Best management tips for principals under pressure

by Sarah Bachman02 Jun 2016

Jeremy Carter is the CEO of Rapport Leadership Australia, which has provided leadership training for over 30 years. Carter speaks at various conferences on leadership, including the benefits of effective leadership in a school setting.
 
The Educator asked Carter about some ways in which both long-serving and new school principals can navigate the burden of large workloads and stress to provide their schools with effective leadership.
 
The job of school principal is clearly a very onerous one for many in the profession, as the principal health and well-being surveys have shown. So how can principals remain effective leaders under the pressures they face?
 
Some critical success factors for any leader to be successful are vision, focus, communication and feedback. Leadership is about taking a group of people on a journey from where they are to where they could potentially be.  Without a clear vision of the destination you are headed for, it is very difficult to decide what route to follow to get there or the right people you need to support you on the journey.  Vision is sadly lacking in many organisations which results in a lack of purpose and urgency for the leaders and the team members. When complacency sets in to an organisation, morale takes a dip as team members are no longer playing to win but rather, playing not to lose; protecting their turf and focusing on trivial issues, gossip and politics. An effective leader has the ability to align and engage a team to take ownership of the vision and act independently in support of the team.
 
The second success factor is focus. You may have heard the saying, “What you focus on, grows.” Well, it’s true. When you focus on problems, they grow and multiply. When you focus on where you are headed (the vision and goals), they correspondingly become clearer and closer. The challenge with working in a high pressure environment is that it becomes much harder to focus effectively as distractions come into play. As a leader’s responsibilities grow, it is critical that they start working less on urgent tasks and increasingly more on important tasks. To create a quite space and set aside regular time to think and journal is a ritual that the most effective leaders practice. Unfortunately the vast majority of people have never learned what thinking actually is or how to do it effectively. Thinking is a process of creation and asking yourself powerful questions uncovers previously unseen opportunities.
 
Some questions that you might take time to ask yourself each day to be more effective as a leader would include: 
  • Where am I at, where am I going (vision and goals) and how long will it take me to get there?  What would need to happen to get there even faster?
  • What are my top three outcomes for today and have I reserved space in my diary today to ensure they happen?
  • Have I adequately prepared for the meetings I have today to ensure the best outcomes?  (agendas, timeframes and clear outcomes)
  • Who am I going to complement or acknowledge for their good work today?
  • Who do I need to follow up with today in terms of providing accountability?
  • What did I do best today?  What could I improve upon for next time?
 
Focus is also the critical factor in making your role onerous or enjoyable.  It is all too easy to focus on what is not going right, to get frustrated that things are not working out as you had planned or to feel overwhelmed and shut down. The theologian, Dr Reinhold Niebuhr, coined the famous quote, ‘God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference.’ Events that happen are just that, events.  It is only our thinking that gives them power or meaning.  When an unexpected event occurs that threatens to disrupt you emotionally, ask yourself the question: ‘What is the benefit of this happening for me?’ If your belief is that the challenges that come your way are a blessing to help you grow and achieve your potential as a person and as a leader, you are likely to be a lot more powerful and resourceful in responding to them.
 
Communication is the more important and critical skill of a leader. Without regular communication, relationships crumble and organisations fail. George Bernard Shaw summed it up nicely when he said: ‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’ So often as leaders we underestimate how many times a message needs to be delivered before the desired outcome is achieved. Sending an email or a memo or pulling someone aside for a quick chat is not communication. Communication is the process by which an outcome (a meeting or communion of the minds) is achieved. If the outcome is not achieved then communication has not taken place. The most important communication skill for leaders to master is effective listening, asking powerful questions and then shutting up and allowing others to do the talking.  The best leaders never have the answers, but they have great questions that bring the best out of the people around them.
 
Lastly, feedback helps the people on your team to understand what they are doing right or need to improve upon.  The lack of honest feedback is a significant hindrance to people developing to the full potential. Often this comes because a manager has a belief that constructive criticism is a negative thing to do and may result in the employee not liking them (Needing to be liked is one of the biggest blocks to effective leadership). Reframing constructive criticism as ‘feedback for improvement’ makes it easier to deliver. The challenge too often is that the leaders don’t take the time to really get to know their team members as individuals and to understand their values and personal goals. The fastest way to get someone on your team is to get on theirs!  When your team members know that your reason for existence is to help them succeed, they become much more willing to support you as a leader in being successful. In the event situations don’t work out as you hoped, always take responsibility first. If you as a leader don’t role model taking responsibility, your team members never will take responsibility either.
 
So that’s it really.  To be effective as a leader, be clear on where you are heading, stay focused and take persistent action, work through your team by using best communication practices and provide feedback and build better relationships with the people around you.
 
Based on your knowledge of leadership and best practice, what advice would you give new principals who are just starting out and learning to navigate the various complexities of the role?
 
For those starting out in a new role, my advice would be to not rush into changing anything.  Set aside time to sit with each of your direct reports and have an honest conversation to get to know them better, to understand how they see the organisation and what they think needs to happen for the organisation to be successful.  Ensure you understand what they want from you as their leader, how you can help them be most effective in their roles and bring them back on track if they lose focus. Don’t pretend to know all the answers, develop a big list of questions and ask lots of people for help.  Showing a little vulnerability goes a long way to build rapport and credibility. Focus on your personal and professional development, read lots of books to elevate your level of thinking. Lastly, set your goals in concrete and the timeframes in sand. That is, make a commitment to achieve your goals no matter what but don’t be disappointed if it takes a little longer than you hoped as all great achievements take time. Lastly, connect with an external support network such as a coach or some peers on a regular basis to give you support to be as effective as possible.
 
In August, Carter will be speaking at a conference being held by Gowrie NSW, alongside UTS and Macquarie universities. The conference, called: ‘In Pursuit of Playfulness, Curiosity and Innovation’, covers a range of issues and topics relevant to teachers and principals.
 

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