Dealing with Stress

Topics: Health & Wellness, New Superintendents Journal

June 21, 2011

When a group of seasoned superintendents begin to tell their stories, everyone has had similar stress experiences - times when we get caught off guard, feel surprised, don’t know what to do and, as a result, feel anxious, afraid and uncertain. My colleagues and I came to call these ""Oh, Shoot"" moments – only we didn’t say shoot. We joked that anytime you came into work and the head custodian was waiting for you and began by saying, ""I think you should know""…. an ""Oh, Shoot"" moment was about to occur. Somehow the custodial staff (and Board members) often play key roles in these situations.

""Oh, Shoot"" moments are always painful. How does one successfully cope with them so that the feelings of pain or stress are short-lived and do not impede effectiveness? I have a few suggestions:

Get enough sleep, eat well, and keep fit: The better you feel, the better you will cope and find effective solutions. These suggestions are obvious but, alas, often not followed. When I was a superintendent at work until 11 P.M. or later several nights a week but at work at 7:30 A.M. the next morning, I prided myself on claiming I needed only 6 hours of sleep each night. When I left the superintendency and began to live a normal life, I discovered that I needed 8 hours of sleep. I spent 30 years being sleep deprived.

Don’t Try to Be a Hero:
In some crisis situations, the best course of action is to do nothing. So, when you’re not sure, delay if you can., the Roman Dictator, was called Cunctator or Delayer by the Romans when he refused to rush into battle against Hannibal in the Punic Wars. He waited for Hannibal’s supply lines to become overextended and for his troops to become exhausted. Fabius was viewed as unheroic, but ultimately he won. Many situations resolve themselves without your having to do anything. So pause and don’t overreact.

Avoid Denial: None of us want to feel pain. When we experience ‘Oh, Shoot"" moments, we tend to deny our emotions -- the anxiety, confusion, and uncertainty we suddenly feel. Most of us have a tacit belief that competent leaders do not feel this way. Wrong! These feelings are important indicators to effective leaders that they must stop and re-position themselves as learners.

Inquire: At moments of confusion and uncertainty, claim your right to learn. After all, the core of your work is inquiry – facing challenges where you continually face new situations that require you to figure out new solutions with new people in new contexts. Even at your lowest points, you can access the confidence that comes from your past success -- confidence that, although you may not immediately know the answer, you can figure it out.

Create Trust and Collaborate: You will be more successful at resolving stressful, ""Oh Shoot"" moments if you can utilize the mental horsepower of others in your inquiry. Collaboration is a term that we’re all familiar with, use, and embrace. We all think we can and do collaborate. But, in fact, human beings seem to be hard-wired not to be. Especially when under stress, our default setting is to act unilaterally. Bosses all over America say they are collaborative, that they have ""open door"" policies, that they ""want to hear ideas"" from others, and want to be transparent in their purposes. Subordinates all over America describe a very different reality. Bosses don’t really listen; the office door is often closed, and the real purposes for meeting are often undisclosed. When those bosses get to a moment of crisis, when they truly need the best thinking of those around them, they are apt not to get it. The discrepancies between what the boss says and does create distrust and fear that limits or eliminates the willingness to take the risk of thinking ""outside the box.

These suggested strategies are much simpler to describe than to enact. In my experience, it takes time and commitment to develop the mindset and skills that enable a leader to cope with ""Oh, Shoot"" moments, but the results are well worth the effort in reduced stress and enhanced effectiveness.

Paul Kelleher was superintendent for 20 years and a tenured professor for the last 10. He currently works with school administrators to develop the mindset and skills described here.