Let it go: Learning when to step back as a leader

It's tempting to take on more and more responsibility to consolidate your leadership credentials - but as this teacher explains, sometimes the toughest decision is knowing when to let go

Emily Hardwicke

Leaders sometimes have to learn to let go

A decision to make an international move can be tricky when you are already established in a leadership role or have a long-term career plan.

Often, a perfect location may not equal a similar job status, and if you’re a teaching couple, a move may even mean taking a backwards step down the career ladder if a position with additional responsibilities is not currently available. 

When I moved internationally for the first time seven years ago, losing my head of department responsibility seemed like a pretty big deal.

A sensible decision

In reality, coping with the craziness of life in China, a completely different make-up of students from the ones I was used to teaching in Croydon and the challenges of teaching IGCSE and A level for the first time were more than enough to keep me busy. 

My first year allowed me to consolidate my teaching skills and develop professional relationships and friendships without the additional pressure of managing a team.

This meant that the following year, when a position became available, I could apply with confidence for the enhanced responsibility.

My next move to Switzerland was another head of department role but in a much smaller setting. 

Too much perfection

With fewer staff to share the load, I started to pick up additional roles and responsibilities, and five years later found myself the proud owner of four quite significant titles that were beginning to make my email signature look a little ridiculous. 

The implication on workload was also starting to show, and the strain of never feeling like I was doing a good enough job was stressing out my inner perfectionist. 

The final straw came during "lockdown", which enabled a sense of clarity and helped me realign some of my thinking in terms of what I should be prioritising. 

With a young family, I decided to pass on an opportunity for promotion, as well as look at ways in which I could begin to shed some of the extraneous load I’d begun to feel shackled by. 

Learning to let go

Two recent Tes articles have highlighted both situational leadership and distributed leadership, discussing the value in being able to adapt your leadership style to circumstances as well as the team you work with. 

In the past, I have probably been guilty of attempting to lead by example, spreading myself too thinly when others could have been given the opportunity to shine.

As Andy Bayfield states in his article, distributed leadership can’t be about getting rid of the rubbish bits but needs to focus on growing the team, carefully tailoring opportunities to individual strengths and redistributing roles in a way that will inspire and motivate others.

Being on hand to advise, support, coach or mentor becomes your role as a leader – completely different skills from those involved in simply getting on with the job and, arguably, ones that are more complex and challenging.

When taking stock, I decided that I wanted to be able to lead as an assistant head of curriculum with passion, energy and drive.

I still needed to guide my English team with the same focus and commitment.

Time for someone else to shine

But my role as coordinator for our school’s Global Campus (supporting the team and facilitating initiatives connected to the UN Global Goals and a whole range of extracurricular opportunities) could be done by someone else.

With a new intake of talented staff over the summer, it was a good time to notice the immediately obvious strengths of our design teacher who was eager for greater responsibility and the opportunity to develop whole-school projects. 

Importantly, he was able to take the role in a different direction and has embraced some of the Steam (science, technology, engineering, arts and maths) initiatives that I, with my English teacher bias, was not as well placed to develop.

My role has now become more of a supportive one when advice is asked for or logistics need to be signed off. 

Learning to let go has allowed me to view my role as a leader very differently and realise that as an assistant head, doing everything myself is not always the most productive thing, let alone the most conducive in terms of growing a team. 

Instead, I am learning to lead by empowering others, supporting when it is needed and taking a step back when it isn’t. 

Letting go doesn’t mean not caring; instead, it’s about reassessing your priorities, focusing on the strengths of the team as a whole and allowing yourself the space and time to reignite the passion in what you do.

Emily Hardwicke is assistant Head (lower school), MYP coordinator and head of English at an international school in Switzerland

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Latest stories