“Fight or Flight” – How to End the Leadership Struggle

Back in May 2018, a national newspaper headline read, Three in 10 new School leaders quit in the first five years. For those of us who work in schools this is old news. We know that draconian changes within the education sector have left many teachers and School Leaders struggling …

“With a sense of despair, self-doubt and frustration that occurs when they experience themselves in ways which are incommensurate with their vision…. They experience a disjuncture between original ideas and current realities”

Parker J Palmer

We know this means many teachers and School Leaders simply struggle to survive – mentally, physically and emotionally. Consequently, many feel they have only two options to either fight or flight. Neither options are good for the system or the individual.
For the system, when schools are led by individuals who are in either fight or flight mode it often means:
– The hallmarks of the Ego, control, competition, fear and coercion dominate
– Emotionally Intelligent styles of leadership are derided, if they do not result in fast turn arounds and accelerated results
– Good people ‘disappear’ – either as a result of stress and burnout or because they have been forced out by the powers that be
For School leaders who find themselves operating from the fight or flight mode it often means:
– Being in a constant state of high alert, with stress hormones continually flooding your body and impacting adversely on how you lead both yourself and others
– Playing it safe, minimising taking risks or listening to your own voice, for fear of what might happen if you slip up or make a mistake
– An undermining of your own self-worth, confidence and belief in who you are as a leader.

Is there a solution?

If this is the question that you have been asking yourself, I’d like to believe that there is. To quote Aldous Huxley;

“You can’t change what’s going on around you, until you start to change what’s going on inside you”.

To rise above the harmful effects of a system that uses competition, fear and coercion as a means for controlling others, you have to learn to be responsive as opposed to reactive. You have to learn how to take control of your own internal processes, your thoughts and emotions, so that you are not driven to react or behave in ways that can cause detriment to both yourself and others.
Maybe you’re thinking, “That’s easier said than done”. If you are, You’re right. It is. But with a little determined practice, it gets easier and with time you find that you become a more conscious, aware leader. You are no-longer driven to react by the force of some-one else’s agenda, but instead you are compassionately directed by your own internal moral compass.

So …. where can you begin?

If you are determined to show up as your True Self and to lead from a place of true inner strength, then first of all you have to begin by making a commitment to yourself. That commitment needs to involve a willingness to step outside of your comfort zone. It requires a willingness to behave in ways that may seem contrary to what some say is needed for you to be an effective school leader.
You need to make a commitment to:
– Slow down
– To press pause
– To regularly retreat from school life
– To listen to yourself
– To take counsel from others who accept you as you are
Why? Because when you do so, you create a space that mentally, emotionally and physically allows you to be restored and to put a halt to the harmful effects of living life in either fight or flight mode.
Mentally: We now know thanks to the work of numerous neuro-scientists across the world, that when you take a person out of stressful situations, their brains can re-wire. With support, they can create new neural pathways, that ultimately can help them to both be and do better when re-entering stressful situations.
Emotionally: Thanks again to the work of neuro-scientists, we also know that there is a close connection between what happens inside our heads and our corresponding emotions. If we can learn to think differently, more positively and constructively under stress, we can put a halt to negative emotions and their corresponding stress hormones.
Physically: When we pause we stop the wear and tear on our bodies. We allow our immune system to be fully operative and to take care of us, so that we can properly take care of others.

Rising to the Challenges of Headship

From managing excessive workloads, the impact of budget cuts and high levels of personal accountability and public scrutiny – over the years, the role of Headship has always been fraught with challenges and pressures.
However, since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic back in March 2020, sadly we’ve seen the intense demands on our School Leaders grow yet further.
Not only have leaders had to rapidly adapt to quickly changing government advice and establish new practices and protocols for virtual learning and health and safety monitoring, they’ve also been expected to provide support to their communities and inspiring leadership throughout these difficult times.
Having to manage months of relentless challenge and crisis management (alongside the emotional and psychological impact of the pandemic has taken on all of  us) has proven to be extremely challenging even for the most experienced and resilient Heads.
And it is now perhaps no surprise that many School Leaders who are reporting feeling battle weary, beleaguered and burnt out. As a result, an NAHT poll back in November 2020 found that almost half of Headteachers plan to leave prematurely – and 70% say job satisfaction has fallen in the past year.
With this, in mind – I believe there’s never been a stronger case for the need to ensure that our School Leaders are properly supported; strategically, operationally and emotionally to ensure they not only survive in the headship role, but also thrive in their attempts to deliver the best outcomes for our children.
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 still, many Heads remain endemically under-supported, without spaces the need to off-load and encouragement they need as they manage the burden of the weight that they have been forced to carry.
Friends and family might offer a listening ear, but again it isn’t easy. Unless they have walked in your shoes, it can feel like no-one really fully understands what you are going through.
However, I know from my own experience as a Headteacher and now as an Executive coach that personalised support is vital, if leaders are to keep their hope alive and stay connected to their vision, passion and purpose.
That’s why I’m now offering free 1:1 Coaching calls to give senior leaders a chance to:
–  Talk through and get support with the challenges they’re currently facing
–  Reflect on events and the impact they’re having
–  Gain clarity about their current situation and plan a way forward


Book Your Call

 If you feel like you’d benefit from a call like this or perhaps know someone who would, please follow the link above!


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