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A new leadership position brings excitement, expectations and no shortage of challenges in the world of education. Such roles involve an unforgiving pace with intense pressure amid a pandemic, a racial reckoning, divisive politics and a looming recession. The work is not for the faint of heart.
Across industries, including higher education, studies show that more than two-thirds of leaders in different sectors feel burned out and are considering leaving their jobs for the sake of their well-being. So, if you're a new (or experienced) leader in education facing constant and contradictory pressures from diverse constituencies, how do you thrive?
As a former senior college administrator myself, I've found that four strategies can help.
#1. Conserve energy. On my first day as a vice president on a college campus, the president said, "Remember to pace yourself. This job is a marathon, not a sprint." I didn't listen. In a year, I was burned out. I yearned to accomplish everything my first year, only to realize it was impossible and misguided.
Successful leadership isn't about managing time; it's about managing energy. Apply this concept early to avoid making poor decisions or damaging your health. If my travel gets hectic or back-to-back speaking engagements require tiring stage time, I schedule a quiet weekend, attend a yoga class or spend time alone. I make time to recuperate. The to-do list goes on forever. Energy does not.
#2. Practice healthy detachment. Leaders come under fire, often on issues they don't and can't control. The complex problems we work to solve are exacerbated by public transference -- a term psychologists use to describe when people transfer anger about unresolved issues onto their leaders. With everything today to be angry about, those at the helm are often the recipients of the rage. So many issues -- reproductive healthcare, racism, the pandemic, masks, gun violence, climate change and more -- elicit extreme emotion and vitriol often directed at leaders.
Repeatedly engaging in heated interactions requires healthy detachment to avoid taking anything personally. As leaders, we represent a role larger than ourselves, and regardless of the scenario, we must always remain calm. When anger is directed to me, I envision myself floating above the room as an observer. I listen with empathy and ask myself, "Where is this coming from?" The anger usually stems from fear, misunderstanding or mistrust. Even if the person demonstrates malintent, I don't personalize it. I remember Jay Shetty's book, Think Like a Monk, where he wrote "There is no commandment that says we have to be upset by the way people treat us."
#3. Decide with intention. Before making a decision, you should know your intention. Author Gary Zukav reminds us how "your intentions create your reality, therefore be mindful of what you project." When great ideas surface, always ask, "Why are we doing this? What do we hope to gain?" When decisions are made with negative intentions, they will always yield negative results. I define positive intentions as those that meet a higher purpose for you or the organization. Some leaders don't realize that they unintentionally make decisions based on ego, power or competition. None of those lead to long-term positive outcomes. However, when you make decisions based on the service of others, mission alignment or organizational progress, the results are incredibly rewarding.
Identifying intentions before making decisions serves you and your organization well. I once taught a course at Harvard University, and while I enjoy teaching, the commitment took up too much time when I had little of it to spare. When I was invited to teach again, I asked myself, "What is my intention?" I realized that I taught the course for the affiliation with a prestigious institution. That wasn't a good intention; that was my ego. I respectfully declined. (See more on this in the next strategy.)
In contrast, last year, at my current association, I worked with the board to lead some major governance changes. While it was a Herculean task and met with controversy by our members, we decided to stay the course. Our intentions were to become a more nimble and inclusive organization, and allow more members to participate in the governance process. This decision led to the most diverse board in NACAC's history, and a significant increase in volunteer engagement.
#4. Say no. Many leaders, especially newly minted ones, pressure themselves to say yes. They want to be perceived as available and engaged. But constantly saying yes leads to burnout.
I long suffered from what Oprah Winfrey calls, "the disease to please." I once worked a full day at my job in Los Angeles and then took a red-eye flight to speak the next day for 20 minutes at an event in New York. I returned that same night to Los Angeles feeling resentful and exhausted as I prepared for another event the next day. I lost time, energy and productivity for an event I didn't want or need to attend.
Saying no is the greatest act of self-care. By saying no, you dedicate time to things that matter most, or as Steve Jobs reminded us, "Focus does not mean saying yes; it means saying no."
In short, care for yourself and remain attuned to your own needs. When you dedicate energy to managing yourself as a leader, you can more easily sustain the motivation needed to inspire your team and succeed in challenging roles.