Surviving and Thriving as a Leader by Seán Ruth
School leadership is a particularly demanding role. It works particularly well when approached as a collaborative, listening process. However, no matter how competent and effective any leader may be, it is also the case that leadership roles tend to attract some potentially very destructive reactions from those around the leader. Having a perspective on these processes is very useful in helping leaders to survive and thrive.
Based on research conducted over a number of years with a wide range of leaders, two particular experiences stand out as having a huge impact on how well leaders function.
The first of these is isolation. During in-depth interviews, leaders reported feeling isolated and unsupported, particularly when times were difficult. They felt alone, with no one to share with and experienced a lack of open communication from those around them.
In addition, they found themselves without support when they needed it, sometimes from the people around them and sometimes from those above them. They experienced a lack of understanding about what it was like for them in their role, little encouragement to keep going, a lack of practical help in difficult circumstances and a range of negative feelings on other people’s part such as jealousy, begrudgery, disrespect or suspicion.
The second destructive reaction was being attacked and undermined. These took various forms. A common one was finding themselves on the receiving end of very hostile, sometimes personally abusive, criticism from those around them. Instead of discussing problems in a relaxed or constructive way, people attacked. Occasionally, leaders also found themselves socially excluded or ostracised by people.
In addition to being attacked, many leaders found themselves being undermined. Their efforts to provide leadership were sometimes hampered by a lack of cooperation or even active resistance from those around them. Quite often, rather than being criticised to their face, they found themselves the subject of hostile gossip. People complained about them to others behind their back. Sometimes they found that people had gone over their heads to someone higher up in the organisation or to some outside body.
It is important to point out here that these processes seem to happen independently of the leader’s competence. In other words, they did not happen only to poor leaders or leaders who made mistakes. They also happened to good leaders who were functioning highly effectively. This pattern of “doing in” leaders sometimes becomes part of the culture of an organisation and, over time, we may see a succession of leaders fall victim to it. At times, the source of attacks on leaders may be particular “difficult” individuals or small cliques. Sometimes, there is a general lack of support and negativity.
Over time, the destructive reactions took their toll on the leaders interviewed. A major effect was heightened stress levels. In addition, some leaders found themselves becoming demoralised by the constant negativity they faced and disillusioned with their organisations. They began to doubt themselves and their self-confidence took a knock. Many of them reported feeling hurt, angry or upset. Occasionally, they broke down in tears, especially if anyone showed some unexpected kindness or thoughtfulness.
Physical and Behavioural Effects
Not only did they suffer emotionally, they also found themselves drained of energy by their negative experiences. Many had difficulty sleeping. Some found themselves more prone to illness and taking longer than usual to recover.
The knock-on effects were gradually to make them more guarded and watchful, more careful about being open about themselves and, ultimately, to have all of this interfere with their ability to do their jobs.
This destructive dynamic around leaders has many implications. Clearly, it is in no one’s interest that leaders get isolated. If someone is to function well, it helps enormously to ensure they have support. Deputy and Assistant Principals can play a very constructive role in this regard in schools. Similarly, regardless of how well or poorly a leader is doing, attacking them never works as a way of improving their leadership. Not only does it make it unsafe for them to hear helpful feedback it may also, in fact, lead them to become even more rigid, isolated and ineffective. It also has the wider effect of making other people who witness attacks reluctant to take on leadership themselves.
One important implication is that principals need to set up safe and confidential opportunities to be listened to while they think about themselves, their staffs and the work. This could be in the form of one-to-one supervision, coaching or counselling, it could be in a peer support network with other principals or it could be in a wider support network with other kinds of leaders. Setting up such support might seem like a luxury or an unnecessary expense and some leaders might find it difficult to prioritise it. However, it is to everyone’s benefit if the Principal makes time for this.
The dynamic described here has many other facets on which it would be useful to elaborate. An important aspect however is to recognise it as a relatively common organisational dynamic that can be addressed rather than simply a personal failing on someone’s part.
Dr Seán Ruth is an Organisational Psychologist and author of Leadership and Liberation: A Psychological Approach (Routledge, 2006). He works closely with leaders on a one-to-one basis and with leadership teams. His website is at www.seanruth.com.