Many of us have, no doubt, experienced times or even situations when we have felt the need to act differently from what feels to be our true self.
Sometimes this is because we believe that in order to succeed or gain approval, we have to alter our behaviour and show others a changed version of ourselves; one that we perceive others want us to be – a “false self” that we think will meet their expectations.
In some situations, the “false self” acts as a very clever defence mechanism. It has the cunning ability to make us feel safe in potentially threatening situations. If we are on our guard and present this “false self” to the world, then we have no fear of rejection or criticism. As our true, authentic, vulnerable self is protected from the judgement and critique of others.
Being authentic is something increasingly talked about in the context of leadership, but can be very difficult for School Leaders. Particularly given the prevalent damaging expectation on School leaders to be “Superheads”, strong rocks of their respective schools, impervious to criticism, unmoved by crises and able to turn around a school without feeling anything in the process.
As such, it is not unusual for many Heads to feel that they need to hide their vulnerability, in order to try and live up to this expectation and maintain order and command respect from staff and pupils alike.
However, what is often overlooked, is that by not being ourselves, there is a heavy price to pay, in terms of our well-being, our relationships and for school leaders – the climates they create for effective school improvement to occur.
Actions Conflicting With Values:
Our values make us who we are, they inform our behaviour and drive our passion and sense of vocation. They are key reasons, why we do what we do, and very often – how we do it.
For many school leaders, it is their values and hope for young people which sustains them through the challenges of their roles.
When our actions are aligned with our values – these values and our inward self feels nurtured and fulfilled, and because we have a deep passion for our roles, school leadership becomes less like work and more like pursuing one’s purpose in life.
However, when we find ourselves altering our behaviour to meet other’s expectations of us, we can find that we lose this alignment. By changing our ways of thinking and behaving in order to be what we may think others (e.g. governors or policy makers) want or need us to be, we can find ourselves alienated from the original purpose that motivated and sustained us.
I suspect many will be familiar with the imposter syndrome, namely – the feeling that you’re a fraud and that it is only a matter of time before you are “found out” for not being up to the job in hand.
This is a very common feeling when you are new to a role, as many can feel anxiety or self-doubt when starting out and getting to grips with the expectations required of them. As your confidence builds and you see that your efforts are successful, you can find that these feelings subside. It is in these moments when you realise you’re not an imposter at all!
However, these feelings can be harder to address for leaders who do not act in alignment with their true selves. This is because if you find that you are acting in a way that is not “authentically you”- you may feel that any praise or success you have achieved is down to the person you have been “pretending to be” rather than your authentic self.
This can make you believe that if you were to show your true self – the success and approval that had come so far, would diminish overnight. You may even begin to see your authentic true self as being of a lesser value than your “false self”. In other words, the more success our “false selves” receives, the less confidence we can have in our “authentic selves” and the more fiercely we stop ourselves from showing this self to others.
Our Relationships can Suffer
Many of us may feel that there are some people with whom we can be our true selves; they may be our partners, our families and close friends. With these people, it can feel easier to be vulnerable as we have the security of knowing [hopefully for most of the time] that we are unlikely to be judged.
However, the more we show up as our false self and prevent ourselves from being vulnerable, we can find that ways of being and thinking that emanate from this position can begin to blur the lines between our “public” and “private” selves. As a result, we end up treating those we care deeply about differently, and unintentionally cause harm to the relationships we cherish most.
The Souls of our Schools can Suffer
It is my firm belief that our schools need authentic leaders – leaders who can lead by example and model the vulnerability that is so crucial in the development of genuine human connection and the nurturing of healthy school cultures.
I believe when School Leaders aren’t able to exhibit their humanity, admit they need support and be truly themselves, they also make it harder for staff and pupils to do so.
Simply put, how can we expect others to come out from behind their defences and express who they truly are, if those that lead us can’t or won’t?
From my experience, when this vulnerability and authenticity is lacking in our schools, some of the feeling and emotion in school life can be lost.
When this happens, we risk our schools failing to properly see pupils and staff as human beings with emotional needs, hopes, passions and values – the nurturing of which I believe is the very soul of education.
One of the most important things that I’ve learned since leaving Headship is that no school leader should have to live their life as a lesser version of themselves, for fear of what others might think or say, if they really saw you.
Yes, the current education landscape, can at times feel harsh, brutal and a very unsafe place to show up as our True selves, but it is necessary. Our schools, our young people need to be led by leaders who understand, as in the words of American author Brene Brown, ‘You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability.’
I know that this is hard. One of the hardest things for me as a Head teacher was finding the courage to ask for the help that I needed. What I needed back then was someone impartial who really understood the challenges I was experiencing. I needed someone with whom I could “drop the leadership mask” and talk openly and honestly about the issues, questions, doubts and feelings I was having in my role.
And it is the same today. If our leaders are to sustain consistently high levels of effectiveness amidst the growing complexity of the role, this form of support is not just helpful – it’s vital.
Social workers have supervision to help them process their toughest cases, and corporate executives have space for “lessons learned” and continuous improvement between projects.
Yet school leaders remain woefully under-supported and as a result, many are left without anyone to turn to when they are in need of support, clarity, guidance or even just some encouragement to keep going.
That’s why I am now offering free “Coaching for The Soul” support calls to ensure that no School Leader finds themselves in the same situation as I was in as a Head.
These calls provide a safe, confidential space for school leaders to:
– Talk through the challenges they are currently facing
– Get support in locating next steps and solutions to help overcome problems
– Reflect on recent events and the impact they are having
– Gain clarity around how best to move forward
If you feel like you’d benefit from a call like this or perhaps know someone who would, please follow the link above!