Being a head can be isolating. It’s not just because of the old adage that it’s lonely at the top. It’s also self-inflicted. Particularly in my early years as a head, I found the daily demands of the job to be so intense that I couldn’t even begin a data download with my husband at the end of the day as any additional feedback or opinions could put me over the edge. In addition, my husband and two kids were a vital haven from work. That said, as I much as I cherished the protection and separation they provided, I also knew that I needed mentoring.
I was fortunate that my dad, long the sage of our family, played a critical role in supporting me. Indeed, the calls that started as me checking in on him became a lifeline of sound advice and perspective not only from a beloved family member, but also from a generation whose character had been chiseled by the Depression, war, and other profound life experiences.
Here are a few pearls of wisdom imparted along the way:
“The easy thing for you to model is how to be a workaholic. The harder, more important thing for you to model is work/life balance.” Dad shared this just before I started at Greenwich Academy and reminded me of it many times when I wanted to be present for family but felt pressure to work ‘round the clock. I had always prided myself on my work ethic, feeling I could outdistance many with grit and determination. However, there were more than a few times that disengaging from email a little sooner would have given me more perspective on the situation at hand and might have meant less rumination when I finally shut down my laptop for the night. Even more challenging for me was to have enough guilt-free confidence to periodically leave the office a little earlier (for reasons as mundane as a haircut) or to actually enjoy some vacation over my vacation. This has taken time and I’m still working on it. Honestly, I do best demonstrating work/life balance when I consider how my example impacts those with whom I work most closely, since it is everything that I want for them.
“That difficult colleague is making you a better person than any one of your admirers.” Here, Dad’s charge was to lead with empathy when dealing with challenging employees, taking the time to understand their vantage point and account for it when asserting mine. It doesn’t typically mean that I can change my position since I am often invoking an institutional expectation. It does mean that I try harder to acknowledge the underlying reasons for conflict and the fact that confronting certain issues will be agitating. Employing empathy, especially when dealing with those with whom we disagree, makes us more effective and caring managers. And yes, Dad, it undoubtedly makes me a better person, too.
“Your job is a laboratory of the human experience.” This was my dad’s response when I unloaded complete overwhelm. When too much was coming at me too quickly, I struggled to break things down, prioritize them, and tackle problems in incremental steps. The first time he uttered this statement, I laughed and said, “It feels more like a lavatory of the human experience!” But the point was clear. Being a head requires us to be CEO, minister, judge, mayor, parent, friend, mentor, advocate, servant leader, and many other roles. No one human could possibly embody the skill set required to be all of these things at all times. If no one human can do it all, many good humans can, and my best work has come when I have slowed down and with genuine humility, sought the input of trusted voices, especially those whom I know will be honest and even disagree with me.
My dad passed away last year and while it was difficult to be sure, his advice continues to support and inspire me. Fundamentally, as with any great parent or mentor, he saw the best in me and that vision has helped me to be a more confident version of myself. Find that mentor, parent, life partner, or friend to support your headship and whether the challenge is work/life balance, management of personnel or the sheer scope of the job, feel the confidence in yourself that they feel in you and let that generate and sustain your forward momentum.
Molly King, Head of School, Greenwich Academy
Editor’s note: This article originally ran in “The Head’s Letter” published by Educational Directions Incorporated, a national executive search firm and the trusted authority for advancing school leadership, and is used with permission.