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Could this be the most important leadership skill right now?

Updated: Jan 23

A few days ago, I read a social media post from a headteacher who had just permanently excluded a student, and was feeling terrible about it. It’s a dilemma that I faced as a head: weighing up the needs and life chances of one child against the safety and education of lots of others. Posts like this bring sharply into focus the types of challenges we face as leaders. How do we navigate these difficult moments? The first thing that came into my mind when I read this post was a feeling of compassion. She had made the decision, now she needed to make peace with herself, and that takes a bit of doing!

In a situation like this, I think you need to give some time and space to yourself, along with some self-compassion: to recognise and hold space for the self-aversion, guilt, resentment, frustration and disappointment that might be there. There needs to be an acceptance that parts of us can be feeling different feelings at the same time and an awareness of the physical sensations that are there like clench, nausea and heartache.

Finally, we need to offer to ourselves the kind words we might give to a friend in this situation – ‘This really hurts. I’m sorry it’s so painful. You did the best you could in a difficult situation.’ I wonder if she was able to do this. I hope she was. So many of the leaders I speak to find this hard. It was something I never managed to do when I was a head myself. I have worked hard and developed this skill since leaving my role and becoming a coach, and I often wonder now, how things might have been different if I had developed it back then.

This skill is ‘emotional agility’. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, think of ‘emotional literacy’ and ‘emotional intelligence’ and just add an action element. It’s about how we manage emotions – recognise when they arise, notice how they feel, name them, make space for them and offer compassion to ourselves. I love the quote from Emily and Amelia Nagoski’s book ‘Burnout’ – “Emotions are tunnels. You have to go all the way through the darkness to get to the light at the end.”

For me, there are 3 reasons why this skill is so important for leaders:

1. Big emotions like anger, frustration and resentment are often part of a stress response – fight, flight, freeze or fawn – and recognising when the nervous system is dysregulated and doing something about it is crucial to our physical and mental health. Also, when we are dysregulated, we need to be cautious about what we say and do, as we are likely to ‘react’ rather than ‘respond’ in line with our values.

2. Emotions give us vital clues that help us develop our self-awareness. Anger, for example, is often a sign that a boundary has been violated or someone has threatened something we hold dear. Knowing and understanding what that those things are can be useful. Identifying emotions brings our core values into clearer focus, and also the patterns and beliefs formed earlier in our lives that pull us in certain directions.

3. Being a leader is all about the relationships we build with other people, so being able to recognise and hold space for other people’s emotions is also important. People want to feel seen, heard and validated. When we do that for people, it strengthens relationships and builds trust.

Susan David’s pioneering work on emotional agility has been a source of wisdom and inspiration for me, and has led me to do further research and exploration. It’s been a journey of self-discovery that I feel would have been immensely useful when I was a leader. But now it informs my work as a leadership coach, helping me to hold space for the emotions of coachees and assisting them to find clarity on their own core values, a tool which can guide them through dilemmas like the one mentioned above. As Susan David says, “Emotional agility is the ability to be with your emotions with curiosity, compassion, and especially the courage to take values-connected steps.”

Times are tough right now for leaders. In the education sector, I’ve never known a time like it. The pressures are immense and workloads unfathomable. That’s why I think it’s vital for leaders to allow themselves time to look inwards and be kind to themselves. It might be the only way to survive doing a role like this, while holding onto your physical and mental health.

Emotional agility is one of the areas I cover in my online resource for school leaders. I share 5 behaviours (including that one) that bring a coaching ethos into leadership and I support you to build up and master these skills through a series of short videos and PDFs. It’s called ‘Being a Coaching Leader’ and you can find out more and sign up here.

If you’d like to explore coaching options with me, follow this link.

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