Skip to main content

Is the Principal a Unique Executive?

In the Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey, 2019, by Associate Professor Philip Riley and colleagues at Australian Catholic University, Victoria, there were a number of recurring themes across its eight- year data sets, which remind us of the complex responsibilities that are confronted by the leader of a school these days.

From an increased pastoral role in the lives of students to the long working hours and ever-growing list of stakeholders to engage with, those responsibilities are only increasing in complexity.

With 20 years’ experience of providing wellbeing and resilience services to senior leaders, I can attest that there are many factors to take into account

Welfare Attention

There is a worldwide trend for schools to play an increasingly important pastoral role for not only the students, their families, staff and the greater community surrounding the campus.

Expanding the mantle of care for each group of stakeholders is both a push and pull activity. Schools recognise the greater value and advocacy to care for their communities in broader ways. At the same time, our broader school community is looking for advice, support and direction in life skills and coping with modern busy family schedules. That means growth in emotional intelligence for students, resilience training for teachers and parenting advice for parents.

When integrated as a package, they can be a different for a school in the crowded marketspace. As public schools chase the tails of the lower private school performers, invariably parents (the consumers in this case) want more value for their dollar. And parents are increasingly are voting with their feet when they don’t see benefit like this coming from their investments.

In the commercial world, employers say that as their staff look for diversity, flexible work practices, positive workspaces, they may return in favour of this support of life skills, and that this often comes with productivity gains. Today, more companies are seeking welfare activities for staff to enhance cultural engagement and improve morale. This seems fair, when the boundaries of work can be stretched through travel, technology and competition. Younger workers are driving welfare changes as a feature of ’what can you do for me’, while older colleagues may be less inclined to grumble, particularly if they are concerned about ageism as a reality.

Stakeholder Maps

At the helm of the school, the Principal must navigate their stakeholder map on a daily, sometimes even by the minute basis. It makes most of the maps seen in the corporate and commercial world seem very simple. Corporate executives may well have customers, shareholders, boards and the likes to battle with, but nothing quite mobilises the same peaks of confrontation, negotiation, reconciliation, rehabilitation, authoritarianism, compromise, engagement, reward, recognition and satisfaction the modern Principal experiences in their routines of leadership.

Working Hours

Most executives in commercial settings work similar hours to the Principal of a school. Some work more on average. However, in the main, a Principal can usually sleep in their own bed every night, whereas more than of 87 per cent of commercial executives travel at least fortnightly, sometimes over 100 nights per year away from home. This creates a complex array of destabilising lifestyle habits, unless they can create self-management plans to exercise, sleep, relax, eat properly and contain their email access when away from familiar structures of the office   and home.

The advent of mobile phones, laptops and home office stations, can mean that not only is the Principal on duty 24/7, they can enable themselves to access their world of school 24/7 or be available to be accessed by stakeholders.

I believe this access is double-edged, because for each benefit one can also see the cost, as fatigue and reduced downtime chew into important relationships, marriages, relaxation and recovery.

It is important for all leaders to set boundaries and within those structures keep regular periods of privacy, reflection and time for thinking.  We encourage on-call rosters, SMS messaging to filter inbound calls and email sorting to prioritise notifications. After all, most leaders are paid to think creatively and innovate constantly. This cannot be done when overwhelmed, inundated or submerged in daily loads.

Hierarchical versus Incomplete Leadership Style

As more leaders are loaded with more data and information to process in shorter time frames, their brains become clearing houses, processing things rather than storage and retrieval devices. So, the reduced ability to recall experience to solve new problems, which have never been seen before, can render the Principal more likely to wonder if all their accumulated understanding of educating students along the way to the top is worth much.

This is particularly evident when Profit and Loss balance sheets, Human Resource vagaries, political questions, ethical dilemmas or religious challenges, cause new and more intense heartache than those previous tasks undertaken in their journey to the top.

Without external education, such as role playing in School Council settings or coaching and mentoring, mistakes can be made easily in the high stakes game of being Principal. There is rarely room between rooster to feather duster and communities can have long memories and short fuses. They can adopt the blame game when teams don’t win, or academic scores flounder or resources aren’t constantly being upgraded.

Acona HBR, 2007, calls the hierarchical promotion of a person up the food chain from supervisor, manager to executive and finally leader as formation of the complete leader. By this she means that all you need to know, you learnt on the way, therefore your knowledge is complete and one is competent. This implies the head of school should know a lot about everything and can assume to be the ultimate adviser to others. Within this model, this can range from the autocratic centralist to the decentralising democrat, with each maintaining controls of their communities through fear or interest based on assumed status.

However, this is dangerous.

Increasingly data is excessive, information is incomplete, knowledge unformed, and timeframes for turnaround decisions are shorter.

With the emergence of the less submissive, more independent younger generations who are less amenable to rigid controls and who come with an awareness of the rights of the individual over the rights of the group, it is hard to action hierarchical style without ramification.

Nowhere is this more evident, than when a Principal is first promoted. It is then that the Principal might resort to self-analysis and, like our commercial executives, discover that if knowledge is incomplete it could mean incompetency, and for that reality, who else might be watching and see this unfold.

The failing of the hierarchical leadership model in modern times is why we see some business leaders behaving irrationally or badly. Social withdrawal displays of unnecessary anger, moodiness, or overt assertiveness can be misinterpreted as bullying when the cause is something that needs to be resolved from within.

The alternative in the words of Acona, is the opportunity to explore incomplete leadership style. This is the leader who discovers, they no longer need to be an island. It is not only preferable to see oneself as part of a larger archipelago of people with diff skills and traits, sharing knowledge and ideas through the mediums of technology, it is essential to survival and prospering.

The leader who can disconnect internally this concept of ‘incomplete’ from ‘incompetent’ and instead introduce boundaries and limits to reduce the unrealistic expectations of ego and pride, will create buoyancy and resilience. These are the abilities to embrace discomfort, finding meaning in adversity and build islands of confidence in a sea of self-doubt.

The Intact Leader

Through 20 years of observational research in monitoring performance and productivity of executives, we realise all leaders are similar across all sectors and industries. This may surprise those in education.

Like doctors and nurses from my profession, we can attribute certain peculiarities to our kind. Ours may well be embedded in the Hippocratic Oath “to do no harm”, which makes us different to other leaders. In education, it may be embedded in the requirement to nurture and protect. However, what is universally important is that when leaders feel intact physically, mentally, medically and spiritually, they are less vulnerable, they cope better and are more adaptable and resilient. And this is what their communities want of them, so they can set the tone and the example for others to follow.

In today’s busy world, the higher one flies the less oxygen there is to breath and some may be led to believe there are more oxygen thieves afoot. But what remains in the competitively isolating role of Principal is the need for collegiate support of them as much as their collegiate protection and support of those they lead.

Leaders may often be incapable of organising their own health requirements citing they are too busy, it won’t happen to me, or I will wait till I retire. By then health is not an asset, but most likely a corroding liability.

Once the last chalk is washed away, the mortar board hung up and the speech day complete, the single greatest legacy a school could give a Principal is to have assisted them in small ways to elevate the worthiness of looking after their health intactness. It is their health that will give them more choices to live well beyond the school gates.

*This article originally appeared in its entirety in the July 2019 edition of the Anglican Schools Australia (ASA) News