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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.

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