Why Heads Need to Stop Putting Themselves Last

It is not uncommon to hear many a School Leader say, “In everything I do, I put the children first.”

As laudable a statement as this is, I think the time has now come for the profession to examine its flipside. The part that isn’t said out-loud. The part that I believe is the reason for high levels of early attrition and increased levels of burnout across the profession.

It is the part of the statement that many are scarcely aware of. Because it is rooted in a subconscious limiting belief of not feeling good enough and therefore individuals believing that they have to put themselves last.

Letting go of limiting beliefs

My own leadership story and my experience coaching School Leaders has taught me that this is a false belief, often rooted in early childhood experiences. It is this belief that is the driver of self-sacrificial behaviours and it is this belief that must be challenged if School Leaders are to find a more healthy and balanced way of putting the children in their school first.

To begin with School Leaders, need to be able to identify the origins of their own ‘not good enough’ stories, the associated scripting and emotional baggage that they need to let go of.

For me, my own ‘not good enough story’ was rooted in my experiences of school and growing up as young, black girl from a single parent family. The prevailing narrative in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s was that of you were from a background like my own, you were never going to amount to much. Something that at fifteen, my careers teacher sought to confirm, when he ‘advised’ me to consider a ‘career’ as a super-market check-out girl. Because he thought I was placing myself above my station to even consider being a Nursery Nurse!

Like myself, we all have our stories that have influenced our inner landscapes and have caused many of us to carry around the belief that we are not enough. The ‘not good enough’ message is internalised at a deep subconscious level and as we grow up, our behaviours demonstrate to ourselves and the world how we really feel about ourselves.

For many School Leaders, it is the behaviours associated with putting themselves last that are an indication of the not good enough belief, that is the subconscious driver for their behaviours.

If you recognise this within yourself then you need to know that this simply isn’t true! You are more than enough and if you are to fulfil the vision that you have for your school, then now is the time to start telling yourself a different story. As you already know the cost of your current, “self-sacrificial, me last, I have to prove myself worthy” story.

And if you need reminding, the cost is:

– Saying “Yes” when you want to say, “No”
– Being the first to arrive and the last to leave
– Experiencing the pangs of guilt because you have been present for the children in your school and not your own
– Complete mental, emotional and physical exhaustion at the end of each half term
– A creeping disconnect with your own emotions and feelings

Doing less to achieve more

If you haven’t already realised it, putting the children first in your school, cannot be achieved simply by you doing more and adding yet another action to your ‘to do’ list.

A change in your mindset is required to enable you to address both limiting beliefs and behaviours that have got you caught up in a cycle of self-sacrifice. To bring about this change you must be able to devote time to:

– Paying attention to you, the person in the role and who you wish to ‘be’ not what you must ‘do’.
– Disrobing yourself of other people’s ‘ought’s’ and ‘shoulds’ about your character and personality
– Understanding your habits and coping strategies and identifying which ones serve you well and which ones need to be altered
– Noticing where a drive for perfection has resulted in unhealthy behaviours related to proving yourself to others
– Discovering what it means to show up as your true authentic self

Feeling a bit daunted by the task?  It can be hard to make quick changes to your mindset but real changes can be made, even if we just try to take one small step everyday. If everyday, we make a decision to consciously lead yourself and instead of constantly pressing your default ‘me last button’, choose instead to press the ‘me-first’ button, we can find we begin to write a new, more positive and affirming inner narrative about yourself.

In not long, you will be able to fully appreciate what happens when you put your own needs first. You may just be surprised what a difference it can make to your outlook and in turn, your leadership.

One Head recently said to me what it did for her….

“I always thought that as a Head I had to do more. Simply to prove to myself and others that I could do the job. It was just so exhausting!

Now I realise that the preening, the acting, it just weighed me down. It’s been so liberating to finally come to realise that fulfilment in this role has more to do with my being and accepting myself for who I am, than it has to do with doing and performing for others

Putting Your Well-being First

If you’d like to take the first step towards learning to put your own needs first and developing new ways of thinking and leading in your role, then you may be interested in watching my webinar on “How to Lead without Sacrificing your Well-being.”

The Webinar was designed to consider how leaders can take back control of their well-being and more successfully manage and cope with the excessive stressors and demands of their jobs. In this webinar, I shared some successful workload strategies from my years working with School Leaders that have been proven to support them in their role.

Above all, the webinar aimed to demonstrate how even in the midst of real difficulties and the challenges of the role, School Leaders can find generative ways to maintain their ability to lead and inspire others.

In this short 30 minute webinar, which included a short Q&A, I explored…
– What happens when our emotional and psychological needs aren’t met
– The cost of continual sacrifice and high stress levels
– The importance of renewal in sustaining one’s leadership
– Why a focus on well-being is crucial in the context of school culture

Watch the Webinar


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