Wellbeing: Why leaders must reach for their oxygen mask

When the going gets tough, leaders must look after themselves in order to help others - and here's how, says Mark Steed

Mark Steed

'Put on your oxygen mask': Why school leaders need to look after their own mental health and wellbeing in order to support others

Tales of travel and exploration anecdotally offer two contrasting models of leadership.

There is the "Titanic model", where the captain is the last to leave the ship. Then there is the ‘aviation model’, where we are reminded to "put on your own oxygen mask first before helping others".

Both offer important insights: being a leader is about supporting others, especially in a crisis. But as the aviators acknowledge, this is only possible if leaders overcome their selfless instincts and are in sufficient physical and mental good health to help others.

School leader wellbeing: Five ways to practise self-care 

Here are five ways that leaders can look after themselves while handling a crisis.

1. Physical basics: diet, exercise and sleep

Physical health is an important component in maintaining strong mental and emotional health and its foundations are good diet, exercise, and sleep.

It is vital to find time for these basics. I have come to realise that being tired and "hangry" can impact not only on my personal wellbeing, but also on that of the school.

Eating healthily and prioritising sleep over boozy brunches and late nights out may sound dull, but, from both a personal and corporate wellbeing perspective, it is time well spent.

2. Manage your time

One of the problems for many school leaders when Covid-19 struck was that they did not have any working capacity to cope with the crisis. In this context, day-to-day time management is even more important than ever.

Here are three ways to do this:

Prioritise: I have always found Eisenhower's "Urgent-Important Matrix" a great help in prioritising my time. Leaders need to live in the "Important – Not Urgent" quadrant; and keep enough space in the week to create space for crises. Living in the "Important – Urgent" quadrant is a recipe for a heart attack.

Allow breathing space: For the past 18 years of headship, I have set aside one working day that remains free of meetings and appointments. It is a day when I can clear the inbox, work on governors’ papers or strategic plans, and occasionally visit other schools or attend off-site meetings.

Schedule tasks: I have recently moved from to-do lists to scheduling tasks in my calendar. This not only necessitates making informed decisions about priorities, but it also defines how long to spend on the task and allocates that time during the week. This practice is a particularly effective antidote to procrastination – essential for those of us who are inclined to bump to the bottom of the list those dull uninspiring tasks that we know must be done.

3. Trust your team: step back, don’t step in

When the adrenaline is pumping in the midst of an acute crisis, the temptation is for leaders to go into overdrive and to try to micromanage the situation.

Instead, you need to do the opposite: to step back, retain the overview and trust the team to do their jobs. By doing this, you allow those around you to grow, develop and to show leadership in their own areas.

Most importantly, empowering others allows the team to rise to the challenge, meaning that it will be even better prepared to face the next challenge.

4. Switch off ...your smartphone

School leaders need to break away from the "always on" culture in order to have the essential downtime that allows them to recover. This is particularly difficult if they remain permanently connected to work via their smartphones.

Here are three ways to disconnect:

Schedule your 'do not disturb': My smartphone is set so that I only receive calls or messages from my favourites (my family) every day between 8pm and 7am. This makes for quality time at home and a much better night’s sleep.

Use your out-of-office: I put my out-of-office function on at weekends (from 4pm on Fridays until 7am on Mondays) and in the school holidays. It sets expectations for those sending out-of-hours emails and goes a long way to modelling a wellbeing culture for the school community.

Have a regular digital detox: During the holidays, I try to have at least a week totally disconnected from work emails, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. During this time, I also disconnect my work email accounts from my phone and change the settings; turning off my notifications so that I am not disturbed by the buzz, beep or the tempting little red numbers that pop up every time I receive an email, message or retweet.

5. Get some regular coaching

We all need to offload, discuss work problems, and find time to think through solutions to the various challenges we face, and it is not always fair or appropriate to lay this at the door of our nearest and dearest.

Coaching has been commonplace for executives for some time, and increasingly is part of the school leader toolkit. Coaching is a great way to get work back into perspective. I find it particularly helpful to be made to reflect on situations and to work through the associated feelings and emotions. It has helped me to make better, more considered decisions and to approach challenges in a more measured way.

To be most effective, coaching needs to be a regular part of the routine, say once every two weeks. This enables the coach and coachee to develop rapport, understanding and trust – to work on areas of weakness when things are going well; and be better placed to provide support when times are tough.

This article is based on Mark S Steed's keynote session, 'Put Your Own Oxygen Mask on First: Some Reflections on School Leader and Staff Wellbeing' delivered at COBIS' 39th Annual Conference

Mark S Steed is the principal and CEO of Kellett School, the British International School in Hong Kong; and previously ran schools in Devon, Hertfordshire and Dubai. He tweets @independenthead

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Mark Steed

Mark Steed is the principal and CEO of Kellett School, the British School in Hong Kong; and previously ran schools in Devon, Hertfordshire and Dubai.

Find me on Twitter @independenthead

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