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Overcoming your own anxiety to become an effective K-12 leader

5 steps everyone can take to improve their leadership ability

Leadership skills require people to look inward and find self-confidence that will not only guide them toward successes but focus them through failures—an inevitable part of all leadership positions.

Educational leadership is a career wrought with deep stress, pressure, and expectations. It’s a challenge for the healthiest and most experienced of administrators. But in the 21st century, as the stigma of mental illness begins to fade and we see the incidents of illness among our students rise, so too do the rates of illness among ourselves and our staff.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that 40 million adults in the United States over the age of 18, or just over 18 percent of the population, are suffering from a clinical anxiety disorder. With anxiety being so common for so many people, we can no longer support educational leaders with general lists of characteristics and skills necessary for success. Rather we must angle our guidelines in a direction that considers the personal challenges of our 21st-century leaders in the face of an increasingly more anxiety-inducing profession.

How K-12 leadership contributes to anxiety

Effective educational leaders have a lot to accomplish. In addition to being instructional leaders, managing fiscal and human resources, developing school-community partnerships, and nurturing a healthy professional culture, educational leaders must also empower staff to be teacher leaders and facilitate their work towards a common goal. The skills that are taught in order to accomplish these tasks mirror those that are taught to overcome anxiety. Both sets of skills are essential and effective; however, both are also much easier said than done.

For individuals suffering from anxiety, specificity is imperative. We need to have clear, manageable, and practical goals. Overcoming anxiety to become an effective leader starts with breaking down the skills and characteristics needed to be successful into tangible recommendations that are practical and can be implemented immediately.

5 steps to becoming an effective leader

1. Know your staff.
Truly knowing your staff goes well beyond names and positions. It means knowing your staff individually and determining how to relate to each employee’s strengths, weaknesses, and work habits. Knowing your staff will allow you to put them in the best position to succeed.
Start by asking for a staff directory or yearbook. Make copies of the staff pictures and each time you meet a new member, check him/her off. Meeting new people and remembering names can be so overwhelming for someone with anxiety that he/she cannot even recall introductory conversations. Having a “study guide” will put a permanent name to each face and give you more time to focus on talking to your colleagues for insight into their roles, their strengths, and their weaknesses.

2. Build personal relationships.
Building personal relationships with employees helps staff see themselves as equal contributors. It is important that staff understand you are the leader, but it is even more important that they don’t feel like your leadership quiets their voice.

At the onset of your tenure as leader, invite all staff members to schedule an informal “meet and greet.” During this time, you and the staff member can introduce yourself professionally and personally. Making time to build positive relationships with staff will make the pressure of being the boss at the staff get-together less anxiety inducing.

3. Solicit opinions and feedback.
Staff voice is essential to creating a higher degree of buy-in towards a pursued goal. Just as with building personal relationships, asking for feedback and opinions also establishes collaborative leadership, which is more empowering than the work of transformational, transactional, or even bureaucratic leaders.

Related: How to be a collaborative leader

The best way to solicit feedback and opinions is being willing to ask questions. Anxiety is an illness of control. The less control that’s felt, the higher the degree of anxiety. Control, however, is not conducive to effective collaborative leadership. Leaders must be willing to guide the work of those around them, rather than dictate it.

Create a Principal’s Advisory Committee of teacher leaders and administrators and be sure everyone has equal input. Rethink control as a sense of direction. Directing staff will provide a sense of control that is attractive to an anxious leader.

4. Have clarity in your own vision.
Anxiety can drive leaders to want to please everyone, causing them to tell people what they want to hear. Doing this is a major misstep in leadership, as is contradicting your own beliefs and goals to defend a new initiative. Placating teachers by telling them what they want to hear leads to inconsistent messages and, inevitably, a loss of direction or sense of control. Wait out the storm. Not everyone is going to immediately like your vision or goals, but sticking with them will provide structure and direction down the line—control that will ease anxiety. Communicate goals with staff in writing and print your goals on all school/community correspondence, e.g., 2019: the year of the student voice.

5. Be human.
Leadership is about more than just guiding educators towards a common goal; it’s about mentoring your staff and being a role model. The best role models are those who show humility. Arguably the most difficult of the five steps in this article, humility requires a high degree of vulnerability, which is something that a leader suffering from anxiety feels constantly. But society is very forgiving.

Related: How to think like a leader

Admitting mistakes and weaknesses will make you more human. Doing so will also help leaders relate to and know their staff, as well as to build personal relationships. Ask for help, say “I’m sorry,” owe successes to your staff and failures to yourself. Keep a journal and talk openly and honestly about your disappointments, your success, your failures, and your next steps. Reflect on your entries and remind yourself that although you don’t feel growth on a daily basis, you have grown significantly over time. Feelings of accomplishment will reduce anxiety and motivate a leader more.

Becoming an effective leader requires a lot of time, effort, and sacrifice. Although there are varying pathways to positions of leadership, from traditional programmatic training to opportunities born out of networking and connections, the skills necessary to become a successful leader remain unchanged. The variables exist in how leaders acquire and display said skills.

For the leader stricken with anxiety, acquisition of successful leadership qualities means identifying tangible and specific goals that allow you to feel accomplished and relatable when completed. In the game of educational leadership, it’s a marathon: Consistent, small accomplishments build a solid foundation for greater work to be done.

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