The key to being a good school leader.

I have had, over recent weeks, reason to think through what it means to be a good school leader. It does not matter whether one is in a national school or an international school, a Christian school or a secular one. It does not matter whether the school is co-educational or single-sex. It does not matter whether the school is selective or comprehensive. At the end of the day, reflecting on the question “what makes a good school leader?” has led me to a one word answer:

Patience.

This should not be confused with inaction. I don’t mean that a good leader is someone who does nothing (although sometimes, it is just as important to be inactive as it is to be active). It does not take a great deal of effort to google and collect pithy sayings on leadership such as:

“The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been”

“Leadership is not about titles, positions or flowcharts. It is about one life influencing another”

“A leader leads by example not by force”

and

“First rule of leadership: everything is your fault”

Patience is the common denominator. If you are going to take people from where they are to where they have not been, you must exhibit patience in explaining to them what is going on, why a decision has been made in a particular manner and how that might impact them. If you are going to lead by influencing others, through natural charisma, that is going to take patience as people and situations respond. If you are going to lead by example and not by force, you are going to have allow for time for the example you provide be seen and internalised by those you lead. And if everything is your fault, patience will be more than a virtue as you seek to work alongside those around you in order to make better the situation in which you find yourself.

“Hastening slowly” is a phrase or saying that I often fall back on as I go through the working week. Patience is at its core and as phrases go, it is not a bad one to help temper one’s leadership, whatever the situation is, whenever the situation is.