Dr Pete Stebbins PhD
Leading Wellbeing: The 'Go First' Rule
An extraordinary school leader not only implements the necessary wellbeing systems and structures but also has the insight, humility and professional will to practice the 'help seeking' discipline of ‘Go First!”
Good school leaders promote a culture of wellbeing by practicing what they preach – they role model wellbeing and actively enquire about the wellbeing of others. Great school leaders go one step further by being appropriately vulnerable – they ‘Go First'! Great School leaders know that role modelling 'help seeking' is the key to success - that sharing their struggles and journey towards enhanced wellbeing is more important than sharing their mastery of wellbeing per se.
Overcoming vs Overconfident…
The difference between sharing 'mastery' or sharing 'struggle' is enormous! Generally people feel a sense of connection and increased motivation when they have the empathy from others who have faced similar struggles, yet feel isolated and alone when they cannot emotionally relate to others who give the outward impression of ‘having it all together’.
Extraordinary school leaders avoid the trap of appearing ‘Overconfident’ by practising the discipline of vulnerability in sharing the struggles they are ‘Overcoming’ and seeking advice and suggestions* from others. They 'Go First' role modelling 'help seeking' behaviour to normalise peer support and create a true culture of Wellbeing! (*Obviously we are talking about seeking advice and suggestions at a practical experience/peer level as opposed to a technical expert/professional level – clearly we need to consult with relevant professionals when expert advice is needed.)
Moments From Disaster:
The Conversation That Almost Didn’t Happen…..
Melissa was a brilliant teacher – huge amounts of empathy and incredibly bright and skilled in the classroom – but she was exhausted – completely burnt out – about to quit. Melissa’s team leader, Kate was an amazing Deputy Principal – compassionate, caring, insightful and dedicated to supporting her staff – she was also a fitness fanatic and incredibly self-disciplined and goal orientated, always encouraging others to do the same. Kate was always checking in on her team and enquiring about their wellbeing and offering help and support when needed…
Kate was the perfect Deputy Principal to have supporting the teaching staff – except for one thing – in all her compassion, empathy, self-discipline, professionalism and supportive behaviour she was just ‘too good’ and staff spent more time ‘admiring’ her than ‘relating’ to her. And whilst this mutually positive recognition helped motivate Kate to even greater levels of professional excellence it also accidentally created a ‘wedge’ of gradually widening distance between her and her most vulnerable staff… The Principal of the school explains the impact of the problem below….
“I remember at the end of one particularly challenging school day walking past the staff room well after everyone should have left and seeing Melissa at her desk – hands in her hair – quietly sobbing. I wasn’t sure what to do but couldn’t just leave the situation alone nor surprise her unexpectedly, so I paused in the corridor for a moment and then knocked on her door – waiting for her to speak first before I entered the room.
“Hey Melissa – I was locking up the office and saw you were still here… I don’t know about you but today has been a shocker of a day for me… Are you going OK?”
“Well yes… sort of… well… actually, no if I’m honest I’m not OK at all – I don’t think I can do this anymore – I think I need to give up teaching – quit the profession…”
“Gee I’m sorry to hear that and really sorry you’re not doing so well – I wasn’t aware – have you been able to talk to Kate – has she been able to help?”
Melissa looked down at the floor and paused for a moment… “No, I haven’t told Kate – I know she’s always asking and offering help and I think she’s wonderful but honestly I feel ashamed to even bring it up with her…”
“Ok…” I said (long pause)
“You see, Kate is just such an amazing person – and I bet she’s never struggled like me – I feel so stupid bringing things up with her – she works twice as hard as I do – and never complains – I just wish I was more like her – I feel so silly not being able to sort myself out – it must sound so trivial to other people – I just need to harden up – put on a brave face and ‘fake it til I make it’ – no one likes a whinger – I need to kick my own backside into gear again…… except I can’t – I just can’t – who am I kidding? I am flat out exhausted – I don’t understand how to move forward despite how hard I have tried – I’m completely spent! I’ve got nothing left in the tank – everyone else seems to be going just fine – I have come to the conclusion it must just be me – I’m hopeless and I need to stop teaching and do something else with my life…”
…we talked for another hour – mainly sharing disaster stories and I shared some of my own darkest hours and journey back from burnout several years ago – this seemed to be immensely helpful to Melissa as I could see her mood lifting and a calmness descending over her previously nervous and shaky body.
As I look back now it seems as though Kate (whom I also greatly admire and respect) in all her awesomeness had accidentally created a ‘blind-spot’ in her otherwise amazing leadership toolkit by over-sharing her successes and under sharing her struggles. I came to realise in that powerful moment just how important it is for leaders to share their own experiences with staff – BOTH their aspirations and achievements AND their struggles and challenges.
Fortunately, when I shared my encounter with Melissa to Kate as part of her professional feedback and development planning she quickly grasped the nuances of the problem that was created. Importantly Kate understood that I was not criticising her successes (but rather I made clear my ongoing admiration of her personal success) but rather seeking to simply adjust her leadership style to share more about the process of overcoming the barriers she experienced in her motivation to succeed with less focus on the eventual achievement. This enabled Kate to become more relatable in the eyes of her staff and enabled them to feel connected and safer to disclose when they were struggling. Importantly this did not in any way disrupt Kate’s own goals, motivation and desire to succeed – a successful win-win for Kate and the staff she led!
This amazing story made so much sense to me as a workplace psychologist. It shows how well intentioned, humble, caring, professional leaders can accidentally create a gap between themselves and other staff who may be struggling with stress and wellbeing problems.
Kate needed to think about (and ask) what help Melissa could offer her about her own wellbeing and motivation challenges as much as she thought about (and asked) what help she could offer Melissa.
When someone who feels inadequate is able to offer help to those they otherwise thought was superior, they lift themselves out of the pit believing they too are capable of more... this process is often referred to as a ‘corrective emotional experience.’ This occurs when you experience something, first-hand, that challenges a previously held, and false or distorted belief (i.e., Melissa’s belief that Kate was super human and not having any struggles or needing any help).
For Kate (a deeply compassionate and caring person anyway) this meant she was able to more regularly share some of her own motivational stumbling blocks and ask her team for advice. This mirrored the very process she wanted her team to do with her making it much more likely they would ask her for assistance in the future...
In philosophical terms this is known as ‘the service of being served’ remembering that service is not just ‘Giving’ assistance to others but also in ‘Seeking’ their guidance – something many leaders accidentally overlook in their quest to be helpful and supportive. In practical terms this is known as “Go First” – be the change you wish to see in others.
In my work with school leaders I often encounter stressed out staff failing to seek help despite help being offered. In the vast majority of cases their leaders are caring professionals willing and wanting to support their staff but the emotional distance between them is just too great – something easily overcome by understanding the rule of ‘Go First’ – creating a level playing field by practicing the discipline of routinely 'help seeking' - seeking advice from others about their own wellbeing challenges.
‘Go First’ for School Leaders: 1:1 Conversations
Once you get the hang of it, applying the ‘Go First’ principle to wellbeing conversations becomes easier than you may think. Starting your conversations with phrases like: Can I get your advice on..., I wanted to ask you if you had any tips on... Sometimes I get a bit stuck with... what would you suggest… What do you do when X happens… How do you handle X situation… what works for you… to build up the mutual respect and confidence with your staff before you then enquire about their wellbeing needs.
This habit pays off both immediately in terms of goodwill but also down the track –increasing the likelihood they will be comfortable asking for your help on wellbeing issues when they need it AND also opening the door for other conversations that could be potentially difficult such as performance feedback and improvement discussions.
You can also borrow from ideas from High Performance Team Building Strategies and adapt them to 1:1 conversations. The ‘one-word barometer check-in’ and ice breaker questions such ‘my current successes and challenges…’, ‘the thing I need most help with this week…’ can easily be adapted into discussions with individual staff – as long as you follow the ‘Go First’ rule yourself!
The important point for leaders here is that they are responsible to set the system and strategy of team building and wellbeing check-ins and must ensure a consistency of practice across all teams in their school as opposed to letting these conversation reduce down to nothing as urgent crises and/or boredom and familiarity corrode the important disciplines of team building and wellbeing check-ins.
Bringing It All Together
As a leader, do you ‘Go First’ – role modelling 'help seeking' behaviour not just in wellbeing conversations but also in relationship building, seeking feedback and other sensitive communication topics? Do you recognise that role modelling that action of ‘seeking help’ is far more critical for building a wellbeing culture than simply asking ‘how are you going?’ Do you share as many failings as you do successes? Do you seek ideas and advice from others about work/life issues before you offer suggestions to them yourself? Do you ensure wellbeing conversational strategies are woven into almost every staff conversation you have?
As we wrap this up, remember that there is a single massive difference between extraordinary school leaders and good school leaders. Good school leaders enquire about the wellbeing of their staff regularly and offer support whenever asked for BUT this alone does not necessarily guarantee a culture of wellbeing and mutual support will be established. To build the strength or relationships and depth of trust needed for a true culture of wellbeing, an extraordinary leader must not only implement the necessary wellbeing systems and structures but also have the insight, humility and professional will to practice the 'help seeking' discipline of ‘Go First!”
Onwards and Upwards!
Dr Pete Stebbins PhD