The Wounded Leader
Ackerman, R.H. & Maslin-Ostrowski, P. (2002) The Wounded Leader. San Francisco:
At this time of year, as the school year ends, most educators are licking their wounds from the accumulation of psychological (and sometimes physical) attacks. The challenges come from all sides. A principal once told me they thought of themselves as a pitcher in a baseball game. The catcher threw balls back to him. The infield was throwing balls at him from all sides. The players and the fans were also throwing balls at him while he stood on the mound alone.
Leaders, whether they be leaders with positional power like principals and superintendents, or teachers and staff who are more informal leaders, have a difficult job being the beacons of hope for students and parents while being pulled down by a multitude of problems.
Leadership can be lonely. That is why it is so important to create a team. No one person can do leadership alone. In my experience, I have never seen a great principal without teacher leadership, parent leadership, and student leadership.
Although this book was written in 2002, it can be useful as we reflect on the past and for the future for the next school year.
How do school leaders cope with and respond to significant dilemmas in their practice and what the experience means to them? Coping and dealing with the wounds in the day-to-day operation of a school is hard. There is an old adage, ‘you can’t give what you don’t have.’ How do leaders keep themselves healthy so they can model a positive attitude needed for difficult times? Everyone seems to have an agenda. You can’t please everybody. Trying to please everybody is a pathway to disaster.
How does a reasonable, well-intentioned person, who happens to be a school leader, preserve a healthy and real sense of self in the face of a host of factors challenging that self in the best scenario, and leading to a wounding crisis in the worst?
What perspective toward the work of leadership might fortify the impact of these challenges, and produce a mindset that leaves a person open to learn and grow from such experience?
Leadership life is a complex balance of conflicting forces intentions that manages to function most of the time; school leadership can take a person from an inspired moment to a crisis in an instant. A school is essentially a human event. Things happen unrelentingly, and a leader is expected to know or do something. It is a personal matter.
The wounding feels like an attacked on the heart, like a heart attack, that reflects the loss of control, powerlessness, fear, and vulnerability. Sustained and repeated wounding can disrupt lives and schools in endless ways. The voices of wounded leaders are often left out as a professional dialogue, yet they are an essential part of the leadership landscape.
If you are a beginning leader, the job is even more difficult. You may have watched effective leaders and been fortunate to work with them. There is always invisible and strong values that may not be overt. Newer leaders generally don’t have the pattern recognition of experience. They also are not sure what to pay attention to and what to let go.
The same is true for watching great teachers. You can watch what they do, replicate exactly what they do, and it may not work. There are invisible skills that an observer may miss. The more experience, the more repertoire of options. Two skills I have found most important are pattern recognition of what should happen and what should not. The second thing is system thinking. One mistake for newer leaders is making a short term decision with long term consequences. There is a Chinese Proverb that is applicable: ‘It is easier to stay out than getting out.’
School leaders and those aspiring to leadership persistently cite job-related stress and time fragmentation, the growing pressure of high-stakes testing and accountability, and the social problems that schools are assuming in trying to instruct students as major factors influencing their standing.
In many districts, we look to principals to be firefighters. Larry Cuban wrote an article about superintendents. I believe the same applies to principals. Leaders have three jobs.
1. Put out fires. The school has to be safe physically and emotionally to facilitate the best learning for students and staff.
2. Fireproofing. Leaders have to develop policies and procedures to keep fires from starting. We all know you cannot prevent everything but reducing the possibility of fires will save time and stress.
3. Fire starting. This was a major ‘aha’ for me. Where do you start fires? How do you ignite the desire to learn for both staff and students? AND don’t forget yourself. Roland Barth (1990) wrote that the principal had to be the ‘head learner.’
Three core understandings emerge from this book
Leadership roles often do not support, confirm, or resonate with the psychic needs of the person who becomes a leader
Wounding is an inevitable part of leadership
Woundedness is a double-edged sword. A wound has the potential to be a catalyst for the leader to grow or to be enmeshed in crisis.
Behind the Mask – leadership lives are, for the most part, determined by role expectations. For some, they are faithful to their job, not themselves. When the job is more important than the leader’s health, balance suffers. Families suffer. I had to make a shift being available for my own kids. I think I was raising them as a principal, not a father. I deeply regret that it took so long for me to realize this.
An administrator has virtually no time for reflection or talk with trusted colleagues about concerns and fears. Although surrounded by teachers, students, staff, and parents, a leader can easily be isolated and may have to bear the burden of leadership alone. No one is immune. Many times the leader has information about staff and students they cannot share. Parents can put leaders at risk by saying what they think publicly. Leaders are restricted by data privacy laws. Social media has opened up a new and expansive way to trash leaders and staff, not to mention cyberbullying of classmates.
There is physical and emotional exhaustion from being too many things to too many people. Vulnerability of all kinds, as well as clarity, honesty, humility, and humanity, may be called forth in leadership practice. It hurts to have a motive impugned, integrity questions, and truth denied.
Groopman points out how “the process of retelling can be one way that the reality of the situation is accepted. The telling and retelling one’s own story is a way to reconstruct a life narrative and find a place for the uninvited illness. Groopman and others found that ill people need to tell their stories to reformulate their perception and relationship to the world. This is why leader PLCs or reflective practice is so important in staying healthy.
Isolation is what we do to our worst prisoners. Phil Jackson, 1976, described this condition in an article entitled “Lonely at the Top: Observations on the Genesis of Administrative Isolation.” The more you care and the more helpful you are, the longer stretches the line of problems to solve and people to help.”
Family stress is the first thing. Second, is the cynicism of politics. You meet many hypocrites. “These guys aren’t interested in what’s best for the children, but what’s best for themselves, Now, how do you deal with that?”
Andy Hargreaves told me once that it isn’t the overload of issues that ends up burning people out. It is the feeling of working hard, with the best of intentions and seeing little or no results. Seligman and others call this ‘learned helplessness.’ No matter what you do, nothing changes. When you get the feeling of helplessness, you become paralyzed.
So, how can a leader make sense of the fast-paced, multiple demands of a school and community? How a leader chooses to frame their story offers insight into how to interpret the experience. Frank, 1995 used three narratives structures to translate human suffering into stories:
Restitution – they expect the crisis will be solved and life will return to the way it used to be
Chaos – is trapped in the crisis and does not see a way out
Quest – the teller uses the crisis as a way to change and grow, even if the problem is not fixed.
The wisdom our wounds can offer us is a place of refuge. Finding this is not for the faint of heart. But neither is life. Nor is leadership.
So, what else can we do and what can we learn?
Learn to trust the unattended areas of your leadership – especially your feelings
Listen honestly and deeply for the questions that are feared or left out of your work life altogether
Find folks to talk to whom you really trust.
Here are some suggestions for leadership development:
Make conditions necessary to make room for the emotional development and intelligence amid all the roles, pressures, and wounds.
Consider the challenges and opportunities for the school leader to sustain a healthy questioning and conversational spirit.
Commonsense ideas about how to link practitioners to each other and how to engage leaders both cognitively and emotionally.
School leaders require the means for sustaining and enhancing their emotional life in the face of daunting tasks and challenges. School leaders are quite familiar with the meeting after the faculty meeting, the one that takes place in the parking lot, where the real things somehow get talked about and the real work gets done. The best conversations and the highest learning take place on the way to the meeting rooms, in the bar, and over lunch at professional development workshops. So, a question I normally ask is, ‘how do we have the meeting at the meeting?’
The Sacred Question: Why Are You Wounded? Parker Palmer uses a process called a ‘Clearness Committee.” A clearness committee is a means of crafting a powerful conversation aimed at collective personal and professional growth. There may be no answer. That is why conversational storytelling and listening in this way can be such a remarkable transforming experience.
Here are some additional beliefs that can help a wounded leader deal with and recover from the overload.
I am genuinely interested in learning things, which helps others in their attempts to learn
I move, sometimes awkwardly, toward understanding the leadership position I am in and the responsibilities with which I have been entrusted by others.
I make mistakes, and I may be inconsistent at times.
I can talk about my leadership with others.
I have complicated and sometimes contradictory feelings about power and sharing it
I value and respect the dignity of others, yet when I’m fearful I sometimes forget it.
I try to remain aware of what I need and what others need from my leadership at any particular time
I can focus more on challenges at hand rather than expending my energy proving I am something I am not
I can use more of my knowledge, skills, and creative imagination in framing and solving problems than in defending myself
I can freely change and grow in a leadership position because I am not bound by rigid concepts of what I have been, an now, or ought to be
By my own openness and honesty with myself, can bring out these same qualities in others (thank you, Carl Rogers)
Left unattended, the wounded leader continues in a downward spiral. As a leadership coach, it is painful to watch. It is more painful to experience it by being wounded. Think about it. When you are up, you can’t envision being down. When you are down, you can’t envision being up. (Thank you Dr.Seuss)
Here are a few suggestions from Bill
Get a coach – someone outside your organization especially that you don’t report to
Spend time with family. Your spouse and children need you.
Make sure to hang with people of ‘zap’ you (energize and are optimistic) and stay away from or limit your time with people who ‘sap’ you (suck your energy, time, and positive attitude).
Keep your positive values in focus. See Stan Slap or Ray Dalio for specifics
Coach yourself – schedule time for your own reflection
Read – few administrators have this in their schedule. www.learningomnivores.com has book summaries
Spend time with your hobbies or avocations.
Barth, R. (1990). Improving schools from within. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Cuban, Larry. “Conflict and Leadership in the Superintendency” in Phi Delta Kappan, v. 67, no. 1, Sept. 1985. pp. 28-30
Dalio, Ray. (2017). Principles. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Slap, Stan. (2010). Bury My Heart at Conference Room B. New York: Penguin.