Overcoming Loneliness as an International School Leader

In a previous article, The Loneliness of the International School Leader, I wrote about the professional and personal isolation of principals and heads around the world.We are built for social contact and there are serious, potentially life-threatening consequences when we do not get enough (Marano, 2003). Research shows that lacking social connections is as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Holt-Lunstad, 2015). In the short-term, loneliness increases the level of circulating stress hormones in the body and impacts negatively on the quality and quantity of sleep, both closely linked to performance and effectiveness in our school leader roles. Longer term loneliness is associated with a wide range of physical and mental ill-health outcomes including depression, suicide, cardiovascular disease, stroke, alcoholism and drug abuse. Lonely people also have a 64% increased chance of developing clinical dementia (Holwerda et al, 2012). It is crucial, therefore, that we take the issue of school leader isolation seriously and find ways to support principals and heads who may be experiencing loneliness.

Loneliness can be overcome, although it does require a conscious effort. The starting point is to recognise the loneliness, understand the effects it can have on your life and acknowledge that something needs to change (Marano, 2003). The second step is to focus on developing quality relationships with others. In my own research (Kelly, 2017) school leaders least vulnerable to isolation were those who worked as part of highly collaborative teams within the workplace or who understood the value of the people work in their schools and focused upon building positive relationships with their staff. By contrast those who felt the most isolated were often those caught up in the myth of the hero leader, feeling unable to share the burden of leadership even with their closest colleagues. Being honest about the struggles we face as leaders involves making ourselves vulnerable, which for many runs contrary to the idea of the strong and effective leader. Vulnerability, however, makes us more human and likeable and makes it easier to connect with others. Shedding the leadership mask and presenting to colleagues as a flawed human being makes us more relatable and authentic as leaders. We can also play a key role in modelling this for others, creating a culture of trust built on authenticity and vulnerability, factors essential to organisational effectiveness.

Humans are hardwired for connection and one of the ways we connect with others is by confiding in each other. An open style of leadership can protect us from loneliness but as school leaders we will not be able to confide everything to our teams.  It is, therefore, important that we find a confidant in school, someone who understands the context and can be trusted to be discrete. Developing strong peer relationships with senior colleagues, or even board members, is something we should prioritise and something that schools should be looking to create through team-building days and regular SLT social events. 

Reaching out to colleagues outside of our schools is a key way to receive support and gain perspective. In my research, networking with senior colleagues in other schools, meeting socially to swap stories, empathise and offer advice was a real lifeline for many participants. Most cities or countries with a large number of international schools have principal groups that allow for this kind of collaboration. Others reported having created new groups on arrival in the city. Reaching out to former colleagues through Skype and at conferences is also a way to stay connected to others.

Building social connections outside of the workplace is a key strategy to avoid loneliness. The internet and social media makes it so much easier to find groups and clubs that share our interests these days. When we are exhausted, short of time and fear rejection, however, it can be hard to make the effort to reach out to others. Principals in my research who experienced the highest levels of loneliness reported having no hobbies, interests or social connections outside of school. Those who were most lonely were single or married without children and many experienced high levels of personal as well as professional loneliness. However, many participants with families or local friends also reported feeling isolated and unable to confide in their nearest and dearest about the challenges of their role. The message here is that failing to make the time or effort to reach out to others may come at a devastating cost and is something that needs to be prioritised, no matter how hard it is. Boards and senior leadership teams should be proactive in providing gym or club memberships to new leaders and also providing language lessons, where appropriate, to ensure that language issues do not further isolate individuals. 

The use of professional leadership coaches is something that should be provided for all senior school leaders. While this practice is becoming more widespread, it is still rare. Professional coaches can provide a buffer against hard times for any leader, no matter how experienced, and can provide a valuable safety net to those who are most isolated. Whilst expensive, the benefits far outweigh the costs and the provision of regular executive coaching should become part of every school leader’s contract. 

On a final note, we all have a responsibility to ensure our colleagues do not fall prey to loneliness. Taking time to recognise that a peer may be isolated and making an effort to connect with that person, supporting them to find a route out of loneliness is the decent, human response to the misery we see in others. Making ourselves vulnerable and sharing our own isolation stories may encourage others to be more honest and open about the challenges they are up against and may just help them out of a hole.

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