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Why am I always in the firing line?

One of the hardest aspects of being a leader in the education sector today seems to be the extent to which you’re in the firing line. Parental complaints seem to be at an all time high, which can drain your energy and suck the joy out of the job. It’s no wonder that headteachers are leaving their roles in high numbers.

It’s one of the reasons that I think the most important leadership skill in the education sector these days is emotional agility. That’s the ability to make space for the difficult emotions that come up and move through them in a values-led way.

Heads are bombarded by emails and phone calls as well as people turning up unannounced demanding attention. The problems they raise can be significant, or they could be seemingly trivial. When your schedule is packed full to start with, it can be really frustrating.

Having to wear the mask of professionalism means the anger and frustration can quickly turn to resentment and bitterness if we’re not careful.

It’s natural to want to defend yourself when under attack. A parent who shouts at you, calls you names or displays an aggressive stance can take you back to uncomfortable events earlier in your life, sometimes without you even realising it.

When I was a head, I think this was the hardest part of the job for me. Standing up to bullies was drummed into me through my upbringing. It’s a natural survival strategy - when someone launches a personal attack, there’s often an instinct to fight back. It then becomes hard to square that with the knowledge that you want to welcome parents into your school and nurture good relationships with them.

In many difficult conversations with parents when I was a head, fighting back wasn’t an option, so I ended up with a kind of passive aggression, trying to get side swipes in here and there.

Talking about this scenario with my leadership coach really helped me reframe things. I started to think of these difficult conversations (standoffs, at times) with parents as ‘opportunities, not threats’. That helped. I was using my values (empowerment and compassion) to guide my responses rather than my nervous system’s ‘fight or flight’ reactions. It was the start of a long journey for me towards emotional agility and non-violent communication. It’s a journey I’ll always be on, because new challenges emerge all the time, both in new relationships and established ones.

I remember a conversation with a family after this turning point, where I was starting to put new practices into place. I had excluded their child, as he had engaged in some violent and unsafe behaviour. They objected, on the grounds of his special needs. They were angry with me, thinking that I was running roughshod over their child’s rights.

Looking back, I can identify the different choices I made in that conversation that led to a much better outcome for everyone involved:

  • Having a couple of other leaders present in the room (rather than doing the ‘bring it on, I can handle this on my own’ thing). That meant that when I was getting agitated, I could bring them into the conversation and ask for an opinion or comment.

  • Pausing at difficult moments, letting myself take some deeper breaths. Reminding myself that I was safe.

  • Keeping in mind the bigger picture – the common ground. In this case, we all wanted what was best for the child involved.

  • Keeping empathy and compassion at the front of my mind. Reminding myself of how tough the parents’ experience was in this situation.

Conversations like this can test us on many levels. Things are said that make us feel angry. If we are cautious and don’t let the anger run the show, we can end up pushing it down in a way that can lead to physical and mental problems later. I’ve found it important to take time after a conversation like this to process the emotions I wasn’t able to express. I remind myself that it was natural for me to feel angry when I was being attacked and I offer myself a bit of kindness.

Emotional agility is an important skill to develop, but it’s hard. When you’re busy, all you want to do is push through and get on with things. When I’m coaching, I help clients step back and put things into perspective. Talking things through can help you recognise your own emotional patterns and the habits of your nervous system. I help you get clear on your values so that you can move away from reactivity and towards confident and authentic leadership, even in difficult situations.

Get in touch using this link if you’d like to talk through coaching options.

I have also created an online resource for leaders who want to bring more emotional agility and coaching into their leadership. It’s called ‘Being a Coaching Leader’ – you can find out more about it here.

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