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Leading Through the Pandemic-Is a Sense of Over-responsibility Harming School Leaders?

Blog Post by Dr Helen Kelly, 10th September 2020

In my doctoral research “International Schools as Emotional Arenas: Facing the Leadership Challenges in a German Context” (2017) an emerging theme that went largely unexplored was the heightened sense of responsibility or “over-responsibility” that some school leaders feel. In considering how school leaders may alleviate the overwhelming stress that many of them are experiencing at the moment, I find myself returning to this theme with a wish to explore it further.

In my previous article  Is an Epidemic of COVID Burnout Awaiting our School Leaders? I referred to the unwillingness or inability of most boards of governors and many heads to support the wellbeing of their senior teams, leaving leaders to take control of the situation themselves. Of course, leaders are only able to address what they have control over, which leads me to consider what can they control?

Before I delve into this, however, I want to consider the psychology of blame and whether blaming others for our stress may be impacting on our ability to cope and recover. Back in the 1990s, I was a personal injury lawyer for 10 years and acted for trade union members who were victims of accidents at work. It was well known in the legal profession that if a person sustained an injury due to an accident in the home, they were likely to recover more quickly than those who sustained the same injury in the workplace, where someone else was to blame. The psychology of blaming another after a motor vehicle accident has also been consistently found to be associated with poorer mental health and greater distress (Sullivan, Davidson, Garfinkel, Siriapaipant, & Scott, 2009). We might extrapolate from this that if we blame others for the causes of our stress, or for failing to support our wellbeing during stressful times, we may be less likely to cope and recover than if we reflect on our own role in the development of that stress and take responsibility for addressing our own needs.

So in considering the question of what school leaders can control in relation to their stress, I want to return to the issue of over-responsibility. I remember well an interview participant in my research saying, “I cannot switch off or relax at any time as I feel a huge sense of responsibility for everything that goes on in the primary school, no matter how small, regardless of whether I have control over it or not.” This resonated with me massively at the time, as my experience was similar. It was a theme echoed by others that I interviewed. When explored, it became apparent that this sense of over-responsibility was less tied to their accountability to the head of school or the board, although this was a factor, but instead a personality trait. Interviewees described a need to control everything in their lives, being considered a control freak by family members and friends. They also shared both the need for validation, associated with being great at their job, and the fear of the humiliation that failure would bring.

In the world of psychology, A Type personalities are known to be driven by their need to dominate and control. They are also more prone to stress-related illnesses such as Coronary Heart Disease and raised blood pressure. So is a sense of over-responsibility, caused by a need to control, causing harm to some school leaders and if so might they be able to mitigate this?

We need to accept that schools are highly complex organisations and that when we empower others and delegate roles and tasks to them, things will inevitably go wrong at times. During good times, failure is encouraged, as a sign of risk taking and openness to new ideas. However, during a global pandemic, everything is much more complex and the stakes are higher, which may lead some into a spiral of over-responsibility and control that could overwhelm and seriously harm them. So how do we address this?

For myself, entering into counselling following a diagnosis of a stress-related heart condition and occupational burnout, prompted me to explore the reasons for my need to control the environment around me, seek validation and fear failure. I have come to understand where in my past these tendencies developed and why. In my final year as a school leader, I began to accept that, while, as Lower School Principal, I was accountable for everything that happened in the Lower School, I could not control or be responsible for everything. Missing the last two weeks of the school year 2018-19, due to illness, was a good way to learn that the school did not revolve around me. We had the right people and systems in place to enable things to run smoothly during my absence. This increased my confidence in those around me and allowed me to let go of some things when I returned. As a result, when we were deep into the online learning phase and things became overwhelming on any particular day, I was able to shut off my phone for the evening, knowing that others would take up the slack and I encouraged them to do the same on their bad days. When working on campus was an option but not compulsory, I was able to continue working from home (being in a high risk category), knowing that my Vice Principals had things covered. When the weekly spreadsheet containing parent feedback was shared, I could rationalise the sometimes vitriolic comments, without a rising sense of panic, accepting that others were doing their best, and that while we would try to address all concerns, we could not meet the particular needs of every parent.

Being forced to monitor and mediate my daily stress, due to ill health, gave me a fresh perspective on my stress and the stress of others that may well not have happened if I had not fallen ill. I was able to reflect on what had brought me to that point, the part my sense of over-responsibility, need for validation and fear of failure played in that and the harm that blaming others may have caused me. I am grateful for that perspective and wonder how differently things may have worked out if I had learned this lesson earlier.

So what can we take from this? We cannot be responsible for everything and in truth no-one expects us to be, except for ourselves. Failure is a normal part of leadership, even during a major crisis, and we need to embrace it and learn from it. Most of us have great people around us who are more than willing and capable of supporting us in a reciprocal way. It is OK to briefly switch off sometimes and let others run the show while we recover. Blaming others for our stress may cause us more harm.

It is ironic that controlling our own stress alludes many control freaks. To control our stress we have to let go. Letting go is a process that will not happen overnight but if school leaders are to survive leading through COVID 19 then the control freaks among you need to find a way to begin.