“Loneliness is proof that your innate search for connection is intact”
Like all top leadership positions, school leadership and headship in particular brings with it the type of power that isolates: positional power. The higher up you are in an organisation, the more your positional power means that you not only have increased pressures and responsibilities, it also means an increased distancing in relationships.
Learning how to balance the need for human connection, with the need to maintain the integrity of the leadership role, is a challenge many school leaders face. Individuals have to decide where their personal and professional boundaries lie and the degree to which they will give of themselves.
When you are ‘lower down’ the school hierarchy it is much easier to build relationships with those who are like you and to share problems with those who will have had similar experiences.
To begin with there are more of you. If, for example, you are a class teacher in a primary school or a head of house in a secondary school, there will be others that hold the same position who you can turn to for support. However, as you climb, the number of individuals that hold the same or similar post diminishes until, finally, you reach the top – head teacher – and look around to find that there is no one in your setting who holds the same position as you.
In learning to cope with the isolation brought about by positional power, leaders have to learn how to develop new relationships with themselves. Once the boundaries have been drawn, school leaders need to learn how to be comfortable with their own company: how to trust their own inner voice, particularly at times when no outside counsel is available.
Challenges to Overcoming Isolation at the Top
In my work with school leaders, I have identified a number of challenges that senior school leaders grapple with, when seeking to find solutions for overcoming the feelings of isolation and loneliness that are a direct result of positional power.
A key challenge that I have witnessed many grapples with and it is something that I have written about often… is how to lead with humanity and overcome the myth of the super-head.
Education today has become dominated by the myth of the superhero, in the form of the ‘super head’. We have all been told how these super heads have ‘supernatural’ powers to turn around failing schools (completely unaided). In their presentation, these Heads appear unaffected by self-doubt, anxiety, isolation or any of the emotional struggles of leading.
The truth is such a Head has never existed. Yet many Heads still try to live up to this myth. It leads many to believe that they must maintain a faultless public façade and appear unperturbed by the (often considerable) emotional struggles of leading in a system that is increasingly characterised by high levels of personal culpability.
What the general public and media have yet to realise is that:
“Leadership is not the private reserve of a few charismatic men and women. It is a process that ordinary people use when they are bringing forth the best in themselves and others”
The perpetuation of the super head myth by the media only leads to greater fragility and isolation in the system. When heads fail their descent becomes all too public. No-one condones wrongdoing but equally the current vogue for public naming and shaming is both ruthless and heartless. Bill Gates illustrated this inequity perfectly when he said:
Developing a systematic way to help teachers get better is the most powerful idea in education today. The surest way to weaken it is to twist it into a capricious exercise in public naming and shaming. Let’s focus on creating a personnel system that truly helps teachers improve.
In this current climate, the struggle for many school leaders is how to determine the depth and integrity of their positional power. They must do this to counter-act external voices and pressures that diminish their own sense of value and self-worth. Their behaviours and actions must be aligned with the qualities of true mortal heroes and not super men and women.
‘It is time to end the myth of the complete leader; the flawless being at the top, who’s got it all figured out…. In today’s world of increasingly complex problems, no human being can meet this standard. Leaders who try only exhaust themselves, endangering their organisations.’
Harvard Business Review
Above all, we all need to recognise that head teachers are mothers, fathers, partners. They feel hurt and pain. They experience self-doubt and worry. The super-head does not exist. What does exist are normal human beings who have to survive in a system that sees a passion for high standards and compassion and humility as mutually exclusive.
In my opinion, the best school leaders are those who are able to embrace their humanity; those who have the courage to admit their weaknesses and vulnerabilities and in so doing develop ways of leading that result in greater levels of both public and private authenticity.
What can be done?
If you have a close friend, family member or colleague who is a school leader, you may have noticed the impact of the myth of the super-head on their own well-being. Whether they’re working far beyond the call of duty, a reluctance to ask for help or showing anything that may be conceived as a sign of “weakness”.
You may well have also seen the detrimental impact that the role can has had on their emotions, levels of resilience, their self-confidence and belief in themselves. I find myself meeting Heads on a daily basis for whom this is the case. It’s because of this, that Integrity Coaching offers free confidential “Coaching for the Soul” calls with myself. The calls offer a space for leaders to be listened to without judgement and to find their own solutions for moving forward.
Whilst I’ve seen a growing number of Heads recognise that they need support to survive and thrive in their role, many Heads still carry on alone. Either because they’re unaware such support is available or because they feel unable to ask for the support they need while the myth of the “Super Head” persists.
That’s why, if you’re a friend, colleague or family member – we need your help.
We’d love for you to help us dispel the myth of the Super Head. How? If you know of a Head teacher who is suffering in silence and in need of a listening ear;
– Share this blog with them
– Have a chat with them about it
– And if you feel they’d benefit… feel free to encourage them to book a free 30 min “Coaching for the Soul” call with myself – using the link below
Please help us as we try to ensure that no school leader ever has to choose between their role and their well-being again!