Masks are worn to conceal the true identity of the wearer. In theatre and ceremony, they are explicit in both their form and function; in leadership, not so.
The mask that many School Leaders wear is far more subtle. It isn’t made of clay, paper or wood. It doesn’t have elaborate patterns or features painted across it. Instead it is invisible and rather than hiding the face – it hides your inner world of thoughts, feelings and emotions.
It is understandable as to why this is so. The mask acts as a defensive mechanism. It serves to keep us safe from situations or others that we perceive may cause us harm. However, left unchecked, our masks can sometimes cause us more harm than good and these are the times when we need to learn how to take them off and ask for help.
The Headteacher’s Stage
It was in the 1960’s that the German psychologist Ervin Goffman equated human behaviour to that of living out one’s life on stage. His theory proposed that for all of our interactions we are trying to manage the response that we get from our audience.
The degree of intimacy and trust that exists between the performer and their audience will influence the performer’s stage performance.
Depending on the relationship, the performer will adapt their performance for each and every situation to try and win a favourable response from those who are observing.
Goffman proposes that the acts, the routines and the feedback that the performer receives are all part of how an individual develops their sense of self-worth and who they are as an individual. These acts, these routines are all performed on what Goffman refers to as the individual’s front stage.
In the education context, we can quite easily see how this theory relates to the life of a Headteacher. Headteachers have multiple audiences to play to; Governors, pupils, parents, teachers, inspectors and numerous other stake holders. Depending on a number of often different and competing factors these audiences can be either friendly or hostile.
Levels of intimacy and trust can sometimes be inspiringly high and at other times depressingly low. As a head teacher, you alone know the reality of what it means to have to try and give outstanding performances for each of these audiences on a daily basis. It is exhausting!
Yet, you have to do it and to be able to give the performance that your audience expects you have to don your leadership mask, your emotional force field that protects your heart and your feelings.
However, what you’re often not told as a School Leader or head teacher, is that if you want to be able to maintain your ability to lead and inspire, then you have to be prepared to do some work backstage.
We all have a back stage. Our back stage represents our inner world, our inner reality. In the life of a School Leader, seeking in what are very often pressurised environments, to change the life chances of our young people, the back stage should be the place, where in a safe and protected environment you can;
– Express your doubts and fears
– Talk about defeats and upsets
– Edit and write the script for your next performance
– Rehearse your lines
Back stage is a crucial place where you can stop, pause and reflect. It’s a space where you can drop your leadership mask, get back in touch with what’s going on inside and do what it takes to prepare yourself for your next performance.
Having this space means when your audiences aren’t so forthcoming in their praise for your performance, you are not left too bruised and wounded and are still able to hold your head up high and walk back on stage for your next scheduled performance.
When a School Leader or Headteacher seeks to work on both their front and back stage performance, they increase their ability to be reflective and develop strategies that enable them to be continually outstanding in front of all of their audiences. As author Daniel Goleman explains…
“Perhaps the most telling [though less visible] sign of self-awareness is the propensity for self-reflection and thoughtfulness …. Many outstanding leaders, in fact, bring to their work life the thoughtful mode of self-reflection”
Three Key Tips for Learning to Drop the Leadership Mask
If you feel you are in need of some guidance to help you learn how to drop your leadership mask and become more reflective as a leader, then here are three key tips to help you on your way;
1. Focus Your Time and Energy:Being busy is not the same as being effective. You know that in leading a school, multiple demands are made upon your time and energy. When you seek to meet all of the demands simultaneously, impact is lost.
Learn to find ways that help you to focus on one task at a time. Doing so allows you to build reflective practices of focus and attention into the way in which you handle your day to day tasks.
2. Learn to press the pause button! If only for 5 minutes at the start and the end of the school day, learn to pause. In these rare quiet moments, if you allow yourself, you can gain greater clarity, re-set your goals and help bring yourself back to a state of equilibrium.
3. Find a Safe Space for Reflection – If you are going to succeed in your ability to lead others then you are going to need regular ‘head space’. Protected, undisturbed time when you can reflect or talk through what you’re experiencing and what is challenging you.
By doing this regularly, you can gain deeper levels of self-awareness and understanding, about who you are and the values and principles that you wish to be characteristic of you as a leader.
Developing such habits, will mean that over time, you will become less reliant on your leadership mask. You will find that you develop a deeper sense of what it means to lead with authenticity and integrity. There will be stronger levels of alignment between your front and back stage, your inner and outer worlds. Your different audiences will perceive this and as a result your relationships with them will grow stronger too.
A Chance to Drop the Mask
When you’re at school, all eyes are on you, all the time. You have to keep that mask on, to stay armoured up and keep a check on your emotions, sometimes just to get through the day. But what so many people forget is that you’re still there underneath the mask.
You have feelings and emotions just like the rest of us. So it’s important you have a space where you can share your thoughts, worries, concerns and find solutions to issues of key importance to you and your school – and get back in touch with your emotions and what it feels like to be human.
When we take off our “leadership armour” & face our vulnerabilities we can allow ourselves to:
– Experience greater alignment between our inner/private world of thoughts, feelings and emotions and our outer/public world, which by contrast is on constant display to others and again as you know can be exhausting!
– Develop a greater understanding of our emotions and their impact on us and how to develop greater levels of emotional resilience
– Be seen for who we truly are and learn to be compassionate and accepting of ourselves – warts and all!
That’s why for the last 12 months, I’ve been been supporting leaders with free “Coaching for The Soul” calls to give leaders a chance to drop the mask and help them to find new inspiration to keep going towards their vision.
These calls are confidential and have “no strings attached”, so if you feel like you’d benefit from a chance to drop the mask like this, please do book a call with myself using the link below…
If you’re keen for support and guidance in your current situation, please do book now!