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Exploring the average: embracing the messiness of school leadership!

If you have a tendency towards perfectionism, it can work fairly well for you when you’re a classroom teacher, at least in terms of your work life. It often brings with it all kinds of accolades, like ‘outstanding teacher’. Getting all your ‘ducks in a row’ is possible, albeit very time consuming and hard work. The downside is the impact it has on your physical and mental health.


For school leaders, though, the impact of perfectionism is not just on your health and wellbeing, it’s also on the effectiveness of your leadership. It can pull you towards micromanaging and away from effective delegation. It can get you bogged down in the operational, and make it hard to focus on the strategic. If you want all the details to be right, it makes it really hard to let go, and allow others the freedom to make decisions and take risks.


There comes a point in leadership (usually when you’re a head) when you realise that you can never get everything done, never mind done to a perfect standard. It’s at that point that you have to start ‘exploring the average’! You have to lower your expectations in some areas and start prioritising really smartly about what is mission critical and what isn’t. That’s where the messiness comes in. Letting go of things is hard. You might also have an overwhelming sense of shame, guilt or embarrassment about things having to be done in a less than perfect way.


The wonderful Brene Brown lays perfectionism bare in her excellent book ‘Atlas of the Heart’. She describes it like this:


‘Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: if I look perfect, live perfectly, work perfectly and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgement and blame.’


As a head, I had perfectionist tendencies. The desire to spin all the plates, and not let a single one of them drop, was overwhelming. When it got messy, as it inevitably does in headship, and plates dropped, the pain was intense.


It was when my leadership coach helped me to see that my behaviours weren’t matching up with my values, such as empowerment, that I started to make changes.


I didn’t compromise on my deep intention for our school to do it’s best for our pupils. I didn’t lower my aspirations, but I did:


-          Get more realistic about how much I could do myself and cut myself a bit more slack around working hours, breaks etc

-          Start letting others have a go at taking charge of some of the things I was holding onto tightly

-          Become more intentional about making decisions in line with my values


Often the roots of perfectionism run very deep in us. The patterns might always remain, no matter how much self-awareness we develop. But we can develop the skill of ‘exploring the average’ – looking for what is good enough in any given situation. Doing that helps us move towards healthy striving. Being more conscious and intentional about how we respond to messy and challenging circumstances, can bring more peace and a better work life harmony.


My work as a coach for headteachers mostly revolves around helping clients to feel more on top of things, and make the role feel more sustainable into the longer term.


If you’d like to look more closely at how perfectionism might be interfering in your leadership, get in touch and we can talk through coaching options. Follow this link to book in for a complimentary consultation.


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