Getting Renewal – How to Break out of the Sacrifice Syndrome

“When leaders sacrifice too much for too long – and reap too little – they can become trapped in the Sacrifice Syndrome”

[Boyatsiz and Mckee]

There’s no denying that you have to make some sacrifices when you’re in School Leadership but what so often happens is that Heads fall into this “Sacrifice Syndrome” and give everything of themselves to everyone else, until there’s nothing left for themselves.
Many things can instigate Heads falling into this syndrome, although it commonly happen when demands increase, a crisis presents itself, exams are round the corner or an OFSTED inspection is feared to be on the horizon and Heads feel they need to go above and beyond to ensure a successful outcome.
On these occasions, Heads try somehow, someway to find more hours in the day, and often do so by attempting to get through each day on less and less sleep.

The Sacrifice Syndrome is insidious. It creeps up on us and before we know it, seemingly impossible working hours have become the norm. We construct a narrative in our heads, to justify our behaviours. We hear ourselves saying such things as:
“No one else can do it”
“I’m simply putting the kids and my school first”
“It doesn’t matter. I’ll put the extra hours in now and come the half term, that’s when I’ll relax and make time for myself and my family”
However, we know the sad reality! When half term finally arrives, you are so exhausted you have nothing left to give either to yourself or your family. The ‘Sacrifice Syndrome’ has taken absolutely everything out of you and all you can do is sleep!

Learning to put yourself first

You don’t need me to tell you, this way of working is simply not sustainable. But I am going to say it anyway and I’ll keep on saying it until we see a substantial change in the way in which School Leaders are cared for, nurtured and supported.
We have to reach a point where School Leaders don’t feel any shame, guilt or embarrassment about learning to put themselves first. I love this quote from Parker J Palmer and I invite you to reflect deeply on what he is saying here:

“Self-care is never a selfish act – it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.”

As a School Leader, you have one of the most precious gifts, any human being could ever be in possession of. A passion, a belief, that you can make a huge and long lasting difference to the dreams and hopes of future generations. But how can that gift, that passion, that belief be fully realised, if the vessel that carries it, is not properly cared for?
To quote again from the authors at the top of this blog:

“Sustainable, effective leadership occurs only when the experiences of sacrifice and stress of leadership are interchanged with those of renewal … while resonance will lead to effective leadership unless a leader moves in and out of renewal, he or she will not be able to sustain it”

So where are you in the renewal stakes? Are you on your way to sustaining effective leadership? Or are you firmly within the grip of the Sacrifice Syndrome?
If you are within the grips of the Sacrifice Syndrome, then it is essential that you develop an intentional renewal practice that is a part of your everyday leadership life. It needs to be a practice that will enable you to engage with these three essential facets of life as a school leader.
It must be a practice that enables you to:

1. Deepen your Self-Understanding

When we understand ourselves better, our histories, our personality traits, our emotional make-up, we strengthen our ability to develop healthy relationships with others. We remain able to engage with life from a  strong sense of self, particularly when challenges arise.

2. Develop your Emotional Resources

Your role as a School Leader requires an endless amount of energy. Energy is defined in the Oxford English dictionary as: The strength and vitality required for sustained physical or mental activity. However, you know from our own experiences as a School Leader, that the definition should also include ‘sustained’ emotional energy.
How often have you carried around a huge emotional debt and become increasingly overdrawn, simply because you have had no readily identifiable means for bringing your emotional account back into credit?

3. Bring congruity to your original ideals and current realities

The educational landscape keeps changing and for many it has changed substantially from when they first entered the profession. It can feel like a daily struggle to stay true to oneself and not get side tracked and become overwhelmed by increasing amounts of bureaucracy and the politics of school reform.
Now more than ever, School Leaders need to regularly engage in processes that help them to rise above these challenges, so that their moral compass can remain facing due north at all times!
Perhaps, now is the time to ask yourself;
 “What difference would it make, if I had a renewal process in my life, that helped me to deepen my self understanding, develop my emotional resources and bring congruity to my original ideals and current realities?”


Without a doubt the pandemic brought many unexpected challenges for us all. However, one of the silver linings of the past two years has been a heightened awareness of what matters most for all of us. We learnt:

– The value of community

– The need to stay connected

– The importance of being supported

We also learnt that deeper connections matter, none of us can survive alone and to thrive and overcome the challenges of leadership life we need real, deep, and meaningful connections with others.

That’s why we have launched our new “Heads Together”, a new School Leadership community, designed to connect like-minded school-leaders and to provide a watering hole for inspiration, encouragement and support.

Our “Heads Together” Community is designed to provide School Leaders with:

– A vital network of support to help individuals manage the emotional strains and stresses of the role

– Collaborative forums for thoughtful exploration around timely and important leadership themes

– Inspiration and encouragement throughout the year to help keep leaders’ passion and purpose alive

If you’d like to find out more about the community, and how it could help support you in your role, simply follow the link below…

Learn more


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