Supports & Services Members Manager, Irish Primary Principals’ Network
The myths that perfectionism creates
This article looks at one of the most significant issues affecting the well-being of school leaders and suggests how unrealistic expectations of self and others might be managed, to influence positively the culture and quality of relationships in the school community.
Sometimes there are tears. Sometimes there is anger. At other times, the sense of a person being completely overwhelmed is palpable in the first few words of the conversation. Then you try to listen and answer a list of questions, waiting until you get to the real reason they called you in the first place. Equally, you hear the panic in the voice as they catastrophise and consider the worst possible outcome to their situation.
This article originates from my own twenty years as a school leader and the past eight years interacting with other school leaders experiencing many of the difficulties that I experienced myself. My approach was to try to focus on what I consider the single most significant thread or challenge in leading a school community, while at the same time acknowledging other issues affecting leadership.
It is far easier to deal with someone else’s stress than to deal with your own. I have said this at the start of many a conversation when I was lauded for my knowledge and wisdom. The expectation was that I must have been a great school leader. This was far from the truth, but that expectation often put great pressure on me to live up to the perfect image, which is the focus of this article.
I have chosen not to reference the many people who have written about leadership and the vast amounts of research which have helped me both personally and professionally to develop the skills necessary to support school leaders over the years. I do not intend in any way to trivialise this work. In fact, our debt to these people is great. I have taken this approach in order to personalise and express, as simply as possible, the story of and for school leaders reading this article.
We live in a relational world, which can sometimes be wonderful but can also be messy. In speaking with school leaders, the greatest challenge they identified is how to manage oneself in a complex and person-centred role. We all have certain expectations of ourselves and of others; equally, they have expectations of us. If these expectations are unrealistically high and are not met, then disappointment, shame, and sadness generally result. We need to be careful about the expectations we harbour about ourselves and others, as unclear expectations make life unnecessarily difficult.
From an early age, our inner dialogue can result in us becoming our own worst critic. It gives rise to what I describe as myths or unrealistic expectations about ourselves. Without critical self-examination of these myths, beliefs, or unrealistic expectations, we tend to transfer them to our dealings with others. As a school leader, I struggled constantly with the belief that I had to be perfect and solve every problem, and that failure to do so was my failure, leading to the shame, disappointment, and sadness I referred to earlier. I have seen this replicated in countless interactions with school leaders, both over the phone and in person.
Perfectionism is setting oneself up for failure. Expecting it from others sets them up for failure also. Vironika Tugaleva, the award-winning writer and poet, wrote, ‘To be courageous, we must be willing to surrender our perfectionism if only for a moment. If my self-worth is attached to being flawless, why would I ever try to learn anything new?’ Making mistakes is a necessary prerequisite for success. Allow for mistakes in yourself and in others. Create and influence a culture where mistakes are regarded as opportunities to learn, to re-evaluate decisions, to re-group and re-plan.
Risk-taking is a necessary element in achieving success. If the culture does not allow for mistakes to be made, then risk-taking becomes an alien concept, stymieing creativity and development. Imagine the freedom one could experience in promoting a culture where risk-taking is encouraged and mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn. Emotional well-being requires gentleness towards oneself as we embrace the inevitable failures we experience at times.
Emotional well-being requires gentleness towards oneself as we embrace the inevitable failures we experience at times.
I have witnessed in the most inspirational leaders I know the humility with which they seek to learn and grow. They display that humility in their relationship with their school community. Professor Sarah Grogan, a psychologist at Manchester Metropolitan University, said that having flexibility in our expectations and being willing to change tack without self-blame has been shown to increase well-being. Examining and reframing expectations does not mean lowering standards or not striving to be the best leaders we can be. It does mean letting go of unnecessary pressure.
In practical terms, we can apply what may seem like aspirational theory to some of the scenarios playing out on a daily basis in our school communities. Much of the stress experienced by our school leaders comes not from delivering the curriculum and managing the teaching and learning, but from interpersonal conflicts. The time, anxiety, frustration, and sometimes breakdown in physical and emotional health that result from dealing with multiple conflicts means that the main purpose of a school – teaching and learning – does not get the optimal focus.
As a society, we focus increasingly on rights – our own and those of others. This, of course, has to be the focus of a just society. However, with any right comes a corresponding responsibility.
- A parent comes to the school leader, often on Friday afternoon, to complain that their child is being bullied and the school is doing nothing about it. If the principal does not stop this, then the parents will remove the child from the school.
- A staff member approaches a newly appointed principal saying that the atmosphere in the school is toxic, and asking what the principal is going to do about it. (Underlying implication: toxic atmosphere since the principal arrived.)
- A member of the board of management calls to the office to inform the principal that parents have come to him complaining about how the fourth-class teacher speaks to the children.
- A staff member is constantly arriving late to school. Despite having addressed timekeeping with her on several occasions, it continues to happen. She is threatening to take a grievance procedure against the principal for harassment.
- Parents involved in a custody battle for their children had an altercation in the school yard at collection time yesterday, witnessed by many of the children leaving school.
- The Parents Association want to meet with the principal because they are not happy with the way Maths is being taught in some classes.
These are just some of the issues replicated in schools all over the country. The outcomes and the manner in which these scenarios are addressed depend largely on how school leaders manage their own expectations and how clearly the other party understands what they can expect from the school leader. It is essential that the principal communicates this message clearly. You cannot control what others think about you, but you can choose how you talk about it.
Much of the stress experienced by our school leaders comes not from delivering the curriculum and managing the teaching and learning, but from interpersonal conflicts.
A person has a right to have their issue addressed. But they have a responsibility to be part of the solution. If you believe you have to solve all problems coming to you, then of course the problem is yours. You are taking all responsibility for the problem on yourself. But if you believe you will do everything to support, advise, and guide the other party in arriving at a resolution and, at the same time, not make the problem your sole responsibility, think how much more clearly you will be in a position to see the wood from the trees. Unless you make this clear from the start, the other party will assume you have now accepted the problem as your responsibility to solve. Then, if it does not work out as they expected, the conflict is bound to escalate.
Accepting oneself, flaws and all, is the first step in not allowing others’ expectations of you to dictate the way you live your life. Managing others’ expectations can help to build healthy relationships. Don’t bite off more than you can chew in any situation in order to impress people. The most important element in managing expectations is to be realistic. Under-promise. Over-deliver. Ask yourself, having worked through difficult circumstances: Have I done everything I can do to resolve this issue? Is there anything else I can do? Once you have considered these questions, then let it go. It is not an easy thing to do. Possibly the focus for further self-reflection?