By Mike Zavada | May 20, 2020
It happens every year around this time for school leaders. Right about the time Memorial Day hits we get to take a deep sigh of relief and celebrate that another school year is in the books. For the school leaders I have talked to in the last ten weeks, that sigh of relief was about triple the weight of what it normally had been. The COVID-19 crisis sharpened each of our sensory channels. In some ways, educators were on the front lines of a battle to save some semblance of the educational process for students and to save the mental health of students, parents, and beloved faculty.
But now it is the time to take care of our own souls, our own mental health, and take stock of where our hearts have fled as school leaders. To help with this process, I have enlisted legendary author and ministry leader John Eldredge. Most of our male school leaders will know John from Wild at Heart, perhaps the most impactful spiritual monograph of the past twenty years for men. In February, John published Get Your Life Back: Everyday Practices for A World Gone Mad (how prophetic!). Recently, John appeared on the EntreLeadership Podcast hosted by the Dave Ramsey group. In this podcast, John shares with leaders the ways to protect one’s soul when one is the leader. He also shares ways to re-establish the health of our souls after being on the front lines of crisis like many school leaders have the last two months. Here are the 6 guiding principles I learned from John and the podcast that I think will help you regain your full health as you head into the summer and plan for the uncertainty that will be the fall of 2020 in our schools:
1. There is always a cost to leadership. Recognize the cost on the front end and acknowledge that verbally to yourself or to a trusted confidant outside your school.
The road ahead will be uncertain. We know this going into the fall. We may have to help people in our organization find their new home. That is hard. We may have to make budget cuts that sting. That is hard. We may have to have frank conversations about situations that make us uncomfortable. Again, that is hard. Verbalizing this at the front end mentally helps us and takes the weight off the conversation according to Eldredge. So the next time you fear one of these conversations, mark it in your mind, in your heart, and on your lips for what it is. It is hard. Just doing this will free you emotionally.
2. Leadership is lonely. The people at the top of the school leadership structure have few, if any, friends in the school.
If we are honest, we know this to be the case. Even as my children were coming through the school and I went to barbeques with the faculty parents of my children’s friends, I could not let my guard down when I was a principal. Favoritism, the spectre of inside information being shared, and the lack of comfort on my part each signified to me that I could not be friends with those with ties in the organization. I could, however, have great friends at my church who were not tied to the school. I could also strive to have friends and mentors at my old schools and friends in the business, so to speak. Each of these folks gave me safe places to vent, celebrate success, and dream about the future without putting undue expectations on those dreams. Eldredge says we need a safe place to let our guard down, but that safe place is not in the organization.
3. Heavy is the head that wears the crown…but those around us should not see all the burdens we carry.
As the school leader, we can naturally feel like we have the weight of the world on our shoulders. That weight, however, cannot weigh down our faculty or administrative team. If we weigh them down, we are not leading. We are not accomplishing the mission. It is fair for us to have doubts as the leader, according to Eldredge, it is just not fair for us to allow our doubts to taint those around us. Instead, utilize a strong mentor network (I also write about this in my forthcoming book for school leaders entitled “Metamorphosis: A Framework for Authentic Growth).” Bounce your fears off the network outside the organization. Verbalize your doubts to the network. Perhaps even enlist an executive coach like me to help you see through to the other side of the challenging project, campaign, or policy that is making you wake up at night in sweat.
4. Remember that He is big, and we are small.
Eldredge shared a wonderful story from Teddy Roosevelt. He said when the weight of the world felt like it was on his back, Roosevelt would go outside at night, look into the sky full of stars and say “Now I know that we are small enough. Let's go to bed.” We have to let it all go so that we can rejuvenate and have another go at it tomorrow morning, or next week, or next school year. It will be tempting for you as the school leader to postpone or delay your vacation. It may be even more tempting for you to be “on call” while you are on vacation. After all, you are probably actively monitoring enrollment. You might be in the midst of several critical hiring processes. You may think that your team needs your input critically now. Remember that He (not you), is big and He is sovereign. The Lord gave us a Sabbath for a reason. He told the Jews to take it easy during the 7th year of a cycle. He is telling you at the end of a long, virus-plagued school year to go recharge. Please do it for yourself. Please do it for your family. Please do it for your school.
5. Allow yourself and your team to ask, “what’s that about?” when you sense fear or anger.
Fear is natural especially in today’s Christian school climate when we are unsure of how our delivery will meet the demands of populations we serve. Anger is inherent in each of us and has been since the Fall of Adam. When we recognize it in ourselves or in the members of our team it is good practice for one of us to simply say “What’s that about?” or “Where is this coming from?” According to Eldredge, doing so names aloud the emotional situation and thereby lessens the sting. According to longtime psychological research, naming significant emotional situations like those caused by fear and anger dramatically improves our ability to cope with the crises each of us faces as a school leader. It also will minimize any damage we might do from the violent outbursts that come when we leave pent up issues boiling.
6. Feed and refresh your soul during this fallow time so that you can come back strong.
According to Eldredge, our hobbies, interests, passions, and all of the things we like to do when we can make up huge parts of our soul. During the hectic phases of the school year, these key ingredients in the making of us get neglected. The summer, though, creates an outstanding opportunity for us to get out into the woods and enjoy that long bike ride. It gives us a chance to go visit the childhood home and unwind in a carefree way. It can give us the margin to put our phone up for a weekend and really immerse ourselves in the joys we can experience with our own kids. Ultimately, it can allow us to be Wild at Heart again.
It is my prayer for you that your heart, mind, and soul take in Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world (you probably realize you have been on a treadmill for the last several months), but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Allowing yourself to be transformed through these six steps this summer will allow you to pay the cost of leadership without losing your soul. You will also be able to “test and approve what God’s will is– his good, pleasing and perfect will." That sure will help as we work to plan what figures to be the most unique start of the school year we have ever encountered.
Mike Zavada is the Chief Strategist and Founder of RoundTable Education Consulting and an advisor for Epic Media Partners. He offers his expertise to school leaders as an executive coach, instructional coach, and strategic planning consultant. Working primarily in the Christian school space, Mike’s expertise comes on the basis of over twenty years in some of America’s best independent schools in roles that include dual division head, revenue generation strategist, athletic director, admissions representative, college counselor, dean, teacher, and coach. His current writing project “Metamorphosis: A Framework for Authentic Professional Growth” will help faculty and those that lead them to grow in a manner that will keep both thriving.